William James did an experiment around the turn of the nineteenth century. He wanted to see how long the average person could actually concentrate, so he used the example of a bird sitting on a tree limb. How long do you think we can keep our full concentration completely on that bird? Four point seven seconds. Four point seven seconds to focus and concentrate on that bird before our attention flies off. Our attention can return—the bird may come back and land on another branch. But how long is that flight away? Look at your current zazen—how long before your attention returns to right here? It could be five minutes. Maybe ten minutes? Half an hour? A year? A lifetime? A lifetime....
That gap in our awareness, that flight, is where we suffer, consciously or unconsciously. Until we learn to meditate, most of us are unable to see this process of how we get lost in our head and miss our life. In zazen we study this moment by simply learning to be. This is “the resting of the streams of tides” that Hongzhi speaks of: to study the moment, simply learning to be.
In another section of Cultivating the Empty Field, Hongzhi says, “You must completely withdraw from the visible pounding and weaving of your ingrained ideas. You yourself establish the mind that thinks up all the illusory conditions, false conceptions, and attachments that we do not realize. Accept your function and be wholly satisfied.” What is it to accept? Accept who you are—all of it. When we come into practice, many of us feel that we want to get rid of something. But our practice is to accept what we want to get rid of, because although we can’t get rid of it, we can see it clearly. Accept who you are—we should keep this aspiration clear. “Accepting hundreds of streams all absorbed in one flavor.” What is one flavor? Just don’t move away.
Concentration can be described as a particular state of awareness that’s penetrating, unified, focused, yet permeable and open. It’s hard to define, but we recognize when it’s present, or when it’s absent. We can experience concentration put into things, like when things are made, we can feel the concentration that was present. For example, every day this floor was vacuumed, and I could feel the concentration present in that every time I came into the zendo. We see it in people—we can recognize when someone has concentration.