What do we know so far about meditation from the two previous blogs: Meditation is not and Meditation is? That this practice which can calm the mind, and provide heaps of other benefits is not really meditation? We also discovered how ineffective we can be in explaining the word meditation and that it is futile to express the mightiest truths such as Pure Awareness using words.
Here is a quote that best describes meditation for me.
“Meditation is concentration in its highest form. Meditation is that special form of concentration in which the attention has been liberated from restlessness and is focused on God. Meditation is therefore concentration used to know God. Paramahamsa Yogananda
Yoga philosophy affirms existing in Pure Awareness, True Self is meditation. Any of the techniques mentioned in the blog Meditation is Not may be used to uncover this Pure Awareness or True Self. However, studying these techniques is only a start.
The moment to moment change in mental and emotional states can be draining. The restlessness of the mind can cause discontent and misery and is the greatest roadblock. Prānāyāma sūtras toward the end of Sādhana Pāda (2nd chapter of the Yoga Sūtras) indicate that breath can be mastered only when the restless ceases and the mind becomes ready to begin the process of concentration or focusing. However, before focusing can begin the indriyās, sense organs must be brought under control and trained systematically, so they don’t cause restlessness and distractions. This important step preliminary to concentration is called Pratyāhāra.
Practices such as mindfulness, repetition of mantra, visualization, prāṇāyāma, can be looked upon as various techniques to train the senses, decrease mental agitations and enhance concentration required for meditation.
We already know that sūtras are concise, terse gems of wisdom that convey the highest knowledge to a yoga-seeker who is ready to receive it.
Patańjali uses only four words to describe concentration in the Yoga Sūtra. Word for word meaning given below.
देशबन्धश्चित्तस्य धारणा॥३.१॥ Deśabandhaścittasya dhāraṇā||3.1||
देश deśa: place, location, focal point
बन्ध: bandha: binding, holding, fixing, uniting
चित्तस्य cittasya: mind stuff, transient thoughts, consciousness
धारणा dhāraṇā: concentration, focusing, directing attention
Patańjali’s word for concentration is dhāraṇā. Here are a few interpretations of the above sūtra.
Concentration is binding the thought in one place.(Stoler-Miller)
Dhāraṇā is binding of the mind to one place, object or idea. (Svāmi Satchitānanda)
The characteristic feature of concentration practice is the maintenance of an uninterrupted flow of attention on a fixed point or region, without intervention or interruption. (Iyengar)
Concentration consists of freeing the attention from distractions and focusing the attention on a single thought. (Paramahamsa Yogānanda)
Training the Mind
All yoga practices are geared towards training the mind. Yes, including āsana practice. The quicker we realize this, the faster we can progress on the path.
Mind has many functions; thinking, feeling, sensing, wanting, discerning and storing, among others. These functions can be steered by one’s ego or guided by rational capabilities through the intellect. It is almost impossible to separate one aspect from another for they are inextricably joined in our body-mind continuum.
Attending is also a function of the mind. Training the mind starts here.
The training to attend and dwell continuously on a single internal focal point must be done until the mind becomes completely absorbed. Attention means ‘that awareness’ we place on a task or object. For the awareness to happen all senses led by the mind must be synchronized and directed to the task (external or internal) at hand. When this attention is honed it become concentration. But there are different types of attention, and we need to know which type of attention is well suited for training the mind in yoga.
Selective attention requires a person to focus on one activity in the midst of many activities. This enables you to stay on task in the presence of distraction such as in a cafeteria. In āsana, selective attention is crucial in order to execute safe alignment and honor the body at the given moment of practice. In dhāraṇā, one must be able to direct the attention to the selected technique chosen for practice.
Sustained attention requires a person to focus on one event for a longer period of time. This enables you to stay completely on one task, like reading a book or painting. This is difficult for those who get distracted easily. But there is always hope.
A key part of sustained attention is being able to re-focus on the task at hand even after a distraction arises and passes. This can be cultivated no matter how long it takes. In āsana practice, one must be able to maintain attention especially balancing in poses in order to quickly re-focus to preserve balance, and use the breath effectively. In dhāraṇā, one must be able to sustain attention for an extended period of time on the selected technique in order to go deeper. The ability to re-focus, re-direct the attention without a conflict in order to sustain it – is the most important part of concentration practice.
Divided attention (handling two or more tasks at one time, multi-tasking) and alternating attention (constantly switching from one task to another) are not conducive for concentration and meditation. A divided mind loses focus and scatters energy, creating restlessness and agitation. And, switching from one thought or technique to another without allowing one to be firmly established leaves the mind drained and bored. Mind is unable to go deeper to a calm and tranquil state; a state of mind where authentic concentration practice actually begins.
How does knowing types of attention help with Concentration? Developing selective and sustained attention prepares the mind’s inner journey by training the senses to turn inward. This is the first step to formal seated practice. With continued effort to bring and sustain attention to a single point, concentration can be cultivated, strengthened and deepened.
Object of Concentration
Meditation is achieved only through highest level of concentration. Essentially, it involves techniques of concentration that have to be practiced consistently and for a long time. These techniques direct one to focus. Focus what? One’s attention. The entity on which the attention is focused upon is called the object of concentration.
At any given moment, you have to focus – while reading this blog, cooking, driving, walking, gaming, texting, and so on. Whatever you are focusing on at that moment is your object of concentration. For instance, when you are completely absorbed in social media, this type of single-mindedness did not just happen; you repeatedly focused on various media platforms and cultivated the art of directing your attention.
Similarly, with practice, you can train the mind to stay present and internally focused to achieve meditation. This stage of meditation preparation is dhāraṇā. Dhāraṇā is concentration or single focus by the mind on one particular thing. Once the mind can stay focused on a single object, it becomes easier for it to release into a place of awareness.
Choosing an object for concentration takes time and patience. A certain amount of detachment is essential. When you choose an object by way of likes and attachment, it could backfire. For example, the great saint Sri Rāmakrishna was approached by a person who wanted to be instructed on the path of meditation. For every object that the saint recommended the person had a complaint, comment, aversion, and so on, and could not settle on one.
The trouble is that the person could not control his mind; the mind controlled him. He was unable to choose. And he did not understand that worldly distractions draws the mind outward and holds it as long as it chooses; it is the mind’s tendency to go outwards. This creates the attitude of attachment.
Finally, Sri Rāmakrishna asked the man to pick an object that he revered most and loved unconditionally. The man chose his buffalo. And, as the story goes, the man attained perfect concentration on his buffalo; in fact he grew horns and became a buffalo. Then, Sri Rāmakrishna guided him to shift this complete cultivated concentration on the Divine to elevate the mind to a higher state and helped him attain the state of meditation.
Buddha, the Awakend One, wants you to remember that you become what you meditate upon. So, choose your object of concentration carefully. What is important – the quality and attributes of this object, how long did it take to choose it, effect it has on your mind, religious or spiritual, how it captures and sustains your interest; when the mind learns to concentrate deeply on this higher ideal and excludes all others, it results in Samādhi.
This object can be a word, a prayer or mantra, breath, a physical object or image of a higher ideal or deity that you can visualize. Some prefer to visualize and meditate on religious symbols. Or choose one of the world’s great saints and spiritual beings: Jesus Christ, Buddha, Hafiz, Ramakrishna, Yogānanda, Moses, Krishna, Allah, Shiva, yogis and gurus and saints and sages of all religions. Thus, it is imperative you choose the greatest and highest ideal as your object of concentration.
Patanjali has also provided multiple choices for object of concentration in the Yoga Sūtras. For example, chakras, wheels of energy locations in the body are excellent choices; the center point between your eyebrows called Āgña Chakra or Śāmbhavi Mudra, also called the third eye. Perhaps a better place for those seekers who are devotional is to focus on the heart center, Anāhata Chakra. Visualize a point inside your spine directly behind of the heart. As your concentration settles in the area of your forehead or heart center, it will become focused and one-pointed.
There are a few who prefer to focus on the formless, infinite expansiveness like the sky or the ocean or choosing to focus on love, joy, or Oneness. However, focusing on the formless is difficult. The human mind cannot dwell deeply on such abstracts and finds it difficult to go beyond names and forms. The sky or ocean are also considered abstract objects of concentration. Most yogis and gurus recommend to focus on objects with form first, and then gradually change to nebulous form of the same object when concentration gets deeper.
“When the mind has been trained to remain fixed on a certain internal or external location, there comes to it the power of flowing in an unbroken current, as it were, towards that point. The mind stops all the thought-waves and the world stops. Your consciousness expands.” Svāmi Vivèkānanda
Consistency of practice is what matters the most. The more you practice, the more quickly and easily your mind will obey. Yes, obey. Sounds dictatorial right? What do you think the mind is doing to you right now? Being your dictator. It says jump, and you meekly say how high.
Training the mind takes time, patience and consistent practice. With practice you can learn to tap into deeper experiences of concentration. Ultimately, with the arrival of distractions you will be able to close your eyes and confidently think of your carefully chosen object without any intrusions. Of course, this will not happen overnight.
Patanjali’s Dhāraṇa, concentration is binding the thought to one place (deśa). Begin by choosing the highest ideal as your object of concentration; remember we become what we concentrate (meditate) upon.
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