The Practice of Concentration in Yoga
Sit comfortably in a chair, in front of a table. Hold a pen in your hand and a paper before you, on the table. Now close your eyes, holding the pen on the paper with a steady hand. Relax, taking a few deep breaths. Keeping your eyes closed, think of some object, image or an idea. Start concentrating on it fully. Do not let any thought or movement interfere with your concentration. Whenever your mind is distracted from the object of your concentration, even for a flitting second, put a dot on the paper with your pen, with your eyes closed, and bring your attention back to the object. Keep doing it for at least five minutes. Then open your eyes, and see how many dots are there on the paper. If you see a jumble of dots on the paper, then this article is right for you, because it intends to teach how to concentrate and how to remain focused amidst distractions.
Concentration means the ability to focus your attention consciously on a particular object for a sustained period of time, without being distracted by other things. In concentration we draw out our minds to the objects of our meditation through our senses or through our internal awareness. We establish with them an invisible mental connection, which we try to sustain for longer periods of time, by subduing our minds, controlling our senses and limiting their movements. Most of us possess the ability to concentrate in varying degrees. We see it among children and adults alike, when they are absorbed in the things that interest them most, such as books, movies, games, friends, film stars or TV programs. We love doing what we like most, amidst distractions.
Except for a few unfortunate individuals who suffer from the Attention Deficit Syndrome, most of us can exert our will power to pay attention to things and events. However, in most people it is still a limited ability, as their minds are not trained and disciplined to stay focused. Only a few individual reach the heights of concentration, where they can apply their minds consciously to anything that presents itself to them in their field of observation, without struggle and no particular aim. If we can achieve that rare ability, if we can concentrate on anything that arises in our field of experience, with deep awareness, without struggle, even when we are least interested, we become sensitive to our surroundings and to ourselves and in the process develop a deep insight into our own lives and actions.
How can we develop concentration?
Before we begin discussing the subject, let it be clear that we do not develop concentration, to acquire some material gain or achieve some supernatural power but simply to be what we are or what we have been in the core of our being, before delusion got us this far, and let our minds and bodies ought to do what they are supposed to do when we are in perfect alignment with ourselves and the world around us.
1. Slow down. We live in a fast paced modern world, where every thing seems to be moving in a great rush. Living in such a restless world most of us have hardly any time left to pay attention to anything in particular. There is nothing much we can do about the world or the speed at which it moves because it is beyond our zone of influence. However we can do something about the way we react to it or interact with it. We can control the pace at which we live, slow down our minds and pay attention to what has been going on in our immediate environment.
2. Practice regularly. Practice concentration regularly and constantly no matter what the circumstances are. Once you have created and accepted your schedule and plan of action, stick with them by all means and stay on course.
3. Make provision for occasional failure. No practice really goes uninterruptedly, especially when we have the propensity to waver and falter along the way. So be prepared for occasional failures and setbacks and make sure that they do not bog you down completely.
4. Make concentration a continuous process. Truly speaking, concentration ought to be a way of life, in which you live every moment of your life with total awareness. So bring concentration to your daily life and apply it to every aspect of it. Use every object and opportunity in your daily life to practice concentration, be it some intangible quality, a person, feature, object, idea or thought.
5. Practice three dimensional concentration. Practice concentration at three different levels: first on the physical or external features of an object, next on its mental features or the qualities and values it represents and, finally, on its spiritual significance and underlying truth. Do it with yourselves, using your body, mind and subtle bodies as objects of your concentration.
6. Know the true value of concentration. Concentration is not an end in itself but means to a much higher goal, which is total awareness and knowledge of ourselves. In the Eightfold Yoga of Patanjali, the practice of concentration (dharana) comes after the withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), which in turn is preceded by ethical restraints (yama), five internal ethical observances (niyama), physical exercises (asanas) and breath control (pranayama). What this means is that concentration cannot be practiced in isolation, but only as a part of much larger discipline in which we learn to regulate not only our thoughts, actions, emotions and impulses but also our physical, mental and spiritual energies and faculties for experiencing higher states of consciousness, with self-realization or the state of samadhi as the highest goal. A pure mind in a pure body, guided by pure thoughts, emotions and intentions, is the ideal condition, which is conducive to the practice of concentration.
6. Practice detachment. Our ancient sages suggested pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses as a useful means in the practice of concentration. Withdrawal of the senses means to withhold the senses from the objects and interests to which they are repeatedly drawn. When we are attached to things through our senses, we develop certain desires, attitudes, beliefs and habits which interfere with our normal thinking, perception and discrimination. They render our minds a medley of flitting thoughts, conflicting desires and destabilizing emotions. Detachment, therefore, is the key to the practice of concentration. With detachment we learn to stabilize our minds and pay attention to our lives in their totality.
7. Live in the present. Concentration is not about achieving something, but staying in the present and experiencing life for no particular reason other than the experience itself. When we are caught up in things of the past or the future, concentration becomes a chore. But when we stay in the present moment, our act of concentration automatically translates itself into an effortless process, in which there is no particular desire to do something or to be something, but simply a state of being, knowing and mindfulness. So practice concentration, remaining in the present and staying with the moment, being aware that it is not an end itself, but only a means to total awareness.
8. Practice equanimity. When you are mentally very stable, you ability to concentrate increases exponentially. A stable mind is an important asset in the practice of concentration, because it is already in a state of collected awareness. A restless mind, on the other hand, cannot focus on anything in particular because it is scattered and divided. So cultivate equanimity by controlling your thoughts, desires, impulses and senses as an important step in the practice of concentration.
9. Control your senses. Our senses are responsible for our attachments and desires, which in turn are responsible for our mental instability. We can put our senses to effective use in the practice of concentration mainly in two ways. One is by controlling them and the other is by using them in a selective manner. With the former we can concentrate on our inner consciousness and with the latter we can concentrate on the external reality. In both instances we will develop a deeper awareness to which we are not otherwise capable.
10. Maintain a positive mental attitude. The practice of concentration becomes meaningless if we do not have positive attitude about it or if we do not expect positive outcome from it. Our positive mental attitude helps us keep going in the face of setbacks and failures.
11. Suspend all judgment. Whether we are aware or not, we spend most of our lives judging things and people, weighing them, comparing them, forming opinions and conclusions about them and making decisions about them depending upon such judgments. We judge almost every thing and every one, ourselves as well as others. We even keep judging how successful we are in our concentration. When we judge, we go out of sync with our current reality because our judgments can come only from the knowledge we accumulated in the past. Therefore, we have to drop our judgmental nature consciously and perseveringly, to perceive things clearly in their own light and experience things as they are.
Concentration is the high mental beam with which you can pierce through layers of consciousness, till you find the golden truths, hidden behind the world of illusion, about yourself, about people and objects and about your own reality. The epic Mahabharata personifies the skill of concentration in the character of Arjuna. It is also the quality which Dronacharya tried to teach to both the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It was through concentration our ancient rishis and sages were able experience transcendental consciousness and obtain the grace of God. The ability to concentrate is very important today, in a society where there are so many distractions. It is an important prerequisite in spiritualism, where the mind needs to be stabilized in itself so that it can transcend itself someday. It is equally important in our mundane lives, where using it we can know about people and situations and discern truth from falsehood. The practice of concentration develops in us certain rare qualities such as perseverance, tenacity and determination, without which it is difficult to achieve success in any field.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Advice on the Practice of Concentration in
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- Gnani Yoga, The Law of Karma by Yogi Ramacharaka
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- Hinduwebsite.com - Yoga Home Page
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