Psychologists define concentration as special, disciplined attention. It implies a reduction in awareness, because it lessens the intervention of irrelevant stimuli which distract us in ordinary conditions. Our whole consciousness becomes directed towards one single aspect, it actually becomes focused.
The benefits of concentration in ordinary life are obvious. If we concentrate upon our actions, we are capable of executing them more efficiently and remembering details associated to them. Most errors are due to the fact that not enough attention was paid while doing the action.
By concentrating we train the mind to get clearer and more penetrating, regardless what we do. We offer it the necessary space to direct itself towards the inner self and see what is there.
Concentration can be acquired by practise and in the same way in which concentration is essential for meditation, meditation is the optimum means to practice concentration.
Here are two exercises to increase the ability for concentration:
Exercise No. 1: Choose a trivial word, e.g. “tree” or “water”. Write it on a sheet of paper. Then, write down the first word associated with it that comes to your mind, and then immediately go back to the initial word. Now, another word will come to your mind. Write it down, then go back again to the initial word. Repeat this action as long as word associations appear. When they stop, go back to the initial word. Keep the initial word in mind. Concentrate upon it, without thinking anything about it. Continue doing this as long as you feel comfortable with it.
Exercise No. 2: To be executed the day after the first exercise. Start with the same initial word. Keep it in your mind. As soon as the mind jumps to one of the words that appeared in exercise 1 (or to a completely new one), go back to the initial word. Repeat this exercise at least for five minutes daily.
By the end of the month, you will realize that concentration has improved. Since the best time to start these exercises is NOW, you may take a 5 minute break to practise what you have learnt, then you may go on!
Thus the first essential step in meditation practice regardless of its form, is concentration. The mind must have something to focus upon, and it is necessary that it remains focused. Any time attention is distracted because of unwanted thoughts, fatigue or boredom, it must gently but firmly be brought back to the focused object. This object can be practically almost anything; however especially in the initial phases of meditation, it is recommended that it be something simple and/or regular. That is why ever since Buddha (623-543 BC) and probably from time immemorial , breathing was used as a focus.
Respiration is both simple and regular, a constant input and output, rising and falling, inflow and outflow. Since breathing permanently accompanies us in good and bad times it does not have specific personal associations. It is the unobserved background of life, vital for our existence though we are so used to it that in the most cases we are not aware of it.
Exercise no. 3: Sit in a peaceful place, either in lotus posture or in one of its alternatives, or sitting on a chair with a backrest, so that your vertebral column is straight. Place your hands placed on the thighs and the feet on the floor. Now focus your attention on your nostrils or your abdomen and keep it there, refusing to let yourself be distracted by thoughts or external factors. Feel the air you inhale, then observe the short break between inhalation and exhalation, then feel the exhaled air and observe again the short break, this time between the next intake of air. Do not interfere in the natural rhythm of breathing, such as increasing or decreasing one of the intervals, but simply let the breathing go on naturally, becoming more and more calm as your body and mind relax in meditation.
If you have just started learning meditation, limit the duration of each session to 5-10 minutes. Do these sessions daily at the same time, in the morning or evening, as it suits you. Gradually after a few weeks, extend these 5-10 minutes to 15-20 minutes, but never try to force the pace. Meditation does not benefit from harsh or abrupt practice. Simply it means to stay still with yourself, and even though it requires a certain type of discipline, it is more helpful to be flexible than to be rigid.
Caution: Until we reach a certain level of skill in the art of meditation, we will inevitably be assaulted by thoughts and emotions. We must surrender these phenomena to the consciousness and beyond, just as clouds are reflected on the surface of water. Do not try to push them aside in order to get rid of them, but rather let them move by their own will. Regardless of how “important” the thoughts are, or how pressing or restless the emotions, do not hang on to them, nor allow any of them to trigger another thought. If you allowed this you would become distracted, and hence move away from the simple process of inhalation and expiration. However, if you become distracted, return gently but firmly to your breathing. Avoid being anxious, or tormenting yourself with the feeling that you will never succeed in meditation. Your wandering mind simply shows you how much you need to meditate, in order to settle its state of dispersion and animation. It shows you how little is your control of thinking. The correct response is gratitude towards that part of your mind which has become conscious of the fact that you are distracted, and which reminds you to return to the focused object.
Remember: concentration is facilitated by fulfilling the following factors:
- a well defined goal, aspiration, focus which will lead to success with concentration.
- patience, a willpower as strong as steel, and tenacity in following the chosen goal.
- vigilence and continuity in fighting disorder and excitation of the mind.
- the power of concentration increases by eliminating preoccupations and useless desires, by practising the silence discipline (MAUNA) for one or two hours per day, practising breathing techniques (PRANAYAMA), praying, increasing the number of daily meditation sessions, and increasing discerment.
Attention! The power of mind is unlimited. The more focused it is, the more powerful. The meaning of life is to concentrate your mind upon God, it is our supreme duty. This duty is forgotten because of illusion (MAYA) which makes us identify ourselves with our own body, social position, honour, name and reputation, and so forget our divine essence.
Swami Shivananda praised meditation: “The overall sum of the pleasures of this world is nothing compared to the happiness resulting from concentration and meditation. Do not give up this practice at all. Go on with your practice, be patient, persevering, happy, tenacious and trustful. This way you will succeed.”
Concentration is a purely mental procedure. It requires that the mind be focused towards the interior. You must not struggle with violence against your mind.
Sit in a comfortable position, relax all the muscles of your body. Be free from physical, psychological or mental strain. Calm the mind, emotions, cease mental agitation. Do not pay any attention to intruding thoughts. In other words, be insensible to the exterior, like a spectator who watches his thoughts parading in front of him as on a stage. Thoughts actually have no power upon us unless we want them to.
Exercise No.4: Concentration presupposes an object which acts as a support for settling the mind. Retire to a silent room, go into lotus (PADMASANA) or diamond (VAJRASANA) posture. Close your eyes. Concentrate upon an apple: observe its color, form, size, the different parts such as: skin, pulp, seed, etc. You may think of the place where it came from, its sweet or sour taste, its effects on digestion and blood. By association, ideas regarding other fruits may try to arise. The mind even can also maintain another image that is completley alien, and it may start to roam. It may think of a friend who you will meet at four o”clock downtown, or of having to buy biscuits or a notebook. It could reflect upon an annoying event which has recently taken place. You must try to have a well defined thoughts and to prevent the appearance of any thought not related to the chosen object. You will have to fight in order to obtain results in this direction, because the mind will do its best to come back to its usual and familiar agitation. This process of training is somewhat like that of climbing a mountain. When you have evolved with meditation, you will feel the need to practise more and more. It will become easier and easier, more and more beautiful. As in the physical plane certain laws apply (eg gravity, cohesion, etc), in the same way, precise laws apply to the mental plane or world: association, relativity, continuity, resonance, etc.
Other concentration exercises :
Sit in your prefered meditation posture, at a distance of 30-40 cm away from a clock. Focus on its second hand. Even if the mind roams, force yourself for some period to hear the tick-tock sound. Check how long you can stay mentally fixed without interruption.
Place a lighted candle in front of you and try to focus on its flame. When you got tired, close your eyes and mentally create the image of the flame.
Sit in a comfortable posture and concentrate upon one of the many abstract virtues, e.g. compassion. Remain on the thought of this virtue for as long as you can.