Concentration: The Prelude to Meditation
The notion that a meditative mind is a blank mind is counterproductive when you’re trying to develop a fruitful meditation practice. The quickest way to achieve a blank mind, as Swami Prabhavananda famously observed, is “to ask a friend to hit you over the head with a hammer.” Far from being blank, a meditative mind is concentrated; meditation is concentration sustained.
Meditation arises when we hold an unbroken, one-pointed focus on a single object for a prolonged period. Trying to meditate without training the mind to concentrate is like trying to run before learning to stand. It can’t be done. Until the mind becomes one-pointed, it will never flow into meditation. We avoid the effort because we’re accustomed to equating concentration with exertion—like the effort required to solve a calculus problem—tension-inducing and not particularly “spiritual.” But the inward concentration that precedes meditation is neither stressful nor unpleasant. It is simply relaxed, focused awareness, a state of mind that is both calming and soothing once you get the hang of it.
Go with the Flow
This simple breathing practice fosters relaxed concentration:
- Sit comfortably erect. Close your eyes and focus on the flow of the breath as it passes through your nostrils. Pay particular attention to the transition between the exhalation and the inhalation. It is here that the mind has the greatest tendency to wander off.
- When your attention has come to rest on the breath and is flowing effortlessly, begin to silently count your breaths from 1 to 5 and 5 back to 1, in the following pattern:
- Sustain the sound of the number for the entire length of the breath. This will soothe and calm the mind and bring a feeling of tranquility.
- Work with the practice over a period of days or weeks—as long as it takes—until you can attend to it for five minutes or more without getting lost or confused.
The yogis define concentration as 12 seconds of unbroken attention. Sustain it for 144 seconds (12 x 12) and you have reached a state of meditation. If the mind can maintain that state for another multiple of 12 (12 x 144 seconds, or 28 minutes and 48 seconds), you have reached the first stage of samadhi (pure spiritual absorption).