Cultivating Concentration (to Support Meditation)
If you think that the goal of meditation is to make the mind blank, you have created an insurmountable obstacle to developing a rich, nourishing meditation practice. As Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood observe in How to Know God, if making the mind blank were desirable, this condition could be “easily achieved by asking a friend to hit you over the head with a hammer.” It is not the mind’s nature to be blank, and trying to force it into that state is both futile and harmful. A meditative mind is a concentrated mind—a mind that is not blank; it is one which has become stilled by holding an unbroken, one-pointed focus on a single object for an extended period of time. In short, meditation is sustained concentration.
It is not the mind’s nature to be blank, and trying to force it into that state is both futile and harmful.
Concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and spiritual absorption (samadhi) are interwoven. At the beginning of the third chapter, the Yoga Sutra explains how one state merges into the next: “Concentration is focusing attention on one object and holding it there. When awareness flows evenly toward the object of concentration, that is meditation. When in meditation the true nature of the object of concentration shines forth, undistorted by the mind of the perceiver, that is samadhi.”
Experienced practitioners tell us that concentration is 12 seconds of unbroken attention on one thought wave. Sustain this 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, 48 seconds), it will have entered the first stage of samadhi.
Trying to meditate without training the mind to concentrate is like trying to write a novel before learning to read—it can’t be done. Until the mind is trained to concentrate, it will never flow into a meditative state. Yet we may avoid training the mind to be one-pointed because we’re accustomed to thinking of concentration as a mental effort, like the effort required to analyze a calculus problem. Concentration seems tension-inducing somehow, and not particularly “spiritual.” But the sustained inward focus that is a prelude to meditation is neither stressful nor unpleasant—it is relaxed, focused awareness, a state of mind that is soothing and calming, once you get the knack of it.
Making a Start
If you doubt this, try the simple breathing practice that follows. It fosters relaxed concentration and is a good way to introduce the mind to the pleasures of one-pointed attention.
Breathe smoothly and evenly.
Sit comfortably, with the head, neck, and trunk aligned and the body relaxed. Close your eyes and focus on the flow of the breath as it passes through the nostrils. Feel the warm touch of the exhalation and the cool touch of the inhalation. Breathe smoothly and evenly. Pay particular attention to the transition between the exhalation and the inhalation because it is here that the mind has the greatest tendency to wander off.
When your attention has come to rest on the breath, begin to count your inhalations and exhalations from 1 to 5 and 5 back to 1 again in the following pattern: Exhale 1, Inhale 2, Exhale 3, Inhale 4, Exhale 5, Inhale 1, Exhale 2, Inhale 3, Exhale 4, Inhale 5.
Work with this practice over a period of days or weeks—as long as it takes—until you can attend to it for five minutes without getting lost or confused. Notice how relaxed and refreshed you feel. This is the beginning of the one-pointed focus that, with time and practice, merges into meditation.