Scattering our attention becomes such a deeply ingrained habit that we hardly know we’re doing it. We barrel down the highway with the tape deck playing, munching on an apple, and carrying on a conversation—and think nothing of it. Yet we’re surprised to find we have trouble keeping the mind focused on one object when we sit for meditation.
Scattering our attention becomes such a deeply ingrained habit that we hardly know we’re doing it.
Concentration is the prelude to meditation. Unless we cultivate the habit of concentration in other areas of our life, progress in meditation will come slowly or not at all. There’s not much point in sitting in a quiet corner for thirty minutes every morning, trying to make our mind stay in place—focused on the mantra—if we let our mind run amok the rest of the day. It’s like expecting a three-year-old, used to singing and tossing food around at mealtimes, to sit quietly and keep his food on his plate when his parents have guests for dinner. Like a well-behaved child, the mind will calm down and focus at the meditation hour if it has been trained to stay calm and focused at other times.
Simple everyday tasks are a good place to begin. Experiment with focusing on brushing your teeth when you’re brushing your teeth, for example. If you find your mind rehashing an argument with a friend, or jumping ahead to fantasies about the party tomorrow night, gently but firmly bring it back to the task at hand. Focus on the bristles moving against your teeth, the way the toothpaste tastes, how the brush handle contacts your hand.
There are plenty of opportunities to train our concentration in routine tasks—washing the dishes, making the bed, walking up the stairs. Choose several, and each time you find yourself engaged in those particular tasks, form the habit of keeping your mind centered there, taking hold of it as it wanders off and bringing it back to rest here in the present. Buddhists call this mindfulness; yogis call it dharana (concentration). Practice it in more and more areas of your life, and notice its effect on your meditation practice.
“Concentration (dharana) is making the mind stay in one place.”
—Yoga Sutra 3.1
Caught in a long line? Instead of feeding your frustration by mentally nudging the line forward, train your concentration by counting backward from 1,000 to 1 as quickly and smoothly as possible. Too easy? Try counting backward in multiples of three.