Points of Practice: Focus Within

Weave mindfulness and concentration together to refine, deepen, and energize your practice.

December 6, 2013    BY Rolf Sovik

Have you ever felt the meditative equivalent of “all dressed up with nowhere to go”—the feeling that you are showing up for meditation but nothing is happening? Of course, in one sense, nothing is supposed to happen. Your objective is simply to keep on sitting. But if your inner zeal has vanished, maybe it’s time to review your meditation method. With only modest effort you can overcome doubt, sit more regularly, and energize your practice.

Two core features of meditation propel it along. The first is concentration. Concentration centers your mind by giving it an internal focus, a place to rest. With practice, awareness of that focus gradually deepens, filling your mind. But what should that focus be? And how can you maintain and deepen the resting process? Answers to these questions will help you develop a calm and steady flow of attention.

The second facet of practice—mindful detachment, or mindfulness—complements concentration. You can witness your mind, observing sensations, emotions, and thoughts without identifying with them. Meditators often liken this to the experience of reclining in a grassy meadow, watching clouds travel across the sky. As the clouds pass by, the deep, unmoving sky expands overhead, filling your awareness. In much the same way, thoughts in meditation move through your conscious mind, while awareness of the vast sky-like space of consciousness expands within. Inner life then becomes characterized by an openness and flexibility that was missing before.

People often view concentration and mindfulness as two distinct approaches to meditation. But, in fact, woven together, these two threads form the cloth of authentic practice.

Soften the way you hold your body and you will experience a deep-seated sense of stillness.

Collecting the Forces of Your Mind

Start with concentration. The key is to direct your awareness toward a particular focus with care and attention. Once centered, awareness can rest in a relaxed state, without strain. You make “progress” in meditation when you can sustain concentration for longer periods of time, when you find satisfaction and joy in the very act of concentrating itself.

This might appear straightforward on paper, but since the mind is unstable, meditation can be far from restful. Here’s what Arjuna had to say about it in the Bhagavad Gita (6.34):

The mind is fickle, turbulent, very powerful, and strong. I believe controlling it is as difficult as controlling the wind.

In reply, Arjuna’s teacher, Krishna, offered a sympathetic response. “No doubt the mind is difficult to control…but with practice and mindful detachment it can be accomplished.”

As you inhale, rest your awareness in the sound so, and as you exhale, in the sound hum.

Krishna’s use of the term “practice” implies some sort of system or discipline. Early teachers compared their system of concentration to a stage in the ancient Indian wedding pageant. In the evening, after the formal wedding ceremony had been completed, the groom led the bride outside to view the stars. Looking into the night sky, the groom asked the bride whether she could see a particularly bright star—one relatively easy to identify. If the bride responded yes, then the groom chose a nearby star that was more difficult to identify. And if the bride was again successful, he asked her to focus on an even dimmer star. Thus, the bride’s attention was led from a bright star to a faint one.

The system of sharpening concentration during meditation is akin to a bride’s search for fainter stars. Begin with an easily detected focus, the body itself, and move systematically to more and more subtle ones. In the process, your mind can be rested each step along the way.

Focusing Within

The sensation of the body is the first object of concentration. In meditation, you aim not only to rest your body in a comfortable seated posture, but to rest your awareness in the sensation of the body in that posture. Soften the way you hold your body and you will experience a deep-seated sense of stillness. This is your first focus—relaxed stillness—the brightest star.

After developing awareness of physical stillness, shift your attention to your breathing. The sensations of breathing are a subtler object—a fainter star—than stillness alone. As you sit in meditation, feel the breath expand and contract in the sides of the rib cage as well as the abdomen. Breathe easily and smoothly and you’ll feel your nervous system relax.

Once you become aware of your breathing, make the process even more powerful by seamlessly connecting your breaths, one to the next. When the transitions between breaths become smooth and unbroken, your concentration will strengthen. You’ll experience fewer breaks in your attention and reduce the likelihood that your mind will become distracted or that you will fall asleep.

You can further refine concentration—reach for an even subtler star—by bringing awareness to the sensation of the breath as it passes through the nostrils. Your focus is the sensation of touch—all the other senses rest. Since the breath is always flowing, sensations of the breath in the nostrils are readily available. Breath awareness in the nostrils settles the mind, collecting energies that might otherwise distract you. 

Inner life is personal by nature. It includes objects of imagination, duties, desires, questions, and plans—all cast on a palette of awareness. It contains emotional energy. And when it turns painful, it is the source of aversion.

Finally, let your attention rest in a focal point within the mind itself by using an internal sound, a mantra, as a resting place. Link your breath to a mantra by using the sound so’ham (pronounced “so hum”). As you inhale, rest your awareness in the sound so, and as you exhale, in the sound hum. Let time pass, smoothly weaving one sound into the next as you progress from breath to breath. Your concentration will become profoundly relaxed and steady.

When Your Mind Speaks to You

Concentration has a natural ally, a companion, in mindfulness. But while concentration offers a systematic step-by-step approach, mindfulness evolves more intuitively. Much has been written about the art of mindfulness in various traditions, yet you may still find yourself uncertain about its place in meditation. What happens to awaken a sense of mindfulness? What is accomplished by it?

A well-known mindfulness exercise is to eat a single grape, slowly. Take in the color, the shape, the texture; note the difference between the peel, the inner flesh, and the juice. Taste the grape on your initial bite and sense the lingering aftertaste as well. As much as this exercise expands awareness, it also illustrates the close relationship of mindfulness and concentration. Eating a grape mindfully, in this sense, is an exercise in concentration. It enhances your capacity to bring full attention to your concentration effort.

Unless your mind is fully one-pointed, thoughts that arise in meditation are like reflected images.

But as concentration progresses in meditation, a quiet shift in perspective occurs. You become mindful in a somewhat different way. Having achieved a certain degree of relaxed concentration, you become a witness to sensations, thoughts, and feelings. That means you see, accept, and even dialogue with them as you sit, while continuing to develop your concentration focus.

For example, are you angry? What is the source of that anger and how does it present itself? Are you in pain? What defines your pain and how can you be with it, or even be it? And when your pain distracts your concentration, what should you do and how should you be?

Inner life is personal by nature. It includes objects of imagination, duties, desires, questions, and plans—all cast on a palette of awareness. It contains emotional energy. And when it turns painful, it is the source of aversion.

Thus, meditation, paradoxically, is not only meant to assist you in dispersing distracting thoughts and feelings, but also helps you to be present to them. Accepting and yet gaining distance from thoughts, emotions, and even pain lies at the very core of mindful detachment. By witnessing the contents of your mind and entering into a conversation with them, you can play a role in their unfolding. You can, at least in part, choose which thoughts to deliberate over, which to supply energy to, and which to gently let go of. This is a great portion of the art
of mindfulness.

Bringing the Two Together

Held steady by your concentration, you can rest in your own nature.

As your meditation practice continues, yet another dramatic shift in mindfulness occurs. Concentration and mindfulness coalesce. You become mindful of the process of focusing itself—absorbed in a presence that is not a thought or a sensation, but a state of consciousness. It is you, resting within yourself.

A metaphor may be helpful. If you were to look in a mirror, the image you see there would accurately reflect your appearance, but could never actually become you. It is a reflection of you. Change your hat, gloves, or sweater, and the image changes as well. No matter the image in the mirror, it can have only a temporary identity, while you alone are the source of every identity.

Unless your mind is fully one-pointed, thoughts that arise in meditation are like reflected images. They are temporary identities, presented to you by your mind. Your thoughts, sensations, attachments, and aversions are like images in a mirror. They are not you.

The coalescence of concentration and mindfulness turns your awareness back toward your true presence. This is the essence of self-remembering. You are the self-existent consciousness reflected in every change of clothing, every temporary identity appearing in your mind.

Your ability to arrive at such a synthesis depends a good deal on your meditative mood. Some days you may be drawn quickly inward, while on other days meditation may unfold more slowly. Some days agitations may delay the appearance of a witnessing awareness or require a longer period of processing, while on other days the inner observer in you may emerge rapidly and naturally.

At its own pace, however, a profound deepening of awareness will take place. With your mind fixed in concentration, distracting thoughts will appear as precisely that—distractions. Held steady by your concentration, you can rest in your own nature.

Restoring Inner Identity

Bring concentration and mindfulness, the two elements of meditation, together, and they have the power to produce lasting change. Each leads to the restoration of inner identity. Each strengthens the effectiveness of the other.

The process of witnessing and dialoguing with the mind is assisted by concentration. Concentration creates a calm and stable inner environment. Similarly, mindful detachment leads to an attentive concentration process. Mindfulness guides the mind to a place of rest. In the end, the two can hardly be distinguished from one another.

So if you have been lost in a meditative funk or are going through the motions of a meditation that has become a bit too routine, go back to these basics. Let your own practice help you rediscover your meditative enthusiasm.

The Habit of Mindfulness

The concept of the mind as a witness is inextricably linked to concentration. For example, in India, village women often go to a distant well to collect water at the beginning of the day. They carry the water on their heads as they return from the well, meanwhile talking with one another and avoiding stones and obstacles on the path. No water is spilled, despite having to traverse unsteady terrain. A portion of each woman’s attention remains constantly mindful of the task of carrying water, despite having many other thoughts along the way. Through mindful attention to a task, concentration becomes natural and habitual.

Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga in the United States, India, and Nepal. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern studies, and clinical psychology. Former Co-Director of the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo, NY he began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the Himalayan tradition in 1987. He is the author of Moving Inward, co-author of the award-winning Yoga:... Read more>>