Q&A: How to Train Your Mind to Support a Meditation Practice
I have been trying to meditate for six months without success. I can only focus on the mantra for a few moments before I start daydreaming, making plans, or attempting to solve a problem. How can I turn my mind inward?
Meditation is possible only when the mind is one-pointed, organized, calm, and tranquil. A fragmented mind cannot be turned inward, and so the first step is to collect the fragments by training the mind to concentrate. This is tricky in the beginning because concentrating a scattered mind is like collecting droplets of mercury—they slip away when you try to pick them up. Similarly when you try to collect and concentrate your scattered mind it slips away and you cannot get a good grip on all those hundreds of pieces.
A mind that is in the habit of running from one object to another cannot concentrate on one object for a prolonged period, and if you attempt to force it, it will make excuses and play tricks. While you are concentrating on one object—your breath, for example—another object flashes before your mind and the mind runs after it. When you notice that the mind is no longer trained on the breath, you bring it back, but before long it is distracted again. You bring it back, it runs off again. Eventually you give up in frustration.
That is why in the beginning it is not advisable to force your mind to focus on one object for a long time. A gradual approach is required. Asking a mind that is used to thinking of 30 things in 10 minutes to think of only one thing for 10 minutes is asking too much. Compromise by creating a situation in which you are neither forcing your mind to focus on one object for a long period of time nor letting it run constantly from one object to another. Provide the mind with a series of objects; focus it on one for a short time, then allow it to move to the next object in the series before it becomes rebellious.
Asking a mind that is used to thinking of 30 things in 10 minutes to think of only one thing for 10 minutes is asking too much.
Training the mind to travel from one point to another point according to your plan is the basis of all systematic relaxation exercises. This technique provides an environment where the mind can slow down as it moves from one point to the next in your body, so instead of suffocating the undisciplined, scattered mind, you are training it. It can still move from one place to another but instead of jumping from Florida to Las Vegas, from a phone conversation to what you are planning for supper, you are allowing it to travel from your forehead to your eyebrows, moving systematically through the body to the fingertips and toes and back to the forehead. In the 10 minutes it takes for the mind to move from point to point through the body it becomes concentrated. And this way a systematic and gentle mental training has begun.
If slowing down the movement of the mind is the goal, then why not simply ask the mind to attend to a series of thoughts at a slow pace? Is there a specific reason for confining the mind to the body and asking it to travel from one point to the next?
The relationship between the mind and the body is like the relationship between master and servant: mind is master and body is servant. When the servant sees that the master is dull and careless, the servant becomes careless too, and the body does not receive any guidance or motivation from a careless and scattered master. But when the servant knows that the master is attentive and vigilant, the servant becomes alert and active. For example, all the activities of the body are dependent on decisions made by the mind. The organs and bodily systems of an absent-minded person or a person with a disturbed and distracted mind are sluggish. But when the body notices that the mind is making its rounds, checking all departments—the brain, nervous system, circulatory system, respiratory system, etc.—it becomes alert and active.
This is because the mind is a flow of energy. When it is moving from one place to another throughout the nervous system and the energy channels, it automatically notes toxins and impurities that impede its flow, and the bodily systems involved in the cleansing process usually rush to begin removing them. Thus in the course of this self-guided journey of the mind from one point to another, the energy channels are unblocked, impurities are removed, and a deeper level of cleansing begins.
What is more, after practicing systematic relaxation over a period of time, the mind gradually begins to sense that turning inward leads to a delightful sense of ease and stillness. Searching for happiness, it has been running in the external world, often finding only disappointment and frustration. But once it turns inward and slows down it encounters the centers of peace and tranquility within—for example, at the heart or the eyebrow center. This encounter leads it to wonder why it is wasting time running here and there in the external world when the best joy is within. And this dawning awareness causes the mind to become less interested in running after the objects of the world, which in turn allows the mind to go back to that restful place voluntarily, without repressing a desire for worldly objects. The delight that it finds inside overshadows the charms and temptations of the external world. The natural and almost effortless process of meditation begins at this point.
I have been using relaxation techniques with some success to train my mind to turn inward and confine its movement to the space occupied by my body. Yet it still pulls my attention here and there. What should I do now?
The first step of meditation is relaxation. In the scriptures the process of relaxation is called pratyahara (the withdrawal of the mind and senses). The next step is to focus the mind on one object for a longer period of time. This is called dharana (concentration). The best way to begin practicing concentration is to focus the mind on the breath. Observe it as it flows between the nostrils and the heart center. With inhalation the mind is traveling to the heart center and with the exhalation it is traveling from the heart center to the tip of the nostrils. Eliminate the pause between inhalation and exhalation and feel as though your breath is an uninterrupted stream of energy traveling between the nostrils and the heart region. Then focus on the touch of cool air at the bridge between the nostrils when you inhale and the touch of warm air as you exhale. This will confine your mind to the bridge of the nostrils rather than the space between the nostrils and the heart area, and your concentration will become more condensed, potent, and refined.
Soon, however, you will notice that the mind is refusing to watch the flow of the breath at the bridge between the nostrils. Its tendency is to move outward, and it will try to slip away again. To manage this, move to the next level of concentration by providing an object of concentration, more concrete and profound than simple breath awareness. It is at this stage that the yogis introduce meditation on the sound so-hum. While inhaling, mentally listen to the sound “sooooooo,” and while exhaling, listen to the sound “hummmm.” Synchronize the sound so-hum with the inhalation and the exhalation and let your mind be so absorbed that the sound, the breath, and the mind become an inseparable stream of awareness. This will bring a higher level of joy and restfulness to the mind, enabling it to drop all other objects effortlessly.