Q&A: Where to Focus Your Attention in Meditation
Q. Where should I focus my attention during meditation?
A. If you have a weak constitution, frequently suffer from digestive problems, or have low energy or a weak immune system, then the navel center (manipura chakra) is the best focal point. The heart center (anahata chakra) is good for those students with a predominantly emotional orientation, who want to transform and channel their emotions for communion with the Divine. Concentration at the throat center (vishuddha chakra) can be beneficial for those inclined toward the creative arts. For those with a primarily intellectual orientation, the ajna chakra, the center between the eyebrows, is the best point of focus during meditation.
But of all these places, the best focal point is the crown center (sahasrara chakra). However, the exact method of leading the mind systematically to the crown center and maintaining your attention there requires precise instruction from a competent teacher. Don’t focus at the crown center unless you have received clear instruction to do so, or you feel a natural and spontaneous pull toward that chakra.
Remember that these are just general guidelines; various systems of meditation provide specific guidelines. For example, in certain Buddhist and Zen schools of meditation, the breath is used as a focal point. In mantra meditation, it is the nature and unique characteristics of a specific mantra into which you are initiated that usually determines which center to use in focusing the mind.
If you are initiated by a teacher who has been blessed with the living wisdom of a spiritual tradition, then the mantra itself becomes your leader.
In traditions that use mantra meditation, the most appropriate center for focusing your attention is actually the one to which you are directed by the grace of the master or the grace of the mantra. If you are initiated by a teacher who has been blessed with the living wisdom of a spiritual tradition, then the mantra itself becomes your leader.
Mantra is a self-conscious, self-illumined force. Mantra, the eternal flow of love and compassion of the Divine in the form of sound, knows which center is best for you and why. If you have not received clear instruction from your teacher about where to focus, simply allow your mind to be led by the power of your mantra.
Q. Can I choose my own focus of meditation, based on the observation of my personality traits, or must I seek instruction from a teacher?
A. If you are meditating on the breath or on a general object, such as the sound so hum, or if you have learned meditation entirely in a classroom setting or from books, then it is all right to follow the general guidelines provided above. However, if you have received personal instruction, and especially if you have been formally initiated into a method of meditation, then discuss this question with the teacher who initiated you. Personal guidance is always more precise and can remove your doubts.
If you are meditating, you don’t repeat your mantra; you simply listen to it.
Q. Sometimes my center of attention shifts by itself and I seem to be more comfortable focusing on a chakra other than the one I was told to focus on. Why?
A. This experience is either a sign that your meditation is improving or evidence that your mind is playing tricks with you. If, within one meditation session, your attention shifts from one center to another, as well as to other external objects, then your mind may have a roving tendency. If this is the case, make an effort to put an end to this shiftiness! On the other hand, if you are naturally pulled to a different center of focus, you may need to meditate at that chakra. In this case, begin with the assigned chakra, and as your meditation deepens, allow your mind to spontaneously move to where the attention has shifted. Don’t interfere with the process.
Q. Should I coordinate the mantra with the breath?
A. If you are an ex-smoker or have in some other way formed the habit of shallow breathing or chest breathing, it is better to coordinate mantra and breath, thus regulating the motion of the lungs. This will help you establish a natural pattern of deep, diaphragmatic breathing. You’ll notice a cleansing effect, as well as increased physical and emotional stability. While coordinating mantra and breath, however, make sure that the sound of the mantra is not creating a jerkiness in the flow of your breath.
For mantras other than so hum, you have to be very careful about breath-mantra coordination. Although some mantras must be coordinated with the breath in order to make the mind inward, most mantras will create some jerkiness in the breath if you try to coordinate the two. Many mantras are too long, or their vibratory pattern does not match the pattern of the breath. Therefore, it’s best to talk with someone knowledgeable in the science of mantra, or with the person from whom you have received your original instructions.
Q. What’s the difference between meditation and japa?
A. The process of meditation and japa are similar but not the same. During meditation, you are not aware of the number of mantra repetitions, nor the pace at which you are repeating the mantra. In fact, if you are meditating, you don’t repeat your mantra; you simply listen to it. Deep within, you just stand still. The sound of mantra is already there and you simply listen to it quietly. You listen so attentively and peacefully that you are not aware of any thought other than the continuous thought of your mantra. That’s the ideal, or let’s say, that’s what should be happening during mantra meditation.
But an untrained, undisciplined mind has a hard time standing still and attending to only one thought—the mantra. The mind begins making excuses: “Oh boy, I forgot to write that letter!” “I should look at today’s stock market report,” and so forth. The mind finds a reason to do other than what it has been told to do, and to be somewhere other than where it is supposed to be. In the beginning stages of self-discipline and self-transformation, it’s best not to fight with the mind. Rather, skillfully give it more than one object to contemplate.
Japa, remembering the mantra with mala beads, is a way to constructively provide your mind with more than one object. During japa, you use the same pose that you would use for meditation. Sit in a chair or cross-legged on the floor, with the head, neck, and trunk straight. Place your hands on your knees, and hold your mala with your fingers. Hold the mala in such a way that, while you are turning the beads, your fingers, palms, hands, arms, and shoulders are free of tension. Usually you turn the beads only with the thumb, middle, and ring finger, because this seems to be the most relaxing method.
Remember your mantra as silently as possible and turn the beads. The pace at which you remember the mantra and turn the beads should be fully coordinated. After a few days or weeks of japa, your fingers become adjusted to the beads and turn them effortlessly. Remember, you can’t turn a bead unless you repeat the mantra, and you cannot repeat the mantra without turning a bead. If the mind starts wandering, the mala is sure to stop or at least slow down. This immediately reminds you that your mind is wandering. On the other hand, the moment you become lazy or drowsy, your fingers become less active, while the call of your mantra turns your attention to the beads. Thus, your mind reminds you not to drowse or be lazy.
Mala and mind form a partnership; they help and motivate each other. The result is that you remember your mantra with fewer distractions and disturbance. Nevertheless, turning the beads creates some degree of distraction. However, this degree of distraction is still better than having the mind wander from one object to another ceaselessly.
Mala and mind form a partnership; they help and motivate each other.
During japa you might start touching a deep state of meditation, so much so that turning the beads seems to be a lot of work. If your posture is correct and the mala and fingers are really familiar with each other and do not require even the slightest attention from your mind, then japa with the mala continues, although you are neither aware of the beads or the process of turning them. However, the experience of such a meditative state of mind during japa is rare.
Usually, before mind slips into deep meditation, it goes through a state of natural disinterestedness in doing japa—i.e., turning the beads. In that case, let your mala drop and allow your mind to dive into the depths of that meditative joy and stillness. This state may not last long, and your mind may start traveling to other thoughts. The moment you realize that’s happening, gently pick up your mala beads and resume your japa.
This journey—from japa to meditation and back to japa—is the best way to train and discipline the mind for the inward journey without fighting with your habit patterns. In your own personal practice, observe yourself and see whether it is better to concentrate on japa or meditation.