Ah yes, the good old monkey mind. Jumping from thought to thought like monkeys jumping from limb to limb while screaming at each other. Sometimes it’s the repeating rhythm of an old song you can’t get out of your head, while the lyrics escape you. Maybe it is a revolving internal conversation starting with “I can’t believe I said that.” How about the never-ending to do list or the always constant distraction of our 21st century devices?
What is the cost of having a distracted mind? We pay a price to have all these shiny objects at our disposal. The ability to focus on a single thought or object seems to be rare as we become more adept to multi-tasking. As we explore dharana, or concentration, the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga that Patanjali wrote about in The Yoga Sutras, we will look at the benefits of having the ability to simply concentrate. Stick with me on this.
The goal of pratyahara (the fifth limb) is to draw our awareness inward. Once we have learned to not be easily distracted, we can then harness our energy to create laser sharp concentration. This takes practice and usually will not come overnight. The last three of the eight limbs work closely together to achieve this state. Dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (union) are called samyama, and the combined practice of these three results in perfect control of the mind.
The third book of The Yoga Sutras opens with the practice of dharana. I like Satchitananda’s translation, “Dharana is binding of the mind to one place, object, or idea.” Think of dharana as the introduction to your practice of concentration. It sounds simple, right? We could only hope so. Perhaps you have noticed that when you sit down to meditate, your mind is suddenly more cluttered than when you are going through your day. It is almost like the stillness of sitting magnifies how the mind is busy, cluttered, and chatty.
To start, set a timer for five minutes. Sit down, close your eyes, and focus on one thing, or keep your eyes open and focus on an external object, perhaps a candle or flower. You can also choose a mantra, your heart space, or just follow the breath. The more interested and invested you are with your object, the easier it will be to hold focus. Now, see how long your concentration can remain on whatever it is you have chosen before your mind wanders off. Once you realize you are off task, return to your original single point of focus. When we start a meditation practice, a wandering mind is normal.
When the mind is weak and flabby it literally does not have the strength to hold the focus. The practice of single pointed concentration is the only way we can move into a meditative state. The good news is that as we continue to practice, just like weightlifting, our minds become stronger. We increase the ability to fix our attention on a single spot for longer periods of time.
Using Focus to Support Meditation
I hear so many students say, “I just can’t meditate,” and they are right. Without the ability to focus first, there is no meditation. This is where the baby steps come in. Start small and don’t beat yourself up. Some days you may not have the focus you want. Just take a moment to notice it and let it go. You can add the practice of detachment by incorporating the sentence “Isn’t that interesting.” Then there is no judgment, only observation infused with compassion.
One of the biggest pitfalls is the belief that in order to meditate there needs to be inner silence. It is a common misconception that we should not be thinking, and this will always backfire as we often start thinking about the fact that we are thinking! All this concentration is so stressful! Sometimes it is helpful to look at the activities you have engaged in before you sit for your practice. If you have been watching the news and having a morning cup of coffee then yes, focusing may be difficult. Developing a successful and regular practice can be easy to do, and it might be as simple as changing a few habits.
Try adding mindfulness practices to your day. When having lunch, hold the intention that this is all you are doing—simply enjoying your meal and nothing else. Engage your senses to see, smell, and taste your food. Look at your plate and not your computer screen, phone, or magazine. Another way to build strength for single pointed focus is to take a walk in nature without your phone. The more you are present and connected in the moment, the easier it will be to build your concentration.
Earlier, I mentioned using a mantra or repeated phrase as a way to focus. So Hum is a good place to start. It is the natural sound of the breath, and that makes it easy to drop into. Inhale while mentally saying “so,” exhale silently saying “hum.” Repeat. When the mind wanders, gently and compassionately guide it back to the so hum sound of the breath.
You can also mindfully massage your body with a warm, grounding oil like Ashwagandha Bala Oil, or try replacing the morning cup of coffee with a cup of tulsi tea. Make more time to breathe and spend less time multitasking. These simple practices will work with you instead of against you in your efforts to build concentration, which will then prepare you for your meditation.