If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you know how challenging it can be. The mind is like a monkey, jumping from one thought to another—the harder you try to push out its thoughts, the more stubborn they seem to get. Meditation does come naturally to very few, but the rest of us have to first overcome the monkey mind by learning how to concentrate. Patanjali laid out this natural progression very clearly in his eight limbs of yoga. The yogi must first master dharana (concentration), and only then is dhyana (meditation) possible.
While the word meditation is thrown around a lot, it’s a state of thoughtless awareness, probably achieved less often than people care to admit. In order to get to this stage, you have to focus your mind on one thing: one image, one object, or one sound. This is dharana. Other thoughts will creep in, simply because the nature of the mind is to think. Accept that thoughts will come and go, but repeatedly return your focus to that one image, that one object, or that one sound. This practice trains the mind to hold one thought in a continuous stream.
The mind eventually becomes so absorbed in that one entity that it enters a thoughtless state—completely aware but unengaged with itself. This is meditation.
You can practice concentration during your daily activities and as a separate activity, sitting quietly and still in a meditation posture for some length of time. The more you incorporate concentration in your daily life, the easier it will be to concentrate as a separate activity.
There are many ways to build your power of concentration and focus, and here are a few to get you started:
Women especially pride themselves in their ability to multitask, but this actually encourages a monkey mind. Learn to do one thing at a time. If you’re studying or working, only study or work; don’t go back and forth between eating, texting, or checking Facebook.
Whether you’re washing the dishes, eating dinner, or practicing yoga, keep your mind engaged in that one activity. Instead of sorting out your day’s to-do list while shampooing your hair, for example, fully immerse your mind in the activity’s physical sensations. Feel the strands under your fingers, the warmth of the water pouring over you, the suds surrounding your hands.
Trataka, or concentrated gazing, is one of the shatkarmas (cleansing processes) of yoga, and forms a bridge between the physically-centered and mentally-centered yoga practices.
To practice trataka, sit in a comfortable meditation posture in front of a low table. Place a candle on the table so it’s at eye level and an arm’s length away. Close your eyes and relax your body for a few moments. Open your eyes and gaze steadily at the candle’s flame, without blinking or moving your eyes. Keep your awareness on the flame. Do this for a minute or two; then close your eyes and continue to focus on the internal image of the flame. When you can no longer see the flame, open your eyes and repeat. You can practice this a couple more times; then rub your hands together and gently cup your palms over your eyes.
These next seven methods all involve sitting quietly and focusing on the breath, an object or a sound.
To hone in on your power of concentration, integrate the first two techniques into daily life and practice trataka a few times a week. Then, experiment with the last seven techniques until you find one that feels like a good fit. Be diligent and persistent, and meditation will inevitably come.