Concentration Meditation

Selecting a Focus for Concentration

The first step in concentration meditation is to select a focus for concentration. There are thousands of objects of attention that are classically prescribed for developing concentration. An ideal concentration focus for you will be one that is sufficiently easily for your attention to find and hold with clarity, and one that brings peace or joy to your mind but doesn’t create too much excitement or boredom as you focus on it. If you select a focus that has meaning for you, be watchful that it doesn’t create too many associations or distractions.

For most people, the simplest and most direct method for developing mental stability and concentration is to focus upon the flow of your breath -- the steady balancing rhythm of in-breath and out-breath. The breath is often used because it is easy to find and continually present -- we breathe approximately 21,600 times every day. Meditating on the flow of breath is considered the most effective method for helping people with busy minds to quiet their internal dialogue.

Our state of mind and flow of breath are very closely connected. You can observe for yourself how closely linked breathing patterns and states of mind are. Notice the changes in your own rate and flow of breath when you are feeling anxious, angry, joyful, loving, stressed, or at peace. Simply by bringing your attention to the natural rhythm and flow of your breath you can shift your mind and body toward greater calm, clarity, and balance.

If you select the breath as a focus for concentration meditation, simply focus on the sensations of the breath -- either upon the sensations as the breath flows in and out of the nostrils, or upon the sensations of the abdomen rising and falling with each breath.

Even if you choose another focus for training your concentration, it can still be helpful to begin with a few minutes of mindful breathing to help focus and quiet your mind. Allow each inhalation to help you focus, and each exhalation to help you let your attention flow toward whatever you are focused upon. Focus…flow…focus…flow….

Since the breath is your constant companion, it can also help you carry concentration meditation over into the rest of your life. Each breath can help you focus and flow, and establish calm intensity, harmony, and balanced presence in the moment. Each breath, if taken to heart, can also offer profound insights about cycles of change and impermanence, about receiving and releasing, and can affirm your intimate connection and belonging to the whole of creation.

If you are physically oriented, you might find that holding a certain posture or doing some simple repetitive movement may help you focus your concentration. A meditative gesture or mudra held in stillness or repeated again and again, a yoga posture, or a rhythmic exercise such as jogging or cycling can also help you begin to develop the initial stages of concentration if you use it as a focal point for wholehearted attention.

You might also choose an outer object of the senses, such as a sacred symbol or object, a picture, or an object of beauty as a focus for concentration. Some traditions recommend focusing on the elements of earth, fire, water, air, or space; others emphasize focusing upon various centers within the body, such as the “heart chakra” at the center of the chest or the hara or tantien point a few inches below the navel.

If you have a devotional orientation, an object of special symbolic significance can serve well in the development of one-pointed concentration. Choose a picture of a special source of inspiration in your life or a sacred symbol or object. Some traditions use the repetition of a short prayer, a line of scripture, or a mantra, while others focus on the contemplation of the names of God or of Divine attributes, such as mercy, compassion, patience, strength, compassion, beauty, or limitlessness, to develop concentration. Choosing a devotional object for your meditation may offer an inspiring wholehearted focus that touches your heart and uplifts your spirit.

Some people focus their concentration meditation on a visualized object within the inner space of the mind. In this case, the meditator calls forth the image in his or her mind, and then generates the mindfulness and vigilance necessary to develop first stable awareness of the mental object, then to develop a clear image of the object. Classic mental images used to develop concentration in this way include sacred symbols such as an image of the Buddha or Christ, a Cross, Star of David, or Kabalistic tree; a mandala or medicine wheel; a blue flower or simply the color blue; or the mental image of a luminous self-sounding sacred word or syllable, such as Ah or Om, Allah, or Shalom.

Subtler “objects” of concentration may include a mental quality or theme, such as boundless love, joy, compassion, peace, or the formless luminous presence of mind. Focal points such as these are generally considered so subtle and difficult to hold in mind that a novice meditator would have more difficulty developing concentration if relying on them.

At one level, the selected focus for attention may hold a potent symbolic significance that imprints the mind through its contemplation. At another level, the actual nature of the object is considered less significant since it serves a somewhat instrumental value as a “strange attractor” to anchor and organize our attention. We once heard a revered meditation teacher say that you could use a box of tissue paper as a focal point to develop concentration, because it was the training of the mind, not the object, that was most important!

Balance is the Key to Developing Concentration

Once you start to learn to concentrate, you will find that your mind will sway between holding its object too tightly or too loosely. It is important to find the balance between these two. Once you have settled your mind on your object and are focusing your attention, relax your mind a little. If you grasp too tightly at your object, your mind will become agitated and your body tense. If you relax too much, however, your attention will wander or fade.

With practice and patience, you will learn to distinguish between these two states and find the balance necessary to deepen your concentration.

Clarity and Stability

As you begin your practice of concentration meditation, it is best to first give emphasis to cultivating the stability of your attention toward your chosen image/object. If you make efforts to increase the clarity or vividness of your focus at the beginning, you will create more turbulence in the mindstream and disturb the subtle balance of the nervous system. If you try to develop the vividness or clarity of the focus first, you may practice for years with only frustration to show for it. Drawing on millennia of insight and advice from contemplative scientists who have refined these inner arts, focus first on developing stable continuity of the attention, and then gradually begin to enhance the clarity of your object.

At first this can seem like trying to focus on an island shrouded in fog: you know it’s out there, and you just keep your mind intent and focused in that direction even though it doesn’t appear at all clearly to you. Gradually, with practice, your attention will grow more stable and the flow of your attention will melt through the fog, allowing the vividness and clarity of the object to increase.

When you first begin to practice concentration meditation, you’ll probably only be able to hold the object of focus in your mind for a couple of seconds before distraction or dullness set in. Be patient; don’t get discouraged. In the beginning, the habits of distraction and dullness will be much stronger than the newly emerging habit of concentration. As you continue to cultivate mindfulness with vigilance, the continuity of your awareness will grow until you are able to stay focused with less distraction. When your concentration becomes more stable and you are able to stay focused without losing the awareness of your object for a longer period, you can then begin to increase the clarity of the mind.

[Adapted from the book "Luminous Mind" by Joel & Michelle Levey]

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