Guidelines for Developing Concentration Skills

Selecting an Object of Concentration

There are literally thousands of objects of attention that have been prescribed for developing concentration skills. Some ancient traditions would emphasize concentration upon divine attributes such as strength, power, compassion, beauty, or mercy. Others recommend contemplation on the gross and subtle elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space. Some systems emphasize focusing upon various centers within the body, or upon sacred objects, symbols, or prayers.

The simplest and most direct method for developing mental stability and concentration skills is to focus upon one's own breath. It is easily found, always present, and self-renewing -- approximately at a rate of 21,000 times every day! It is certainly the most effective method for people with busy minds and excessive internal dialogue.

Our state of mind and flow of breath are very closely connected. You can observe for yourself 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 our attention to the respiratory process, the mind moves toward greater calm, clarity, and equilibrium.

If you are physically oriented, you might find that some simple movement will help you develop a continuity of concentration. Some martial art form, a gesture or mudra repeated over and over, a yoga posture, or even jogging and cycling can help you begin to develop the initial stages of concentration, if you engage in it wholeheartedly.

If you have a devotional orientation, an object of special meaning can serve well in the development of single-pointed concentration skills. Choose a picture of a source of inspiration or a sacred symbol or object. The repetition of a short mantra, or the contemplation of some divine prayer or aspect may also be a powerful means to wholeheartedly focus your attention.

The breath, however, can be used at the beginning of these sessions to settle you easily into a quiet state of mind. And it would be ideal to end periods of movement with a few moments of watching the breath.

The breath can become a good friend, a reminder to awaken to the nature of our experiences. With the awareness of a single breath we can focus our attention in the moment, release the tensions of our mindbody and move toward greater harmony.

The Key to Developing Concentration

Once you start to develop concentration skills, you will find that your mind will sway between holding too tightly and too loosely to its object. It is important to find the balance between these two.

So, once you have settled your mind on your object, and you 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 of attention and to deepen your concentration.

How Long Should I Practice?

In the beginning it is recommended to keep your sessions short. Frequent short sessions will in the long run be more beneficial and effective for enhancing your skills of concentration than fewer long ones. If your sessions are too long and you push too hard, you will become tired and frustrated.

Let your practice sessions be like the visit of a dear friend -- if they leave before you are tired of them, you look forward to their return. If you approach each session with joy, you will have the enthusiasm to practice focusing your attention, and inevitably it will become stable.

The greater your strength of concentration in your practice sessions, the greater will be your power to focus on what you are doing throughout the day.

[Adapted from the booklet "Awareness Training: Exercises for Mindful Attention" by Joel and Michelle Levey]

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