Concentration Practices as Gateways to Meditation

Meditation is not something we do; it’s something we fall into when the conditions are right. And how do we set the right conditions? By training the mind to concentrate—to be able to focus on an object of some kind without straying. 

Is it Meditation?

The techniques we’ve been led to believe are meditation practices are actually concentration practices leading to meditation. Whether as a kind of shorthand to attract busy-minded people in the West or simply as a misunderstanding, these practical and necessary concentration practices have been misnamed by most for a long time.

Developing Union with Spirit

If we go back to Patanjali and his simple but elegantly wrought Eightfold Path of Raja Yoga, which provides step by step instructions for the development of union with Spirit, the purpose of each step is clear. The first four are external practices: Yama (restraints), Niyama (observances), Asana (postures), and Pranayama (breathing). But with step number five, Pratyahar (internal focus), everything shifts, and the final three are internal practices that lead to this union.

Training the Mind

With Pratyahar we move the attention of the mind from the external to the internal realm. There we begin the training of the mind. But it’s important to know that that training is not the end place of meditation. It’s the jumping-off point. I find it somewhat comforting to know that even in the ancient times, people needed a bit of practice in focusing the mind!

It’s easy to see the need currently, when most of our activities are training the mind to jump from one thing to another. I wonder how many people find it easy to go onto Facebook or another social media platform and simply put a post and leave again. How can one not be drawn into the other posts and the links from those? It’s the way our busy world—and busy mind—works.

An Experiment

Try an experiment: Take a pen and a piece of paper and try to write down all your thoughts for 20 minutes. I found when I did that experience years ago that I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with the thoughts! So you can see that the ability to focus the mind is helpful in our daily life, not just in a meditation practice. 

Think how much more you could accomplish in your work as well as in pursuing your personal interests if the mind were not flitting from the task at hand to a million other things at the same time. But in the process of meditation, the development of concentration, or dharana, is essential for opening the mind to be ready to fall into dhyana, or meditation. 

Gateways to Meditation

Along the way, concentration on an object within the mind or outside it can bring peace and a bit of rest to the mind. The object of concentration is not as important as the exercise itself. Many objects have been suggested over the years, and in the Gateways to Meditation, we’ll cover six of them. Some work better for certain people than others, so it’s helpful to experience several to find the one or ones you’re particularly drawn to.

Fortunately the mind is trainable. Often it’s compared to a little puppy, eager to explore anything and everything, but by simply gently bringing the focus back to your object of concentration, you can begin to train the mind to stay focused, not only in meditation but in your life, day-to-day. 

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