How To Meditate 2 – Various Approaches: Concentration & Focus
How To Meditate 2 – Various Approaches – Concentration & Focus
“As many minds, so many religions” – Swami Satchidananda
As this beautiful spiritual teacher often pointed out, if you travel the world over, asking for instructions on how to meditate, you will be shown hundreds of main techniques and thousands of sub-techniques. And of course, each teacher may likely say their’s is the best technique…because that’s what worked for them.
As we said in “How To Meditate 1,” true meditation is easy & virtually effortless, so we’ll make this very simple. In essence, all the various forms of meditation can be distilled down to 3 basic categories or paths:
– The Concentration/Focus Approach
– The Surrender Approach
– The Direct Approach
First, a bit of history: Throughout the mid-to-late 20th century, the Concentration/Focus Approach to meditation was the most common system taught to aspiring Western meditators. This occurred because most of the Eastern teachers who established teaching centers & long-term residency in America came from a Vedanta-Hindu lineage, where much honor was given to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and his eight-step path for achieving “samadhi,” or mergence with the Infinite, through a steady practice of breath-control (pranayama,) sense-withdrawal (pratyahara,) concentration (dharana,) and meditation (dhyana.)
The great Indian sage Ramakrishna’s chief disciple, Swami Vivekananda, visited & taught Vedanta meditation around the US over two 3-year periods around the turn of the 20th century, starting in 1894. He established the Vedanta Society, which still maintains branches & retreat centers around the US since then, and teaches focus-style meditation.
Paramahansa Yoganada was the first Indian guru to take up full United States residency, establishing the Self-Realization Fellowship around 1920. He also taught a version of concentrated meditation, called Kriya Yoga, which entails focused breathing and focusing a person’s life energy on the different energy centers found up & down the spine.
In the 50s, 60s and 70s, a new flood of gurus & teachers came over from the India & Asia to fill the void of all the newly-minted spiritual aspirants that had their first taste of higher spiritual states and liberation through the hippie counter-culture and experimentation with psychedelics. These included Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who taught Transcendental Meditation, Yogi Bhajan (Kundalini Yoga,) Swami Satchidananda (Integral Yoga,) A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupad (Krishna Consciousness,) Prem Rawat (formerly known as Guru Maharaji) and many others. Once again, most of these taught a concentration-based version of meditation, usually concentrating on the breath and/or the repetition of a mantra
Also, starting with the 50s Beat generation, many Americans embraced Buddhist styles of meditation brought to the west by teachers like Shunryu Suzuki (San Francisco Zen Center,) Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (Kagyu Tibetan Buddhism,) and S. N. Goenka (Vipassana or Insight Meditation.) Focus on the breath and body sensations while meditating were hallmarks of these Buddhist meditation styles.
The result is that most Westerners thinking of meditation picture it as sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, focusing their mind on one specific object such as a mantra or their breath, so as to still the mind.
– The Concentration/Focus Approach: In this style of meditation, the meditator picks, or is given, one specific thought or sound to repeat and concentrate on. It’s common to use a mantra, or sacred phrase, that is believed to have transportive qualities to its sound vibrations. Most common of these is the single sound Om, and most other mantras, like Om Namah Shivaya, include Om in them. In this style of meditation, you repeat the mantra, aloud or silently, and attempt to fix your mind on nothing else. The moment you notice you have started to think other thoughts or drift off, you gently but firmly guide the mind back to the mantra exclusively. In this way, you hope to make the mind very still and thought-free, so you can become aware of and directly experience the pure silent Consciousness behind all thoughts, normally obscured by all the constant internal chatter. The pull into this pure Consciousness becomes so all-absorbing as to obliterate even the one remaining thought, the mantra or chosen object, leaving nothing but a direct experience of the Pure Awareness behind all thoughts.
This Concentration approach can work with any object as its focal point – mantra, sacred image, candle flame and, of course, the breath. The great Indian guru Swami Muktananda advocated the breath as the most easy & powerful object of meditation, since it’s always there, it doesn’t “mean” anything so you’re not disposed to assign a specific feeling to it, and you can listen to it at any time, even on a crowded bus. As a bonus, he commented that the breath makes it’s own natural sound or mantra, sounding like “so” as you inhale, and “hahm” as you exhale, so you can easily connect the sound So-ham to each breath cycle. In sanskrit, Soham means “I am.”
In some forms of Buddhist meditation like Vipassana, the early stages of meditation have you focusing not so much on something in your head, like a thought or your breath, but rather just noting the rising & falling of your abdomen, perhaps with the addition of mentally repeating “rising, rising” and “falling, falling” without break, as those things happen, or scanning your whole body, one small area at a time from head to feet and then back again. Here, your not so much trying to still the thoughts by forcing the mind to rest on one thought, you are dispassionately noticing all the sensations in your body (as well as any thought, comment or judgments that arise.) You notice their impermanence, how they come & go, change and fade away, without labeling or commenting of any of it. Sensations are just sensations, thoughts are just thoughts, none of it important, worth getting fixed on or responding to. You’re just noticing, like a ticket counter who dispassionately records each & every person passing through the gates of an event without comment or conclusions about any of them. Ultimately, you notice that there really isn’t an “I” at all, and never was. There’s just an unbroken stream of ever-changing sensations and consciousness, with no continuous “I” or identity there
This Concentration/Focus style of meditation is easy to do and can have tremendous impact & benefits. With regular practice, you can go deeply into a thoughtless or near-thoughtless state, quiet your mind and start to experience the Peace behind all that noise. This can certainly lead to deeper & deeper awareness of pure Consciousness.
The only drawbacks are:
– Many report that it takes months & years of practice to arrive at that level of one-pointed focus and mental quietude, so it may not be the best approach for those easily frustrated or undisciplined (or it may be the best approach, to know you are not your frustration & impatience ????
– If you’re going for permanent dis-identification with your ego & thought-stream, you may find yourself only enjoying that level of deep inner peace and heightened Awareness while meditating and for a short time after. You may find that once back out into the world, your rich parade of thoughts starts up all over again, you re-identify with them, and once again they hold sway over your actions & responses.
– Since you are Awareness itself, globally, focusing your attention on just one object or form can actually take you away from sensing & realizing that you are everywhere, aware of everything at once. For Awakening into this kind of global awareness, full Oneness with Pure Awareness, you may find you need to move on into the Direct Approach (see How To Meditate Part 4.)
If you are drawn to this Concentration/Focus technique of meditation, I recommend you try it with steadiness & earnestness for many months or even a couple years, before deciding if it’s the meditation technique for you “for life,” to take you “all the way.” Sit quietly for at least 20-30 minutes every AM and PM, focus on a mantra, your breath, your body sensations, watch your mind wander and thoughts go by, and gently, repeatedly pull your focus back to your chosen object of meditation…and see what happens. At the very least you’ll tap into a new reservoir of calm residing behind all your mental noise. If you stick with it, you may experience deeper & deeper levels of peace and Self-Awareness that last for many hours or days after you have gotten up from the meditation cushion and moved on into your daily activity. For more guidance & instruction on exactly how to practice these forms of meditation, contact Teja directly through the website, or plan to attend the Living Liberation Course.