Today we are going to talk about concentration, which in Sanskrit is dharana.
This course is called Practical Spirituality and explores the most significant scriptures from the tradition of Yoga : the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Lord”) and the Yoga Sutras, a very short scripture written by Patanjali to explain what Yoga is and how to practice Yoga .
The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj” which means “to join.” The word religion comes from a Latin root “religare” which means “to link, to bind together.” So the two words Yoga and religion mean the same thing. It is how we restore or reunite the Consciousness in us with its natural state, the root that it came from. Thus, we are here to learn about restoring or recovering the state of purity that we once had but lost because of our fall into sin, desire, lust, anger, pride and all of the other qualities that scriptures throughout history have been trying to point out to us are the cause of our problems.
Of course, nowadays people think Yoga is stretching or being a circus acrobat, able to twist your body into knots. In fact, that has almost nothing to do with real Yoga . Hatha Yoga , the stretching exercises, are like the kindergarten level of getting a PhD. To get a PhD, a doctorate, requires many years of work, effort, and education, yet you only go to kindergarten for 8 or 9 months. So the stretching part of Yoga is like kindergarten; it has a place in the tradition of Yoga , it is how you prepare the body for Meditation, but it is not the whole of the work. It is merely pre-school, the first introductory phase of Yoga . Stretching your physical body cannot liberate your Consciousness from conditioning. That is rather obvious, yet sadly many people are being misled in this regard.
Thus far in this course we have explained a lot of preliminaries, a lot of terms, and we have gone into detail about the core structures of what Yoga is. In today’s lecture, I will not repeat that introductory material, but will be talking specifically about one aspect: dharana.
Before today’s lecture, we did not meditate. Instead, we did some preliminary exercises, training exercises that can teach us how to reach Meditation. This distinction is really important. Meditation is not a practice. It is not even a theory. It is not something that can be imitated. Properly defined, Meditation is a state of Consciousness. As a state of Consciousness, it is an experiential phenomena that cannot be conveyed through words, money, membership in a group, or through belief. It can only be provoked within yourself through cause and effect. If you understand the causes of that state of Consciousness, and you produce those causes, then inevitably you will experience the state that is called Meditation. That has nothing to do with beliefs, religions, traditions, race, sex, culture, or any of that.
Meditation is a state of Consciousness; it is actually your natural state. It is the state of unconditioned Consciousness, meaning, when the Consciousness is extracted from the conditioned state it is in now, it becomes completely free of suffering. Right now, our Consciousness is heavily conditioned. We learn the steps of Meditation in order to liberate the Consciousness from that conditioning, even if briefly, so that we can then understand that natural state, and then understand how to liberate the Consciousness permanently.
The state of Meditation is a state of perception in which the Consciousness knows itself and is not bound by pride, anger, fear, lust, envy, greed, gluttony, laziness, anxiety. All of the problems and suffering that we have now are lifted. In the state of Meditation, the Consciousness is free, natural, spontaneous, content, joyful, wise, intelligent, insightful and most importantly, perceives reality and understands what it perceives. This is the state of Meditation.
To access that state, there are requirements. In the same way that you cannot grow a plant without water, light, and nutrients, to reach Meditation you need certain elements. Today, we have reached the sixth step of Yoga : dharana, concentration.
"Without wise concentration of thought, the experience of the truth is impossible.” —Samael Aun Weor, Spiritual Power of Sound
"...concentration is the ﬁrst and foremost thing a sadhaka or aspirant should acquire in the spiritual path.” —Swami Sivananda
Concentration is the ability to pay attention without being distracted. We all have this ability. Everyone here is able to watch their favourite TV show, or listen to their favourite song, or play their favourite game, or pursue their favourite hobby and be very concentrated. This demonstrates the capacity of the Consciousness to maintain a continuity of attention when it is interested in the subject that it is attentive towards. The problem that we have is that we generally do not know how to place attention on the right things, in the right way, at the right time. We are easily drawn to pay attention to things that correspond with our desires, fears, anxieties, or anger. When someone provokes us and hurts our feelings, it is very easy for us to pay a lot of attention to that pain, to be very focused on that pain and sustain that attention for long periods of time, even a lifetime of constantly paying attention to that trauma in the psyche, but that is a mistaken use of attention. It does not resolve the pain, but exacerbates it, strengthens it, nourishes it and makes that psychological trauma fat and heavy, and gives it power over the Consciousness. That is one way we cause suffering for ourselves and others. We do this in millions of ways: through concentration on the objects of desires, we strengthen and lengthen our suffering.
Thus, in spiritual life, the simple purpose of concentration is to take concentration away from harmful tendencies and redirect it towards beneficial ones. We learn to withdraw attention from harmful behaviours and direct it into beneficial ones and sustain it.
Concentration is really critical in our spiritual development, but most people do not know what concentration really is. Most people that try to learn Meditation may go to a few classes or retreats, or read some books, and they may try Meditation a few times, but when they are confronted with their wild state of mind, that unstable mind that is constantly darting from thought to thought, sensation to sensation, memory to memory with a surging chaos of anxiety and pain, stress, uncertainty, it is overwhelming, painful, and frustrating, so they give up. The vast majority of people who have an interest in Meditation stop before they even truly begin, because when they see the reality of their mind, they cannot accept the truth of that, and they are not educated in how to deal with it, so they give up and walk away. Instead, they go looking for something easier, a magic pill, or some master or spiritual group that will just give them a spiritual guarantee, make them feel good about themselves so they can forget about the reality of the mind and, naturally, that goes nowhere good.
Spiritual progress depends upon facing reality, and that reality is in the mirror, staring us in the face.
To learn to meditate is not about escaping the truth or avoiding reality, it is about facing the truth, understanding it, and learning how to change for our own benefit and for the benefit of other people. This is what the steps of Yoga are all about.
The Steps of Yoga
- Yama or Eternal Vows: • Ahimsa (non-violence) • Satya (truth) • Asteya (non-stealing) • Brahmacharya (continence) and • Aparigraha (non-avariciousness);
- Niyama or Observances: • Saucha (purity) • Santosha (contentment) • Tapas (austerities) • Svadhyaya (study) and • Ishvarapranidhana (surrender to God);
- Asana (firm, comfortable meditative posture);
- Pranayama (the regulation of the Vital Force);
- Pratyahara (abstraction of the senses and mind from objects);
- Dharana (concentration);
- Dhyana (Meditation); and
- Samadhi (superconscious state or trance)
In Sanskrit the first two steps of spiritual life are called Yama and Niyama, or self-restraint and precepts. We explained these steps thoroughly in the first few lectures of this course, but just to refresh your memory, they boil down to a simple word: ethics. Yoga begins with living ethically, not just in our external actions, but primarily within our mind. We may speak sweetly physically to those around us, but if in our mind have a raging, demonic anger that is constantly blaming and crucifying people, that is not ethical. On the surface we may appear sweet and loving, but if in our mind we treat everyone as an enemy and we are always blaming others and justifying ourselves, that is not an ethical way to live and it is not honest. The same is true of all ouf our defects: pride, lust, anger, envy, gluttony, etc.
Ethics are codified in Yoga as Yama and Niyama, and they simply reflect the reality of cause and effect. If we produce an action that causes pain, the consequence will reflect back on us. It is as simple as that. Every religion in the world has explained that. If we speak a word in anger and we hurt people, we also hurt ourselves. Lust hurts us and it hurts others. Pride hurts ourselves and hurts others. Envy hurts everyone. All of these qualities that we protect so vigorously in ourselves are actually the causes of our pain.
Yama and Niyama are about recognising those causes of suffering and stopping those actions and instead taking up beneficial actions. So amongst those ethics are all the basic rules we learn in every religion – do not lie, do not kill, do not steal, do not take intoxicants, do not commit sexual misconduct and those types of rules that we know in every religion. Of course, we all give ourselves the exception that, “I am going to practice spirituality, but I do not really need to follow all those rules. I mean I sort of know them in my mind, but I am going to do what I want to do and just practice Meditation anyway.” And that is the way most people who practice Yoga or Christianity or Buddhism approach their religion, and that is why they never get anywhere: they never change. They have the outward appearance of being a spiritual person: they have spiritual books on their shelf, they wear beads or religious symbols, they go to their spiritual group, they talk about scriptures, they speak sweetly and they smile sweetly and they try to be kind to everyone, but spiritually, psychologically, they are the same as before: they are filled with fear, lust, anger, pride... They are not changing inside. The outer appearance might be different, but the psychological condition is unchanged. The proof of it is that they are not able to access higher states of Consciousness. They may sit in the perfect Meditation posture, but cannot access Meditation. They may look like they are meditating, but have never meditated. They have not accessed the real state of Meditation. In other words, they have never gone past the first two steps of Yoga , because they are not changing ethically, psychologically.
When the foundation of ethics is really being established, the third step is easy: posture, relaxation. Relaxation becomes very easy when you have an ethical mind. When you are not hurting other people with your words and actions, when you are not hurting yourself, when you are acting in an ethical way, in a very beneficial way for yourself and others, your environment is one of serenity, joy, happiness, contentment, without stress, anxiety, regret, and thus when you are ready to meditate, relaxation is very easy. You are already relaxed. You are not in conflict with yourself or other people. You are not producing pain for yourself or others, so there is no cause for disturbance in the mind or body. Thus, the third step is effortless.
The fourth step is Pranayama, to harness the life force within us. Those who are observing Yama and Niyama are practicing Bramacharya, sexual continence, Chastity. They treat the sexual aspect of their life as something sacred. For them, sex is not a game, not a cause for pleasure, not a pursuit for desire to run rampant, but instead it becomes the centrepoint, the very foundation of spiritual life. And, it is something that we treat with great reverence, as something very pure, very holy, very sacred. When that is the basis of our spiritual life, when our sexual life and our spiritual life are completely merged and treated as one and the same, Pranayama is where we harness that energy instead of wasting it through lust, whether physically or mentally. That energy instead of feeding lust and desire, is instead feeding our spiritual life, nourishing the Consciousness, saturating our nervous system with that vital energy. This is what causes the awakening of Consciousness. This is what restores the nervous system, the brain, the heart and all of the organic vitality that we need, the emotional vitality, the mental vitality. This is what develops what we call in Sanskrit “Ojas”, which is a type of spiritual vitality or spiritual strength. It is the source of power of a priest or priestess. It is dependant entirely upon ethics. This is why all priests, priestesses, monks, nuns, take vows to restrain that energy, transform that energy and dedicate it to their spiritual life instead of pursuing lust like common people in society. Pranayama is where that energy is harnessed and directed inwards.
When all of these stages are engaged, the fifth step Pratyahara occurs easily, naturally. In pratyahara, we sit for Meditation and easily withdraw from the senses and the external world. Pratyahara means “withdrawl.” This state emerges spontaneously when we sit to meditate, we relax, we have our ethical foundation, we are harnessing our life force, the Prana, and we pull our attention inwards to pray or to reflect, to meditate; it is very easy for the senses to become distant and when we turn inward for prayer, or for self-reflection, or for Meditation on a scripture or for Meditation on some event we want to understand, we are easily able to withdraw from all distraction. That is called Pratyahara.
When that withdrawl deepens into profound concentration, we access Dharana, the subject of today’s lecture.
Dharana, concentration, is where our attention remains firm and steady on the object we want to understand or reflect upon.
Let us say we had a painful event in our life and we want to understand that, to resolve that trauma. We sit to meditate, we relax, we have a good posture, we are harnessing the life force, the Prana, and we may do a breathing practice or some type of exercise to direct that energy into the nervous system, to steady the mind and body, deepen our focus. When we withdraw from the external world we access Pratyahara; when we concentrate (Dharana) on that scene, we evoke the memory of that event, we visualise it. When Dharana becomes very strong we are able to easily visualise that event and hold attention on it without distraction. Even the pain of that event does not distract us from being able to focus on it with serenity. With the continuity of that concentration, we then access Dhyana (step seven) which is actual Meditation, and that is where the sense of “myself” falls away. That sense of “me” - that selfish, you could say, pride - that sense of self vanishes yet concentration/Consciousness is still attentive to penetrate that traumatic pain, but lacking that sense of “I” which is where the pain is originated, where the pain is centred. Instead, that scene has become something real, something very steady, something very vibrant and alive, and if we persist in that type of perception we access Samadhi (step eight) where the Consciousness becomes completely free of conditioning and we can penetrate into the nature of that event, understand the karma, the causes, the consequences, the chain of events that led to that trauma, and in the midst of that through the perception of that memory, comes understanding. The Consciousness, no longer bound by the pain of the event, by its pride, by fear, by anxiety, by any conditioning factor, is now restored to its natural state, which is perceptive, insightful, wise, content, serene, joyful and is able to look into that trauma impersonally, without attachment, fear, resentment, anger. It can gaze steadily into it with serenity and understanding. With that perception and understanding, the trauma is immediately weakened, even dissolved. The Consciousness that was trapped within it can then be freed. That is how you reach liberation from suffering. That is the point of Yoga and religion.
Now you can see how much power is in that ability: to be able to gaze serenely and steadily into anything in order to understand that thing. By accessing that state of Consciousness which is the state of Meditation, we are able to free ourselves of the conditioning that produces suffering. This is how every angel, master, buddha or God became what they became: by freeing themselves of all those traumas, pains, desires, and mistaken notions of self.
This is what Yoga is. These eight steps are called “Ashtanga” which means “eight-limbed.” This is also called Raja Yoga which means “Royal Union.” It is the ultimate Yoga . It is the union of all the different schools of Yoga . If you have studied the traditions of Yoga there are many variations of Yoga , but they are all distilled and synthesised in Raja Yoga , Ashtanga Yoga , which is what these eight steps are all about.
- Yama or Eternal Vows: • Ahimsa (non-violence) • Satya (truth) • Asteya (non-stealing) • Brahmacharya (continence) and • Aparigraha (non-avariciousness);
- Niyama or Observances: • Saucha (purity) • Santosha (contentment) • Tapas (austerities) • Svadhyaya (study) and • Ishvarapranidhana (surrender to God);
- Asana (firm, comfortable meditative posture);
- Pranayama (the regulation of the Vital Force);
- Pratyahara (abstraction of the senses and mind from objects);
- Dharana (concentration);
- Dhyana (Meditation); and
- Samadhi (superconscious state or trance)
Now you will notice that in this list steps six to eight are coloured red, and steps one to five are not. This is to illustrate for you that steps one to five are preparation for Meditation. They provide the foundation for Meditation. If you are not able to access the state of Meditation, it is because steps one to five are not well established in your life. It is as simple as that. If you want to access the state of real Meditation, then you need to perfect steps one to five in your life. Most of the time, the problem is in steps one and two: ethics. And, most of the people who want to learn to meditate are unable to learn because they are unwilling to change. They are attached to their pride, anger, envy, materialism, lust, and because of that they are conditioned by choice. But, if your sincerest longing is to know Divinity for yourself, personally, and face-to-face, to experience reality, to free yourself of the conditioning and suffering that you currently experience, then dedicate yourself firstly to changing ethically. Master steps one and two, Yama and Niyama. The greater the change you make in your ethical behaviour, the more rapidly you will approach the experience of real Meditation. Steps three through five are easy. Steps one and two are the hardest. This means you can no longer justify your anger, lust, pride, but actively work to free yourself from them… actively working daily.
When that foundation is something that we are working on daily and we are practicing the techniques daily, then little-by-little the remaining steps six to eight will start to occur spontaneously, on their own. They can never occur by force. They happen spontaneously and naturally on their own when the conditions are right. They are produced by cause and effect, not through force, not through donating to some temple or some teacher, they are not given to you because you have recited a mantra a million times, they are not given to you because you wear the right clothes or you have the right books in your library.
Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi occur when your Consciousness is in exactly the right position for that state to spontaneously happen, and that position is determined through your ethics. When the ethical foundation is there (Yama and Niyama) and you adopt a relaxed posture (asana) for Meditation, then Pranayama becomes easy, and because you are restraining and transforming prana through your Pranayama practice, Pratyahara is the natural outcome. When Pratyahara or the withdrawal from the senses is occurring, Dharana becomes easy.
Each step is cause and effect. Each step is a cause that leads to the effect of the next step. In other words, you cannot skip any step.
These steps are integrated; they work with each other. It is a very synthetic, natural, cause and effect relationship, step-by-step. You cannot skip any step, you cannot cheat because this is Nature, our inner nature. You cannot cheat Nature: laws are laws. Sadly, our devious mind is always seeking to evade reality. It is always looking for a shortcut, and because we have that tendency, always looking for the shortcut, we never start on the actual road because we think, with pride, “I can be the exception. I am going to be the one who finds the faster way” and that is a lie, it is a self-deception that is especially propagated nowadays.
Dharana means concentration, but it also means:
Dharana (Sanskrit धारणा) “concentration, holding, firmness, maintaining, bearing, good memory, certainty, righteousness, steadfastness”
Dharana can also be used for our ability to remember things, and also for attention in general. This illustrates the essential relationship between paying attention and Meditation. If you cannot pay attention, you cannot meditate. Meditation arises only once you know how to pay attention steadily.
Dharana as a power is also called Dharana Shakti, and specifically relates to our ability to understand: it is the power to grasp an idea.
All of these meanings circle around the central issue: the ability to focus on one thing.
When we did our exercise today, part of the instruction was to observe how long you were able to hold attention on your object without being distracted. Reflect now on the practical facts of how long you are able to hold attention on a simple object without distraction. Was it for 1 breath, 2 breaths, 5 breaths, a minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes without distraction?
For most people who are beginning to learn about Meditation, they can scarcely hold attention for a single breath because the mind is so wild, but a skilled person who is trained in concentration can hold attention on one thing without distraction for hours. Yes: it is possible to have a mind that does not have a single thought.
You might think, “so what, what’s the point of that?” The point is very simple. When the Consciousness is trained to concentrate, there are many effects that come along with that ability. Firstly, the attention is then under the control of the Consciousness, the soul, not the ego, not desire. So when we as a soul, as a Consciousness, want to place attention on something we can, because we are in charge of ourselves. We are not controlled by desire, fear, anger, lust, pride. Consciousness is in control. That is very valuable. It means that in any situation in life, no matter how challenging or difficult or how subtle, the Consciousness can maintain control over our life and not let anger, pride, lust, or envy intervene or distract us and cause us to make mistakes.
If you look at the context of our lives now, the state of our society, the state of our world, this skill has never been more important. Nowadays a moment of distraction can cause incredible suffering. One moment of distraction can kill. When you are driving a car, if you become distracted from an instant you can die. Not only can you kill yourself, but others, the people in your car and the people around your car. One moment of being distracted can kill many people. One moment of being seduced by your anger, your pride, your lust, can cause you to make grave mistakes in your life. Many of us are bearing consequences exactly like that. So this ability to hold attention and control attention is very significant.
Along with this ability to control attention and hold it steady comes a great confidence. Great confidence in oneself means a reduction of fear, a reduction of stress and anxiety. Confidence is accompanied by joy and serenity.
When Consciousness is able to place attention and hold it steady for long extended times, it means that the mind cannot control the Consciousness, thus the mind gives up, the mind settles. It becomes calm. When the mind becomes calm, so does the body. The tension and much of the suffering you feel physically is only there because the mind is so agitated, so stressed, so wild. When the mind becomes very serene and calm, the body becomes calm. You know this is true because you have had moments of this experience. Perhaps when you went for a vacation. You have had moments, maybe at a gathering of family or friends, at a party, or at the beach or the lake, where you have suddenly felt so relaxed, so content, without a care in the world like when you were a child. That physical contentment, that physical relaxation occurs because the mind is relaxed. Why is the mind relaxed? That is a profound question you should investigate in yourself. If you are capable of producing that state of relaxation intermittently in your life, then why can you not produce it consistently? You can, but it requires training and it requires the willingness to change and drop bad habits. Most of all, you have to learn that this state of Consciousness does not depend on external circumstances; instead, it is an inner attitude.
Dharana is concentrated and directed attention, which is a function of Consciousness. Consciousness is like light. It is insubstantial, but present. It is not something that is easily defined, but it is easily recognised. We all know what light is because we are surrounded by light and we use light all the time, but its true meaning and depth evades description. If you really contemplate the nature of light, it is quite mystical. Consider the light that comes from the Sun that gives life to everything that lives. What a mystical thing that is! We truly take it for granted. We do not understand it at all. Even scientists are baffled by the nature of light. Light is full of bizarre and intriguing characteristics, like the fact that it is both a wave and a particle, something that scientists have been struggling with for decades, for centuries. Light is a very mystical phenomena and intimately related with Consciousness.
Consciousness is the our true nature. It is our ability to perceive and understand what we perceive, but in us right now that ability is very disintegrated, dispersed. The evidence of that is in the characteristics of your mind. If you observe the nature of your mind from moment-to-moment you can see that it is radically inconsistent. It is a surging chaos of inconsistent thoughts, emotions, images, dreams, worries, fantasies, and from one moment to the next it is constantly contradicting itself. We see it in others more easily than we see it in ourselves. The criticisms that we level against others reflect the qualities in ourselves that we do not want to see. We are filled with contradictions and that is because the Consciousness is so dispersed, disintegrated.
Dharana, concentration, is taking that light and focusing it, integrating it. That is why in the preliminary exercises of any Meditation tradition students are taught to observe the breath, or repeat a mantra, or visualise a deity” but most of them do not know why. They are learning to withdraw the light of Consciousness from all distractive and dispersed elements in the psyche and concentrate it all in one thing. To develop Dharana, concentration, we take all of the available power of the Consciousness and focus it on one thing. That light when dispersed is weak, yet when focused can cut through anything to see its true nature.
If you have a very difficult problem in your life and your mind is very disorganised, distracted, and chaotic, you cannot solve that problem. The problem is too heavy, too rigid, too strong, and the Consciousness does not have sufficient focus or strength to cut through the obstacles. But when the mind becomes calm, relaxed, and has energy (from sexual transmutation) suddenly the answer will become very obvious, and the Consciousness can cut right through. That is the power of Consciousness when it is focused and directed in serenity. The preliminary practices to concentrate the mind are for that purpose. That is why the Yoga Sutras says,
The ability to concentrate attention on one thing is a preliminary technique for any spiritual life. In the process of developing concentration we need to understand that it does not happen overnight and it does not happen magically. The development of concentration occurs according to laws.
“As a lamp placed in a windless spot does not ﬂicker—to such is compared the Yogi of controlled mind…” —Bhagavad Gita 4:19
That lamp and the steady flame that is not flickering corresponds to a state of Consciousness that is concentrated, Dharana, where the light of Consciousness is focused and still, but how does that happen? Many people who study religions think that experiencing Meditation, or experiencing divinity can only happen as a gift from God. They feel like it can only happen when God gives it to you by some whim, or as a boon. Yes, on occasion divinity can grant such experiences. But the greater truth is that every scripture gives examples of being capable of talking to divinity directly, and what is required is ethical purity… If we have that, then all of the rest of Yoga happens on its own, spontaneously, meaning that the more pure we become, the more our inner condition allows such experiences to happen spontaneously, until we become able to have them naturally, easily, in the same way we can choose to go in and out of our house.
This begins with the state of our mind. What is our psychological condition? Is our mind “a windless place that does not flicker”? Not yet.
What are the winds that move the flame? Thoughts, sensations, emotions, memories, worries, desires, anxieties, fears, pride, envy, lust, greed, gluttony, etc.
This is why the steps of Yoga are so important. When we establish Yama and Niyama, the ethical basis in our lifestyle, we are stopping harmful actions, we are also reducing the tendency to disturb the mind. When we lie, cheat, steal and perform sexual misconduct, the mind is agitated. When we become angry, the mind is agitated. When we become lustful, the mind is hugely agitated. With ethics we are seeking to reduce the agitation that afflicts the mind. When our ethics are strong, the mind is naturally calm, due to cause and effect.
Thus, when we approach step three, Asana, to relax, it is easy because the mind is already relaxed. We are not lying, we are not cheating, we are not stealing, we are not doing things we know are wrong, thus we can relax. It does not mean all of our problems are solved. It just means we are not adding to them as vigorously as most people are. That is how we create this windless spot psychologically. That is why I said this is not an overnight effort, and it does not come as a gift from God. It comes as a consequence of our actions. To have a mind that is serene and at peace is a consequence of having an ethical lifestyle – reducing pride, anger, lust, envy. We have explained all this in the previous lectures of this course and in another course we gave called “Meditation Essentials,” particularly in the beginning of that course where we talked about the prerequisites for developing your Meditation practice, such as being content with what one has, living a simple life, reducing our worldly activities. Those simple things make a big impact on us psychologically and help our daily life be more conducive to developing our spiritual practice.
Stages of Concentration (Bhumikas)
Along the process we are going to experience different qualities of mind, and in Yoga these are explained as stages of concentration exactly like in Buddhism. In that Course, “Meditation Essentials”, we taught the Nine Stages of Meditative Serenity or Shamatha which are explained in this image.
Those stages outline in a very simple way the process of developing concentration. With consistent daily practice, anyone can change that state of mind that is totally wild and out of control, which is represented by these animals that are running down this road being chased by a monk. That is the wild mind that we all have, which in Yoga in Sanskrit is called Kshipta or “wandering.”
Kshipta describes a mind that is totally distracted, that is constantly leaping from distraction to distraction without any control at all, and that is the state of mind that everyone in the world has today. This whole world lives with this level of mind, and it is reflected in our society. Some people call it “monkey mind” or “bird-like mind,” like a bird that is always leaping from branch to branch, like a monkey that is always leaping from tree to tree and fruit to fruit constantly chasing after its desires. Like any animal in nature, our untrained mind is always running here and there looking for food. Instinct is all that drives it. We have no cognizance, no self-awareness, no self-control. All the mind wants is to survive and to satisfy its hungers, and most of humanity lives that way: in an animal, instinctive way. The consequence of having a mind like that, a wandering mind, is the life of an animal: lived in instinct, for instinct and by instinct. It never understands itself or its place in the world, and eventually dies in ignorance.
The wandering mind has no advantages, but many disadvantages.
"There is no knowledge of the Self to the unsteady, and to the unsteady no Meditation is possible; and to the un-meditative there can be no peace; and to the man who has no peace, how can there be happiness? For the mind which follows in the wake of the wandering senses, carries away his discrimination as the wind (carries away) a boat on the waters." —Bhagavad Gita 2:65-66
The way forward from here is to study the teachings, and begin practicing (1) self-observation during the day, and (2) concentration practice daily, even more than one time a day.
Someone who realises the disadvantages of that wandering mind and will want to practice Meditation, which always starts by learning concentration and self-observation (mindfulness). However, while attempting to direct attention from moment to moment, they discover that they can only do so briefly before becoming distracted again. Thus, they have moments of awareness separated by longer times of being distracted. In Yoga , this level off concentration is called Mudha, which means “forgetful.”
So if you have been practicing some kind of Meditation for a while and you see that you can remember that you are meditating for a few breaths or a few moments, but most of the time you forget you are meditating because your mind is distracted, that is Mudha. Occasionally, you remember yourself. Occasionally, you are attentive and aware in the moment, but most of the time you are forgetting. That is Mudha.
The way forward is to increase the intensity of self-observation throughout the day: train yourself to be present, in the moment, aware of what you are doing.
The third type of concentration is Vikshipta, which means “gathering.” In this stage, one is aware and concentrated more of the time. The times of being distraction are shorter now. We are “gathering” our attention more consistently.
This indicates that the person is starting to form a “center of gravity” in the Consciousness. Previously, they had no center of gravity at all: instead, the “winds” drove the mind and body randomly, here and there. With Vikshipta, mind and body are becoming stable, consistent, but still need to solidify more.
The way forward is to withdraw from distractions and “gather” all of our attention onto one object, whether in Meditation or when we are active.
The fourth type of concentration is Ekagrata, which means “one-pointed.” When this person meditates they place attention and it remains steady, without being distracted. They can place attention for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes and it is steady. They do not forget they are meditating. When they place their attention on something it remains there. They still have ego, thoughts, sensations, and distractions, but the Consciousness does not waver; it is held firm.
The way forward here is more Meditation. Specifically, one needs to let go of subtle desires, even the desire for experiences, Meditation, or samadhi. The mind must become completely desireless, empty.
"He attains peace into whom all desires enter as waters enter the ocean, which, filled from all sides, remains unmoved; but not the man who is full of desires. The man attains peace, who, abandoning all desires, moves about without longing, without the sense of mine and without egoism." —Bhagavad Gita 2:70-71
The fifth type of concentration is called Nirudha, “well-restrained.” This is perfect concentration, and is perfectly established in all areas of life. That is, someone who has this degree of concentration is very vigilant and aware at all times, even in when the physical body is asleep.
People who have reached Nirudha are rare in the world today. Many people claim to have it, but they do not. Those who do remain silent, because pride destroys it. So does materialism, lust, envy, etc.
Nirudha corresponds with the ninth stage of Shamatha and beyond. There are other levels of concentration beyond the ninth degree.
In the state of Nirudha the vrittis are completely passive, so the mind is absolutely still. To maintain that requires a lot of careful work.
For our purposes as aspirants on the path, what we really need to understand are types one through four, to be able to recognise those qualities in ourselves, and to understand that the level we are in now can be transformed. It can be done, it has been done, and there is a science to do it. If we apply ourselves and have the will to change, we can do it also.
Development of concentration does not come as a gift from God, or because you are special, or you have to belong to a certain group, or live in a certain country. No! Meditation depends upon cause and effect: if you produce the causes, the effects will happen. The causes that take us through these stages of concentration are in you, not outside of you.
How to Reach Samadhi
“Consciousness is transformed toward Samadhi as all-pointedness dwindles, and Ekagrata (one-pointedness) arises.
Dharana is the sixth step of Ashtanga, Raja Yoga . Samadhi is the eighth. Samadhi is union, Yoga , integration, and it is where the Consciousness is in its natural state, integrated. Between them is dhyana, “absorption.” Dhyana is where the “I” falls away, and Samadhi is where the Consciousness flies free, liberated. Truthfully, dharana, dhyana and samadhi cannot be studied separately. They are interdependent, even inseparable. In some sense, the terms are woefully insufficient, but remain necessary in order to help us intellectually understand something that is not intellectual.
Samadhi is the goal of Yoga . In Samadhi, the Consciousness is liberated briefly, and in that experience is capable of seeing and understanding reality. To have that experience, one needs dharana (concentration) and dhyana (absorption), and that happens when “all-pointedness dwindles, and Ekagrata (one-pointedness) arises.” So to reach Samadhi, we need to understand all-pointedness and one-pointedness.
We explained a moment ago that one-pointedness is the fourth type of concentration, Ekagrata, and that is where someone has developed sufficient will of attention that they can remain focused on a given object without distraction. You reach that by letting all-pointedness dwindle. So what is all-pointedness? The way we live now with the mind completely distracted. Observe our lifestyle: the mind is always looking, seeking, wandering. We are always distracted. We “multitask.” That is not a virtuous act, it is a symptom of deep distraction. Consider it: you have a finite resource, and rather than focusing that resource on one action, you disperse it among many. What is the result? Rather than doing one thing well, you do five things poorly.
“All-pointedness” is the tendency to be distracted, hungry, seeking impressions. That hungry, instinctive tendency seeks distraction, new sensations, seeking pleasures all the time. That is what must dwindle.
To develop concentration, we must be gathering attention and focusing it on one thing at a time. To do this, one must abandon the tendency to be distracted. That dynamic is what leads the Soul, the Consciousness, towards Samadhi for integration.
These terms “subsiding and arising” are very beautiful and have a lot of meaning.
Let us reflect on the practice of concentration we did today. All of us were placing our attention on a given object. What did we experience? With attention we were trying to hold onto one thing, but what was happening in that environment psychologically? The arising of thoughts, the arising of sensations in the body, sounds, feelings, images, dreams, voices in our head. They arise, they sustain briefly, and they pass away, but we are always distracted by them. If we feel an itch, we scratch. A thought comes and we immediately start following the thought and that thought associates to some memory and then we remember that memory - and that memory associates to some worry that we have so we think about that worry. Obviously, in this condition our mind is constantly bouncing, distracted. That is what “subsiding and arising” implies: all the distractions that cause our attention to be dispersed. Rather than being focused on one thing, we have 5% attention on the object of concentration, 10% on our sore back, 20% on our rumbling belly, 30% on that attractive person nearby, 20% on thoughts that keep coming, etc.
“Subsiding and arising” also implies past and future. If you observe the nature of your distracted mind, it tends to bounce between past and future; traumas and worries or pains from the past, longings and hopes for the future. Very rarely is the mind concerned with the present moment. Most of the time it is thinking, “What am I going to do next?” or “That was so painful what happened yesterday or last year...” The mind is always bouncing back and forth but rarely in the present moment. We might be in our workplace having a conversation with someone, but we are not really attentive to that moment. We are really thinking about what they said before or how what they are talking about will affect us next week or next year. We are always out of the moment, distracted.
To render “subsiding and arising similar” occurs when our Consciousness is withdrawing from that distracted state, and is present, and is starting to see all these phenomena as the same. This is not a thought, “Past and future are the same.” No. This is to SEE that. To experience things in that way. When you see a cloud, you see it for what it is: a passing illusion. You do not ascribe meaning to it. Similarly, when the Consciousness stabilizes, it sees phenomena in that way: as passing illusions.
It is like this: when you are sitting in concentration observing your object and a thought emerges, you are aware of the thought and you are aware that the thought will pass away. An image emerges and you are aware that the image is an illusion like a cloud and it will pass by. You do not think these thoughts. Instead, it is just a kind of awareness or understanding.
That is how the Consciousness is transformed towards one-pointedness, by withdrawing from these discursive, distractive thoughts and emotions and sensations. In other words, withdrawing from that all-pointedness or the distractions that are always pulling attention out, we are holding attention in one place.
When this kind of perception arises spontaneously, it means you are approaching the doorway to dhyana and samadhi. However, if you get excited or react, the doorway will flee from you. It is necessary to also see this desire for samadhi in the same way. Do not become identified.
Dhyana and Samadhi arise spontaneously, on their own when the conditions are right. Thus, do not chase Samadhi. Do not desire Samadhi. Instead, refine your psychological condition. Refine your concentration. Withdraw, relax, concentrate.
To do advance through these stages, practitioners in every tradition learn simple exercises to develop concentration. Yet remember: concentration is not Meditation. Concentration practice is a preliminary training exercise that leads towards Meditation, but concentration is not Meditation.
Concentration is a training exercise, and it is necessary. If you want to learn to be an Olympic athlete, you have to do a lot of training of many different types. Similarly, if you want to learn to be a meditator, you need a lot of training, and the primary trainings are ethical training and concentration training.
The training to develop concentration is to learn to fix attention on a single object and hold it there for some period of time. In every tradition in the world we find innumerable examples of methods to train attention, to train concentration and, honestly, they are all the same. You can use any of them that you want. All of them work. The key is to be integrating Consciousness on that point of attention, meaning pulling attention away from everything else. In other words, we are learning to put 100% of attention on that one thing, not 90% with 10% on our itchy knee. Place 100% of your attention on the object of concentration.
There are many different types of techniques that people use in different traditions and they are all effective: observing external objects, a part of the body, an image whether visually or in the imagination, a passage from scripture, a sound, a mantra, a prayer, a candle flame, a moon, a star or the expanse of the open sky. All of these work.
To really develop concentration effectively, it has to be worked with every day. It is a very rigorous type of training. It does not work if you do it 10 minutes a week; with that, you are not going to get anywhere.
In the beginning, short sessions are a good idea. Start with ten minutes. If you can do that several times a day, that is even better.
Gradually, as you start to enjoy it and get benefits from it, you can increase the time little by little.
At the same time, it is essential to establish ethics and relaxation.
And, during the day, do everything that you do with great concentration. When you are doing your job, do your job with full attention. If you are building little widgets, then take each piece with great concentration and put them together with all of your skill, with all of your attention; if you do that consistently you will become a highly valued employee. If your job is in service to serve other people, then serve each customer with full attention, and let me tell you, they will know that you are doing that, and every one of them will appreciate it. Your boss will appreciate it too, and you will become highly valued. Moreover, and best of all, you will be developing concentration. When you are driving your car, focus completely on driving. Shut the radio off. Put the phone down. Concentrate! When you are walking, just walk. Do not think! Let go of thinking all the time. Learn to just be. Learn to just do. When you are brushing your teeth, just brush. Do not think! Let the mind rest. Focus on what you are doing in the moment, constantly in all things, in all places, in all ways and you will develop concentration rapidly and your mind will become very steady and calm. Your whole life will change from this simple thing.
Be attentive, be present, concentrate, and everyday practice concentrate on an object. It can be your breath, the tip of your nose, the beating of your heart, a Deity, a mantra, you can go outside and observe the moon, you can go outside and observe the waves at the beach or the water in the river, but do not think, do not be distracted by anything. Just observe, place 100% of your attention on that observation and sustain it for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes and if you do this your mind will be changing rapidly. You are physically changing your brain, physically changing your nervous system, changing your heart and most importantly you are changing your Consciousness. If you do this daily, your whole life will change, because you are changing from the inside. Your external circumstances are simply the reflection of what you are psychologically. If you start changing psychologically, everything outside of you will change without exception. This is a law of nature. If you are longing for change, do not focus on changing the external circumstances – your job, your city, your clothing – none of that matters! What matters is your psychological condition. Change that! Developing concentration is a very powerful way to do that.
Every day practice in this way. If you can practice once a day then that is wonderful. If you can do it twice a day then that’s even better: concentrate in short sessions for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, especially in the early morning. Wake up early, even sit on your bed and observe a candle flame or a picture of a Deity or simply observe your breath for 10 or 15 minutes without thinking. Let thoughts alone, just concentrate and relax.
Most importantly, when you are doing this exercise, do not fight with your mind. Do not fight with your body or your mind. Relax! Concentration should not make you tense. You shouldn’t be tightening up. You should be relaxing more, physically and mentally.
More Tips to Develop Concentration
Perfect your ethics. It is the most important aspect of learning Meditation, without exception. You may not understand the Sanskrit words, the Greek words, the Latin words, all the different terminology we use. It does not matter really. You may not remember all these words – Ekagrata, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi – they may all be nothing to you and that’s okay, that does not matter. What matters is your ethics. Comprehend that and live ethically and if you need to understand how to do this, at the end of this lecture we recommend some books to study.
Reduce your worldly activities. To really develop concentration and your spiritual life, you need to dedicate time and energy to it and we only have so much time and energy. Try to reduce activities that are a waste of time. A lot of the things we do are completely useless. Let me point out one big one – Facebook. A waste of time! Most social media is a waste of time; most of the time that we are on the internet is a waste of time. So stop! Instead of spending those hours browsing nonsense, study a scripture, study the teachings, meditate, take a walk in Nature. Do something real. “Reduce your worldly activities” includes many things that we do out of habit that are a waste of time – shopping, wandering around in stores, many things that we do. So find ways that you can reduce worldly activities.
Maintain silence of tongue and mind as much as possible. Silence of tongue and mind leads towards Meditation. This is why monks and nuns, priests and priestesses, go through long extended periods of silence: to steady the mind, to steady the psyche. Many of us have this habit to talk non-stop. This is a very bad habit with bad consequences for us psychologically and, besides, we tend to annoy other people.
Learn to relax all the time. Not just in Meditation, but all the time. Tension reflects mental conflict. If you are stressed and you have tension it is because your mind is in conflict. So, resolve the conflict, relax. Relaxing the body helps, but really to relax thoroughly we have to discover the cause of conflict in our mind and solve it.
Sadly, most the time, the mental conflicts we have are illusions anyway. We are in conflicted about our appearance, our image, what people think of us and we are tense about it, but who cares. Really, who cares? Most of the things we are really worried about have no meaning, no importance. The sooner we recognise that, the sooner we can get on to things that have real meaning.
Transmute your energy. Save energy and transmute it. Instead of wasting energy foolishly through explosions of anger and lust, save your energy. It is very precious. Every atom of energy that you can conserve can be dedicated towards developing your Consciousness. Instead of wasting it on foolishness, learn to save it and transform it. Again, to learn about this we have lots of lectures and books you can study.
Control your senses. We tend to live like animals letting our senses control us and that is why we suffer. For instance, how much of our life is dominated by this little half an inch at the tip of our tongue? Taste! Always craving, always seeking to satisfy the cravings of the tongue. How much time and energy and money do we waste and how much do we harm our health through the cravings of the tongue? Monks, nuns, priests and priestesses live on very simple diets. Very simple! Do not be a slave of the tongue and its desires.
The same is true of that tiny fraction of the body’s landscape that is the sexual organs. The vast majority of humanity live enslaved by the desires of the sexual organs, but we have to dominate that. If you want to live like an animal, go ahead, but understand that you will also suffer and die like an animal. But if you want to transcend animal suffering, then you have to stop living like an animal enslaved by your senses.
We have to control the senses. Not just physical senses that are our eyes and ears, but also what we listen to, what we look at. Everything that comes through the senses affects the Consciousness. When we are watching garbage on TV, that garbage is going in the mind and influencing us subconsciously. So if you want to change your mind, change what you watch through your eyes, change what you listen to through your ears. The music you listen to, the conversations you listen to, affect you emotionally and mentally. Think about that! The people who listen to talk radio are generally very angry or very afraid because they have been affected by the speakers on the radio. If they shut the radio off their fear and anger will subside. The problem is those people are addicted to their anger and fear. So they love to listen to those radio hosts who stimulate their anger and fear. If we stop listening to them we can become calm, but to do that we have to control our senses. If you can handle it, shut off the TV, shut off the radio, shut off the internet and see how you change. Make different choices and experiment. See if you feel different after a month of no TV, no radio and no internet. You will!
Do not fight with the mind. Many people get frustrated in Meditation practice and want to force the mind to be silent and that is a mistake. You cannot force the mind to be silent. Violence in the mind leads to pain. When you are trying to concentrate or trying to do a spiritual practice, do not fight with distractions, thoughts, agitation, discomfort. You do not overcome them through fighting with it. You will overcome it by relaxing through it. Acceptance, tolerance, is the greatest power. It is like dealing with a very angry person. If you fight with them, you only make things worse. So when your mind is agitated, do not fight with it,because you will only make things worse. Be serene, be sweet, do not get engaged with it, and it will disperse on its own.
Finally, observe the length of time that you can remain concentrated before you become distracted. This applies during your concentration exercise and also during your daily life. When you are trying to be aware of yourself, to observe yourself and you are walking around your house or around your workplace, notice: how long do you remain aware? If you get up from your desk to walk over to the kitchen to get a jelly donut, can you remember yourself and be aware of every step you are taking? Can you remain aware when you pick up that donut and start eating that donut? Or do you become distracted at some point along the way by thoughts? “Oh! somebody is watching me” or “oh! they are judging me” or “someone else is going to get the donut before I do”. How long can you remain aware? How long can you be mindful and look to extend those times?
At least once a day, relax, become still and practice some Pranayama for a little while.
Withdraw from all the senses and focus within.
Then for the duration of your practice, focus your attention entirely on one thing. It can be anything at all. In the beginning, it is best to focus on something concrete. Something like a chair, a plant, the moon, and to observe that thing steadily. Little by little as you develop more and more concentration, you can work with more and more abstract subjects like mantras, visualized images, or sounds.
Helpful Books to Study:
- < Previous: Pratyahara