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Concentration Meditation

Jump to the following topics:

  1. What is concentration? 
  2. We gain benefits from concentration.
  3. The technique of concentration meditation.    

What is concentration? To concentrate is to direct our attention toward a single object for a sustained period without being distracted. This chapter presents techniques for visual concentration upon a physical object. Every type of meditation involves concentration; we could focus on our other sensory input (in "sensory awareness" exercises), or our breath (in pranayama), our bodily movements (in movement meditation or dance meditation), our thoughts (in thought meditation or Zen meditation), or another phenomenon.

We gain benefits from concentration.

  1. We develop our ability to focus our attention. The focusing of attention is very useful in studying, reading, memorization, sports, conversation, etc.
  2. We perceive more details. Instead of flitting superficially from one object to another, we examine an object's details, nuances, and nature. Thus:
    • We learn more about the object.
    • We remember more about the object.
    • We behave more appropriately with regard to the object, because we are considering those subtle factors when choosing a course of action.
  3. We learn about our psychological processes.
    • We confront the forces which would divert our attention from the object of meditation; thus, we learn about our boredom, restlessness, emotions, thoughts, and a-field elements.
    • We also discern the types of distractions which snag our attention. Those distractions might include worries, or fears, or sexual fantasies. Thus, we learn about our values and mental habits.
    • We explore the subtle dynamics by which attention is sustained or pulled away by internal and external stimuli.
    • We study the process by which our mind filters stimuli; it selects the data which will be brought to conscious awareness, while it disregards the other data. We are constantly bombarded by countless bits of data from inside of us and outside of us -- e.g., our senses, thoughts, emotions, feelings, bodily sensations, etc. In concentration meditation, we intentionally disregard all data except for the visual perception of the object.
    • We examine the "will." When we willfully direct our attention toward an object, we can study the nature of the will as it responds to the many stimuli which would try to divert it to serve their own needs.

The technique of concentration meditation.

  1. Select an object for concentration. We can use any visible object, e.g., a candle flame, a gemstone, a mandala, a decorative pillow, a mountain, the moon, a part of the body (such as a hand), or something else. In the beginning, we can choose items which have the following criteria; as we develop our skill in concentration, we might use objects which deviate from the criteria and are thus more challenging:
    • The object is visually interesting. We can concentrate more easily upon something which naturally attracts our attention with colors, shadows, shapes, and other intriguing visual features.
    • The object does not provoke an emotional response. (For example, an emotional response might be triggered by a photograph of a friend). This response would be a distraction from the calm, impersonal awareness which we want to cultivate.
  2. We prepare the object.
    • We set it at a distance which allows us to see the details without straining.
    • We set it at a height which allows us to look straight ahead.
    • We can darken the room, if the background is distracting.
  3. We relax. We sit comfortably, and we breathe easily. Although the word "concentrate" might imply effort, a self-conscious effort is a distraction from the visual object; we would be thinking about the effort instead of the object. Instead, we can simply direct our attention via the will, which is a mechanism by which we choose our direction; this is not coercion or a stressful, antagonistic form of self-discipline.
  4. We refrain from words, labels (e.g., "leaf"), or interpretations. Instead, we use the non-verbal mode of our visual sense.
  5. We notice the details. For example, if we are gazing at a flower:
    • We can direct our gaze at only one spot, or we can allow our eyes to wander across the entire flower -- the petals, the center, the stem, and the leaves.
    • We observe the colors -- the subtle shadings, the blending of one hue into another, and the differences between the shaded and lit areas.
    • We notice the shapes -- the rounded areas, the edges, etc.
    • We notice the textures -- the smooth areas, the rough areas, etc.
  6. We enjoy the concentration. In our daily life, concentration is easy to do when we are enjoying the object of our attention, e.g., beautiful music, or a fun game. We can achieve this same ease during concentration meditation if we allow the eyes to experience their natural pleasure, via these suggestions:
    • We allow the eyes to relax. To be certain that we aren't straining, we monitor the tension in our eyelids, and our focus, the muscles which move the eyes, and the facial muscles near the eyes.
    • We allow the eyes to "savor" the object. The eyes enjoy exploring, and delving into the object -- slowly, playfully, sensually, and lovingly. Usually the eyes merely pass along the raw visual data to the brain where it is processed as a word to read, or something to classify (e.g., "car"), or something to judge (as "likable" or "not likable").
    • We notice the vitality in the eyes when they are permitted to relax and play. There might be a sparkling stimulation.
  7. We manage any distracting thoughts. If our attention wanders from the object of concentration, we simply return to that object -- without a sense of disappointment, frustration, anger or any other emotion or thought which is, in itself, an additional distraction.
  8. We might experience a different relationship between ourselves and the object. Some teachers say that concentration upon an object leads to a state in which we merge with the object and we lose our own identity ("until only the mountain remains," as the poem says); however, this seems to imply that the object is "real" while the self is "illusory." But perhaps we are more accurate in saying that the object and self are equally real or illusory. We can consider an alternative description of the progression toward that state:
    • At first, we perceive our action as "a person looking at a flower."
    • We advance to the state where there is the simple act of "looking" -- a connection and a relationship without any particular importance in the entities (i.e., the person and flower) on either end of this relationship. We might view the person and the flower as mere polarizations within the single act of looking.
    • Eventually, we can transcend this dualistic relationship, to perceive a common "substance" (i.e., spirit) within both ourselves and the flower.

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