We live in a busy world that is constantly pulling our attention in many different directions. We have been conditioned to constantly be on the lookout for the next “shiny object.” However, these tendencies can be challenging when our goal is to find the peace contained in stillness. After we learn to “turn inward” in the 5th limb of the 8-limbed yogic path (Pratyahara), we are instructed to explore Dharana, “concentration.” Dharana trains us to focus on a single point, or object, for a prolonged period of time.
There is power in focusing our attention-- like light focused through a magnifying glass creates heat. In Dharana, we practice focusing our awareness upon a single object or idea to the exclusion of all else. This is not as complicated as you might think. Simple attention to our lack of awareness is the awakening of awareness! Maybe because of our schooling, concentration is most often associated with effort and tenseness. One concentrates in order to succeed, to achieve something, to acquire something or defend what we already have. However, Dharana is not something to be forced. It is a steady, effortless, flow of will-power. (The Yoga Book: A Practical Guide of Self-Realization by Stephen Sturgess)
Dharana can be practiced even in the simple actions of everyday living. So many spiritual teachers encourage us to do whatever it is we are doing, but with complete attention-- just eat when we are eating, just do the dishes when we are doing the dishes.
“We could learn to stop when the sun goes down and when the sun comes up. We could learn to listen to the wind; we could learn to notice that it’s raining or snowing or hailing or calm. We could reconnect with the weather that is ourselves, and we could realize that it’s sad. The sadder it is, and the vaster it is, the more our heart opens. We can stop thinking that good practice is when it’s smooth and calm, and bad practice is when it’s rough and dark. If we can hold it all in our hearts, then we can make a proper cup of tea.”
As Pema Chodron points out, this practice will help us to move beyond the pairs of opposites (good vs. bad) and to move closer to the truth, i.e. whatever is contained in that moment. In meditation, we do this through the practice of keeping our mind fixed on one object or thought. With that in mind, what object or thought do we choose? We can choose an internal object (antara-visaya) such as points within the body-- the navel, the heart, or the 3rd eye. The breath is an often utilized, and very effective point of concentration in meditation. Or it can be an external object (bahya- visaya)-- an idea or image of an object that the mind focuses on from within.
There are many concentration practices contained in the different schools of yoga. “Mantra” refers to sound vibration, which is a very easy thing for the mind to concentrate on. The practice involves repeating out loud, or to oneself, a word or phrase. One popular mantra is “Sat Nam” which means “true identity.” By chanting this mantra we plant the seed of universal truth in our consciousness. Another is “Om Mani Padme Hum.” “Om”, is believed to be the primordial sound of all creation. The universe was created with Om and it holds within it all that is, was and ever will be. “Mani '' means "jewel." and points to dissolving attachments. “Padme” means "lotus" and represents wisdom. “Hum” is the sound of our innate wisdom, which is unshakeable and unmoveable. Every one of the Buddha’s teachings is believed to reside within this one powerful mantra. It is repeated over and over again to invoke the loving and unconditional qualities of compassion. You don’t have to look outside yourself for enlightenment… you can transform yourself just by recognizing the union of all things.
Similarly, “Kirtan”, a form of devotional chanting, helps us direct and focus our attention , while awakening the natural love and devotion of the heart. We also might utilize steady gazing (tratak) and visualization. By gazing at a candle, a picture of a saint or guru, or a flower, we are not worshiping these objects, but tuning into the love, light and wisdom that connects us to it. Stare at your chosen object for a minute or two and then close your eyes and visualize the object in detail in your mind’s eye.
Tactile people might enjoy employing a Mala in their Dharana practice. A mala is a circular string of beads, containing 108 beads. It is used as a method to count this sacred number while repeating a Mantra of one’s choosing or repeating a deity's name (Japa). Mala practice can be done silently or aloud. Why 108 you might ask? One explanation is that the ancient yogis worked out that the normal person breathes 21,600 breaths in 24 hours, and 200 x 108 = 21,600. 108 is also divisible by 9, which is a spiritual number. Some say the “1” in 108 symbolizes God the Creator. The 0 added to the 1 gives it power and represents god’s creation as complete. The number 8 is the symbol for eternity.
Whatever the reason for there being 108 beads, using a mala helps the mind to concentrate and physically releases nervous and restless energy by the movement of the hand. Choose a Mala that speaks to you-- they are often made from gemstone beads or other natural materials. As you practice with your Mala, you will be infusing it with the energy of your practice. To begin, center yourself by focusing on your breath and third eye. Then start with the first small bead after the sumeru (large) bead. Hold it between your dominant thumb and middle finger, repeat your mantra, then move on to the next bead and repeat your mantra. Always rotate the mala towards your palm. When you get to the end, if you want to continue, rather than skipping over the large bead, turn the mala around and go back the other way. After your mala practice, wear it around your neck or place it on your altar.
We can probably all attest to the fact that the mind will more easily focus on what it finds interesting. In “The Yoga Book: A Practical Guide of Self-Realization,” Stephen Sturgess recounts the story of “The Boy who Concentrated on a Buffalo.” There once was a boy who asked a holy man to learn meditation from him. The guru taught him to meditate on a Diety, but the boy made no progress. So he asked the boy what interested him the most, and the boy said his buffalo. So he sent the boy into the meditation room to concentrate on the buffalo. The next day the guru knocked on the door and asked the boy to come out. For a few moments there was only silence… then the boy replied in a deep voice, “I’m sorry master but I cannot leave the room, as the door is too narrow for my large horns to go through.” The master realized he had achieved such deep concentration that he reached enlightenment-- he had become one with the buffalo. Deep concentration on something that interests us, and that we love, unites us with it.
So how will we know when we are concentrating? In Dharana there is no sense of time -- like when we get lost in a good book. At these times we are completely in the present moment-- not the past or future. We have all had these moments when we are engaged with something we love. So remember Dharana is not like achieving a goal -- something to be forced with a deadline and maximum effort. It takes a “willingness,” rather than a “will.” (Stephen Sturgess). So practice concentration with curiosity, patience and compassion. Then, perhaps, any object can become your “shiny object.”
* (For further reading, check out “How to Meditate” by Pema Chodron, “The Yoga Book: A Practical Guide of Self-Realization” by Stephen Sturgess and “The Yoga Mind” by Rina Jakubowicz. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)