Whether one is remaining alert (mindfulness), focusing on a single thought or phrase (mantra), or mentally exploring ones inner world (visualization), all are one form of concentration or another.
Meditation can be defined as “deep dreamless sleep awake” and is a state. Therefore, concentrated mental activity is not the same as meditation. Mental activities like visualization are often mislabeled as meditation.
Concentration is the doorway through which the meditative state becomes available. The two concentration exercises that are most likely to bring about the meditative state are (1) focusing on a word or phrase (mantra) and (2) alert awareness, which is a form of relaxed concentration (mindfulness).
The difference between the two can be explained thusly. If you were looking at a Where is Waldo? picture, then concentration would mean looking for Waldo and staying focused on Waldo when you find him, while alert awareness would mean allowing your mind to focus on the entire picture and if your mind latches onto specifics then you would practice letting go and again focusing on the entire picture.
The Alertness Pose
For the nervous system to stay awake and alert, both during concentration and meditation, your spine needs to be erect. That is the most important aspect of the meditation pose. Everything else is minor in comparison.
If you sit on a chair, you can either sit against the back (if straight) or sit at the front of the seat with your spine erect.
If you sit cross-legged on the floor (not necessary, but beneficial for those who can), keep a small pillow under your tailbone to keep your spine erect with a slight arch in the lower back (the same method can be used when you sit on a chair, a pillow can support the natural arch of your lower back).
You should not begin focusing your mind until your body is still. Getting to that point can include gentle stretching, breathing and repositioning for a couple of minutes.
Once your spine is erect and your body is still, try to relax your arms, shoulders, and legs. Relax your torso as much as you can without slumping. Finally, relax your neck without your head rolling forward, backward or sideways.
Once you feel relaxed and awake (spine erect) at the same time, then you have entered the pose.
The alertness pose may take some time to master. Sometimes, all you will do for an entire session is to adjust your body until it is comfortable—over and over again. That is a valuable practice in itself. The body needs training in order to stay still, same as the mind.
Focus On a Word or Phrase
Focusing on a word or phrase is the most common concentration method and has been taught throughout history as a meditation practice, often with religious connotations.
Modern research has found that any word or phrase will do. That being said, some research suggests that people who use a word or phrase that has personal meaning to them are more likely to continue with their meditation practice, which means that personalizing the word or phrase is part of creating motivation.
By focusing on a word or phrase, the mind slows down and gradually drowns out continuous mental chatter.
The emphasis is on gradually.
A big part of using this method is being OK with the fact that the mind will wander. Wandering is the nature of the mind.
In the same way that a weightlifter gets stronger by lifting weights, the mind gets stronger when you gradually tame it´s wandering nature. The wandering mind is not disturbing the practice (as many novices think when they begin). Gently struggling with the mind is the practice.
Choosing Your Word or PhraseBefore you begin to practice you need to choose a word or phrase. Single words like Love, Light, Calm, Peace, and Relax, are all good examples of effective focus words.
Religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, both have strong meditative foundations and offer a variety of words and phrases (mantras) from which to choose from.
People with a Christian background may want to choose phrases like “Thy Will Be Done” or Maranatha (Aramaic for “Come Lord”).
Atheists and agnostics can choose any word or phrase that speaks to their peaceful mental side.
The goal is to find a word or phrase that you resonate with personally because you will be repeating the word or phrase mentally on a continual basis for years to come if you stick with the practice.
Once you have chosen a word and are ready to begin, it is time to sit in the concentration and meditation pose and relax.
When your body is still and relaxed, focus on repeating the word or phrase in your mind, either continuously, or in rhythm with your breathing (i.e. inhale and say your chosen word/phrase in your mind, exhale and say your chosen word/phrase in your mind).
When your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the word or phrase, without any judgment.
To summarize, you sit, you relax, you focus, and you gently bring your mind back to the word or phrase when your mind wanders.
Begin with 5 minutes of concentration, and then work your way up to 10 to 20 minutes with time.
Imagine sitting on the porch of a coffee house in a busy city, being relaxed and taking in the entire scenery—the entire picture. You are a passive observer, not involved in anything that is going on.
That is alert awareness (mindfulness) in a nutshell.
But instead of keeping your eyes open, you close your eyes and passively observe your mind, non-judgmentally and without getting caught up in any one thought.
The key to alert awareness is letting go and not allowing any single thought or image to dominate your mind for an extended period of time. Whether the thought is pleasurable or painful, it doesn’t matter, simply let it go and allow your mind to be alert to the entire experience (both through the senses and in the mind).
Gradually, your mind will calm down.
Using this method, your focus is on letting go and passively observing. Observation is the concentration part of the practice.
Although very different from the previous concentration exercise, the effects are similar.
In the same manner as before you start with 5 minutes and gradually work your way up to 10 to 20 minutes.
Your mind is much harder to tame than your body. Remember that and go easy on yourself. In the monastic traditions of every major religion, novices often underwent years of concentration training before they were allowed to move on to the next phase of their meditative training.
While that may not be the case for you, it is important to practice with vigilance and vigor while at the same time being easy on yourself when it comes to perceived achievements. Progress is measured inch by inch.
Founder of Harmony Interfaith Initiative
The column was curated from the book Baby Steps to Meditation: A Step by Step Guide to Meditation (2014) © Gudjon Bergmann
Picture: CC0 License Pixabay.com