Concentration is the arrow.
Meditation is the bow.
Learning to concentrate is an important first step to quieting the mind and meditating better. Actually, the best meditations, the highest states of meditation, take place in the complete absence of thought. But let’s face it, achieving this level of silent mind is equated to a somewhat advanced state of meditation. Most of us have difficulty just getting the mind to sit still for a few seconds! So, in the early phase of your meditation, you should practice quieting and focusing the mind. This first step is called concentration. It’s not easy, but it is very valuable and well worth the effort. In concentration, you are making the mind, and ultimately the entire being, completely one-pointed, or focused.
When you concentrate on something, you are focusing your consciousness on the object of your concentration. You’re no longer concerned with the myriad inputs to which the mind is usually too happy to respond. Typically, the mind is constantly on the roam, and now you’re saying to the mind, “Hey, focus here.”
When you concentrate on something, there’s a mingling of consciousness between you and the object of your concentration. It’s quite natural that you should become more “conscious” of the object on which you are concentrating. You become more aware of its existence and nature. By extension, can you imagine the possibility of concentrating on something so completely and perfectly that the perception of duality disappears? It can be done.
Concentration all by itself has its own merit. You can use it in every aspect of your life, whether it be reading a book, conversing with your friend, or practicing any skill. When you concentrate on what you are doing, you do it better, more accurately and with greater efficiency. As an example, observe a professional athlete before he or she performs their task. At the start of a 100-meter race, the runners are not chatting and greeting one another. They are all concentrating on their goal. So many of the benefits commonly associated with meditation—requiring less sleep, getting more work done, performing better at sport and other activities—come from the simple ability to concentrate and focus your attention/consciousness.
Concentration is the first step to recapturing your mind, making it yours. It should be practiced regularly, every day. You will witness yourself getting better and better at it and, at the same time, will see yourself becoming more and more focused on your daily activities. As you apply your new-found concentration skill, you will conserve energy and have more time for other important or new activities.
From concentration to meditation
Fortunately, it’s not essential for the mind to be absolutely quiet to experience meditation. Imagine that you want to enjoy the vastness of the empty sky, but there are birds passing through the sky. Well, the birds will only prevent you from enjoying the sky if you allow them to catch your attention as they go by. Similarly, in the process of seeking a one-pointed and still mind, should thoughts come, as they inevitably will in the beginning, simply let them pass by—don’t be mindful of the mind’s activities.
Approach concentration in reasonable steps. Think of the mind as a turbulent lake. Our first goal may be to simply calm the waves—to turn down the intensity and number of your thought-waves. Then we might try to make the mind-lake perfectly still.
The divide between concentration and meditation is not hard and fast. Rather, one merges into the other. Remember that when you concentrate there is a “mingling” of consciousness between you and the object of your concentration. You can anticipate that when you direct your concentration to something that is vast, something that has a spiritual connotation for you—God, your heart, your spiritual ideal, concept or Teacher—you’ll begin to merge with that spirituality. You will experience an enlarged sense of consciousness, like a drop of water falling into the ocean. You will gradually merge into meditation. Concentration is the first rung on the meditation ladder.
Here is a simple concentration exercise. We will use our breath as a point of concentration because the activity of thoughts is closely connected to breathing.
Perhaps the easiest way how to concentrate is to focus on our breath. We have that always with us and don’t need anything else. We always breathe in and our through the nose, slowly and deeply. Our eyes are closed or slightly open. Before each inhalation and exhalation we try to focus our mind inside ourselves. In the beginning we will lose our focus quite fast, but we must not be disturbed by that. We just keep coming back again and again with each inhalation and exhalation. It’s allright to lose the focus but it’s important to keep coming back and not to give up. After couple of minutes we will not be losing our focus that much anymore. To make it easier we can repeat “inhalation” when breathing in and “exhalation” when breathing out, or we can repeat any mantra we like such as Aum.