St. Theresa of Avila
Concentration is the essence of meditation. To find the truth of our inner being we must be able to focus attention on the subtle movements of mind. Concentration is a skill to be learned. It takes practice. Our minds are by nature prone to distraction. In the world of activity this is useful, because it keeps us alert to the next thing happening. As conditions in our surroundings change we are drawn to the change. This keeps us moving and adapting. Our wandering minds are alert to danger, so we are kept safe. They are alert to opportunity, so that we can get what we need to stay alive. The untrained mind moves from object to object, event to event, sensation to sensation, thought to thought. As our perceptions and thoughts arise, they form sequences, so that when we have a perception we have a thought, that may lead to another thought, that might create a sensation as our body responds to the thought. We may respond to the sensation in action or thought. We find the mind constantly moving. The movement in its complexity can be turbulent, confusing, and largely outside our awareness.
It is natural for our minds to wander, to become enchanted with distractions, to attach to the attractive. This is not all bad. These are qualities that enhance our intelligence and adaptability, but these tendencies also trap us. Our attachments lead to suffering, since what we cling to we must inevitably lose. When we practice meditation we become more aware of our attachments and more able to loosen our clinging. We become more capable of directing the flow of thoughts, and we learn that the true nature of mind lies beyond the flickering of thoughts and sensations.
A traditional and very simple exercise for improving concentration is to focus on a candle flame. In his book Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's Guidebook Ram Dass gives this instruction:"Place a candle in front of you a foot or so away and focus on the flame. As you look at the flame, countless thoughts will float by about the candle, the flame, meditation, sounds you hear, feelings in your body, and so forth. In each case you notice the thought, let it go, and merely come back to an awareness of the candle flame. By gently but firmly trying to keep your attention focused on the candle flame, you begin to see your thoughts and senses grabbing your awareness. You become aware of the process of attachment."The candle is a useful object to concentrate upon, because it naturally draws our attention, but you can practice this type of concentration meditation by focusing on any object that will stay within your visual field. A flower, a doorknob, or a button may serve the purpose.
Ram Dass. Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's Guidebook. New York: Bantam Books, 1978.
LeShan, Lawrence. How to Meditate. New York: Bantam Books, 1975.
© 1998-2002 Tom Barrett