For thousands of centuries, mystical Hindu sages and modest Buddhist monks have used the practice of meditation as a tool to connect individuals to a higher power and relieve one’s self of suffering. More recently, the practice of meditation has become popularized in the western world and is currently used as a tool to improve mental health and psychological wellbeing. While there are a wide variety of reasons to practice meditation, and numerous meditation techniques, one thing remains clear: to receive the benefits of practice, meditators will have to use, develop, and strengthen the two primary meditation components of mindfulness and concentration. The celebrated Buddhist monk Bhante Gunaratana tells us:
These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one. He notices things. Concentration provides the power. He keeps the attention pinned down to one item. Ideally, mindfulness is in this relationship. Mindfulness picks the objects of attention, and notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady on that chosen object. If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.”
Regardless of if you are new to meditation or looking to fortify your practice, it’ll be vital for you to strengthen and improve your mindfulness and concentration capabilities.
The Component of Concentration:
Regardless of the type of meditation practice, meditators will use a particular object of concentration that they actively focus their attention on. Just as a golfer zones in on a golfball before teeing off, meditators will use their concentrative powers to focus their attention on a particular sensory object of focus. By concentrating the mind on a single object, practitioners are able to slow down the cognitive chatter in their heads, becoming anchored to the present-moment, which allows them to enjoy the stillness that comes with enhanced awareness.
There are a wide variety of commonly used objects of concentration, with two of the most commonly used being the breath and mantras. If a particular meditation technique instructs individuals to focus on their breath, then they would either focus their attention on the inflow and outflow of respiration coming form their nose or actively watch their stomach rise and fall each time they breathe. Conversely, if a particular technique instructs individuals to use a mantra, or short Sanskrit saying, they would want to concentrate on silently repeating the phrase in their head. Some common mantras that you may be familiar with are ‘Om’, ‘So Hum’, and ‘Sat Chit Ananda’. In regard to concentration, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama tells us:
When we focus our attention on the passage of breath, we break the usually continuous flow of thoughts of attachment, hostility and so forth, whatever they might be. This causes such thoughts to subside for the moment. Thus, by occupying the mind with our breath, we cleanse it of all positive and negative conceptual thoughts and thus remain in a neutral state of mind unspecified as either constructive or destructive.”
Before we move on to exploring the meditative component of mindfulness, it should be noted that when individuals practice mindfulness meditation, a popular technique in the west, they use the continuously changing present-moment as their object of focus.
The Component of Mindfulness:
Any experienced meditator knows that concentrating the mind on a single object of focus, for a lengthy period of time, is not an easy task. The reason mindfulness is so important is because meditators must deal with a seemingly endless flow of internal thoughts, emotional reactions, physical sensations, and external noises that cause the mind to wander away from the primary goal of concentration. Unquestionably, it is due to our overactive minds that we are unable to find true enjoyment in the only place it can be found – the present-moment. Fortunately, by using and strengthening the second mediative component of mindfulness, meditators are able to sharply train their minds to concentrate for longer periods of time.
During practice, meditators use their natural mindfulness ability to notice when their mind wanders away from the concentrative goal and to gently return themselves to focusing on the object. If you are new to meditation, you will quickly become aware of your mind running in every direction and your brain’s all-pervading cognitive activity. It is only by using mindfulness that you’ll be able to notice when you focus has gone astray from the concentrative goal. When practicing mindfulness, it is vital to work on non-judgmentally accepting whatever occurs in the present-moment. James Baraz, the author of Awakening Joy, tells us:
Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).”
Not only is mindfulness used as a tool to non-judgmentally returning our wandering minds to our objects of focus, but it is also is from this practice component that we determine what we will concentrate on and how long we will practice for.
Meditating with Mindfulness and Concentration:
Now that we have examined the meditation components of mindfulness and concentration, we can run through a simple meditation exercise where you will have the opportunity to use both. Throughout the practice, you’ll need use your ability to concentrate the mind while simultaneously evaluating your levels of focus. When your attention wanders, mindfully become aware of what has happened and calmly return your focus to concentrating on the object. It will be helpful to read through the following instructions entirely before beginning:
You first want to make sure that your posture is favorable for your practice. While you may not want to use a traditional meditation posture, you should make sure that you are sitting with a straight spine, as this will allow your breath to flow freely. You want to completely relax the rest of your body, close your eyes, and rest your hands gently in your lap. You’ll then want to use your concentrative abilities to focus your mind on your breath. You can watch and feel as your breath comes in and out of your nostrils or you can watch and feel as your stomach rises and falls. Either way, the goal is to concentrate your mind on the breath for the duration of the practice.
As your mind becomes concentrated on the breath, you simultaneously want to become mindful of what is happening in the present moment. You will certainly notice your mind becoming distracted as thoughts come and go. You may become mindful of particular noises in your environment, such as a dog barking, or you may become aware of a bodily sensation, such as an itch on your foot. When your attention wanders away from your breath, you want to be mindful of what has happened and return it to focusing on the continuous inhalation and exhalation of breathing.
During the practice, it is vitally important not to judge, repress, or build upon any of the thoughts that take your focus away from the object of concentration. Being mindful means accepting your situation regardless of if it is positive or negative. It is also important not to bring any expectations with you into the practice, as this diverts us away from the goal of present-moment awareness. Let the practice unfold as it does and be what it is. Your only goal is to notice when your attention wanders from the breath and then return it to focusing on it. If you haven’t already begun, you may do so now and continue the practice for three to five minutes.
The Power of Meditation:
Meditation is an indispensable tool that puts us in touch with the deepest parts of ourselves and increases our levels of happiness. When we unconsciously allow our minds to roam freely, we lose our connection to the present-moment, and when we lose our connection to the present-moment, we lose our ability to experience true and lasting joy. By using mindfulness and concentration in a regular meditation practice, you will certainly see numerous benefits across the various areas of your life. It’s important for us to all remember what celebrated Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us:
The energies of mindfulness, concentration and insight can liberate us from our anxiety and worries. We let go of the past and the future, and come in touch with the wonders of the present.”