Making the most of Meditation, 3 essential skills

  • By Rolf Sovik
  • May 2006

Meditation is an inward journey. Along the way, seemingly unrelated yoga practices work in accord with one another, making it possible for us to establish a stable and enduring center of health and awareness. Posture is made steady; breathing is smoothed and regulated; emotions are channeled positively; and concentration skills are gradually honed. In the end, the mind’s energies are calmed and an unchanging inner presence is awakened.

Swami Rama often teased us, saying that a definition of the mind might be “that which is not here.” Then he would say, ”when we are here, the mind travels there, and when we are there, the mind remains here. “This was a reminder to us that meditation centers our attention in the present moment.

This process involves three important elements. The first is an inner focus, a resting place for our mental energies and awareness that is acquired through concentration. The second is an attitude of non-attachment, an attitude that allows distracting thought to come and go without disturbing our attention or acquiring new energy. The third is the awakening of a pervasive inner quietness, a state of mind unlike the ones we normally experience. In this state, called mindfulness, our awareness naturally turns inward and becomes aware of itself. If you are interested in refining your meditation practice, then you will want to hone all three of these meditative skills. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

Meditation begins by resting our attention on one thing. The object may vary, but the sensation of breathing or the repetitive sound of a mantra are the most common focal points. The concentration process in meditation is not labored or strained. Just as good night vision is developed by identifying finer and finer points of light in the night sky, so is a meditative focus refined slowly. But once a focus has been acquired, the relatively scattered energies that normally occupy the mind are gradually integrated, and the attention rests in a tranquil center of awareness.

At first, the idea that meditation relies on concentration can be disheartening. Most of us have not only been frustrated at some time or another by the hard work involved in concentration but have also found it dry and intellectual. But there is a great difference between concentrating on solving a problem and meditative concentration. Meditation shows us that resting the mind in a focus is very different from compelling the mind to focus. Through meditation, energies that have been scattered by the stress of daily life are collected and a sense of inner wholeness is gradually restored. In meditation, concentration unfolds easily. It heals and comforts a mind that is exhausted by the randomness and mental demands of everyday activity.

For these and other reasons, concentration was highly regarded by the seers of ancient times. Shankara, for example, the brilliant philosopher of 8th –century India, sang its praises when he wrote in the Upadesh Sahasri, “The attainment of one-pointed ness of the mind and senses is the highest of disciplines. It is superior to all other practices and all other disciplines.” And Lord Rama’s teacher, Vashishtha, said that human being can be divided into three categories: those who have yet to discover the joy of concentration, those who are practicing it, and those who have gained Self-realization through it.

Whether you use the breath or a mantra as the object of concentration, your task is to make that object the center of your attention. Then during meditation, the presence of that object increasingly fills the mind. By weaving each breath or repetition of the mantra into the next, the space of the mind is filled and the mental energies are collected.           

Non – attachment
The process of concentration also involves learning how to handle distracting thoughts, images and emotions that interrupt the focusing process. Generally, we react to distracting thoughts by giving them attention, and this only adds fuel to their fire. The easiest way to managing is to remain neutral. This allows them to move along out of your consciousness. But this requires a degree of self-understanding and practical yogic know-how, as well as a personal philosophy that supports the effort.

The distraction that intrigue us in meditation are the very desire and questions that otherwise energize our interior life. To manage them, we need to create a stabled posture, deepen and relax the flow of our breathing, and quietly inspect the dynamics of our thinking. Then, instead of batting to suppress these thoughts, we learn to calm our automatic and instinctive reaction to them. And we learn to develop discrimination, by reinforcing productive thoughts and allowing unproductive thoughts little or not energy. In time, a sense of non-attachment unfolds naturally, and this will handle unwanted thoughts.

What sorts of forces distract us in meditation? One ancient teacher lists the usual suspects: food, drink, power, sex and affluence. These are deep-seated urges, and when they become objects of craving they create an imbalance in the mind and disturb the fabrics of our outer life as well. The old adage, “eat to live, rather than live to eat, “ perfectly describes non-attachment. It reminds us that the pleasures of life require discipline, and it fosters the idea that life serves a higher purpose than self-indulgence. In principle, this leaves little to argue about.

Nonetheless, even for those who meditate regularly, the problem of attachment to craving is perplexing. At one moment in our meditation we catch glimpses of profound tranquility and joy-only to find that just moments later we are arguing with ourselves over which movie to rent and whether or not to order onions on our pizza. We are unable to stop the inner debate. Such juxtapositions of tranquility and hankering are the rule, not the exception. We see, but do not understand, our cravings.

Our strategy for addressing them is not to give them new and unnecessary attention. This reduces their power to distract, to disturb, and to mislead us. These thoughts are part of the fabrics of our mental energies, but they depend on our interest in them to survive. By withholding new energy from them, we can let them come and go without acquiring new strength.

Swami Rama explained it this way: “Suppose you are sitting next to a glass of water. You are attached to it, but for some reason it is unwise for you to drink it. Your mind entices you to drink it, and the thought is very appealing. Comfort your mind, “ he continued. “Placate it. Say, Yes, it looks very delicious.’ Even say, ‘Yes, you may have it.’ But not allow your hand to take the glass and raise it to your lips. In this way, you will see the water and understand the impulse to drink it-but you will not energize the behavior. In the end it will pass, and you will be free.”

This process is more subtle when it takes place in the mind, but the basic approach remains the same. The unconscious mind brings forth a thought. The thought seems enticing, and other associated thoughts enhance its pleasure even more. You witness the thought as it comes into your mind, enthralls your mind, and seeks to expand itself. But you do not mentally reach out for it. You do not bring the thought to your mental lips and drink it. And in holding back your attention in this way, the thought passes and you are free of it.

The other side of this is that, by cultivating the habit of non-attachment, the experience of maintaining a steady, one-pointed concentration is deposited into the unconscious. There, it will become a new groove that supports your meditation. Non-attachment and concentration are opposite sides of the same coin, a fact that becomes apparent when your sitting times lengthen and your deepening concentration makes the attitude of non-attachment itself easier to sustain.

So that you do not gain the wrong impression from this discussion, we should remind ourselves that yoga does not take a puritanical approach to life. It does not treat all the world’s pleasures as temptations. Swami Rama frequently put things in perspective when he said, “ The things of the world are yours to use, but they are not yours.” Through skillful enjoyment of the world, the path of yoga unfolds both within and without.

As the centering process deepens, our awareness is transformed. We witness the internal stream of thoughts and images as if we have stepped gently away from it. And disentangled from its steady diet of associations and impressions, our awareness is pervaded by a quiet sense of present to itself. This state of mind is referred to as a state of self-remembering, or mindfulness.

Mindfulness has been likened to the relaxing experience of sitting near a stream, watching the water flow by. As the water wends along, one point in the stream is replaced by the next without arousing or engaging the attention. Similarly, a meditator experiences awareness itself as having stepped away from the automatic stream of mental activity. Observing that stream without intentionally engaging in it, the mind is directed even more deeply toward its focus. In this way, meditation leads to inner stillness and a quiet, joyful remembrance of awareness resting in its own nature. The word mindfulness is a translation of the Sanskrit term smriti, which means “to bring to remembrance” or “ to call to mind.” It describes an experience that is part of every meditation. In its early stages, mindfulness is not so much a state of being as it is a collection of meditative skills that can be learned and practiced, including the ability to:

a. Remain in the present rather than journey to past or future.
b. Witness thoughts and emotions that pass through the mind instead of identifying with them.
c. Sense the depth of emotion that has prompted a given thought, and work with that emotional energy sensitively and patiently.
d. Recognize the critical, judgmental self-talks that we apply to our thoughts and feelings, and set them aside in favor of self-acceptance.
e. Maintain the focus of concentration, knowing that this focus is the antidote to being caught up by the train of thoughts.

These individual aspects of mindfulness nurture the seed of meditation. Over time, this leads to a shift in consciousness, and when the seed germinates, a deep aspect of the mind awakens and assumes its role as the quiet observer who witnesses the inner stream of thoughts. Like a memory that has at long last been recovered, a sense of being the inner person, the witness of experience, is restored to our awareness.

Now, though thought do continue to come and go in the mind, as they will for a long times, concentration is firmly anchored. The everyday mind is guided as if from nearby, and mindfulness coalesces into a sense of being. Meditation at this level is self-rewarding and offer a deep and lasting peace.

A visual image of meditation
How concentration, non-attachment, and mindfulness are synchronized in meditation can be illustrated in the form of a yantra in which two triangles overleap, one pointing up and the other down:


The upward-pointing triangle symbolizes the movement of concentration and non-attachment, disciplines that lead to a one-pointed mind:

The triangle in which the apex points downward symbolizes the development of mindfulness, the process by which the quiet mind, the inner witness, is awakened:

When the two triangles are fully integrated, they form a six-pointed star, an image symbolizing the seat of the inner person, the Self: 

This ancient image symbolizes the way unfocused and distracted thinking can be transformed into a relaxed and concentrated state of mind (the upward-pointed triangle), as well as the transformation of self-forgetfulness into self-remembrance, or mindfulness (the upward-expanding triangle). At the heart of these two processes, represented by a dot in the center of the triangles, lies the transforming power of the indwelling Self. To realize that Self is the call of meditation, the natural aim of human life and the ultimate goal of concentration, non-attachment, and mindfulness.

A simple meditation practice

1. Begin by sitting comfortably erect on a cushion, bench, or chair. Close your eyes and rest your body. Soften the sides of the lower rib cage as well as the abdominal wall. This will allow the breath to flow smoothly and easily.

2. Notice the cleansing sensation of the breath as it flows out and the nourishing sensation of the breath as it flows in. breathe without pause, and effortlessly.

3. Shift your attention to the touch of the breath in the nostrils. Feel each breath as it flows out and in. The touch of the exhalation is warm, and the touch of the inhalation is cool. Allow time for the mind to focus on the touch of the breath, and notice how your attention gradually becomes more stable.

4. As you feel the touch of each breath, pay attention to the moments when the breath changes from one direction to the other. At these times, it is easy for the mind to wander. Follow the breath carefully through each transition, without letting your mind become distracted.

5. As this process continues, you may find that your mind has become restless. You may decide that you have focused on the sensation of the breath long enough and wonder when you will be ready to go on to some other practice. You may not see any benefit or derive any exciting experience from this practice. Simply witness your thoughts, but maintain your awareness of the touch of your breath.

6. When your awareness wanders, gently bring it back to the breath. Do not think critical thoughts about yourself. Do not expect your mind to stop thinking. Simply continue with your effort until even the effort begins to relax.

7. You will learn to rest in a quietness that arises despite the “talking” and imagery that continues in your in your mind. Some meditators liken this experience to slipping beneath the surface of the waves while snorkeling. The waves have not disappeared, but they have lost their power to toss and turn you.

8. Be attentive to your mental process in a soft and yielding manner, yet when the mind becomes distracted, lead it gently back to your focus. Weave each breath into the next, and let your awareness sense the movements of the breath with unwavering steadiness.

9. Finally, as you continue to feel the breath in the nostrils, relax even your effort. Just sense the simple presence of your being.

  -------- Adapted from Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation by Rolf Sovik PsyD, copyright © 2005, by Himalayan Institute Press. Used by Permission.

Courtesy & Copyright – Yoga International Magazine

Also read by author
1. Awakening to the Gayatri Mantra

Receive Site Updates