It makes sense: to do well in sport, work and meditation or anything for that matter you need focus, clarity and concentration; skills that can be learnt through formal practice. Someone who achieves a lot in the corporate world for example often has focus, concentration, drive and dedication in boundless measure. But it is the spiritual qualities—peace, joy, poise, patience and compassion—that provide true, lasting satisfaction and will change ourselves the world for the better. To get inner peace you need to control the mind. Concentration is a formulatory step in doing this. It’s a precursor to meditation and a practical skill relevant to our day to day lives.
So What is Concentration? How Can You Stop Procrastinating?
Concentration is being focused, one pointed, alert, vigilant. Not letting anything distract you from your task at hand. Musicians will practice for hours. Gardeners forget time and will spend time in that meditative flow tending to their plants. Good meditators will have the concentration to focus for long periods and it is almost apparent in professional athletes. I recall watching a tennis professional receiving serve. They had exactly the same look of focus as meditation class members do when they try concentration. The eyes half open, all concentration, relaxed yet perfectly alert. Concentrate well and we can achieve anything. Poorly and we are easily distracted and take hours or days to do something that could take a few moments. Our performance is hindered.
Many great sportsmen talk about moments of absolute conviction before a major victory or event. They feel at peace with the race, game or task ahead. Nothing is forced and as a result, victory or achievement just flows. Olympic great Carl Lewis concentrated and meditated before his big races. Unusual because one hundred metre sprinters are known for hyping themselves up into almost manic states. They walk around behind the blocks, lapping the air with their tongues and generally firing themselves up, but not King Carl. He focused his mind and energies by meditating. One technique he used was focusing on the furthest sound he could hear. Whatever he did worked. He won nine Olympic track and field gold medals, broke numerous world records in the 100 metres and long jump, still has one of the world’s fastest splits for a relay leg and never false started.
“I would start 100 metres and the person would say, come to your mark, and I would get down to my mark and then I would clear my mind,” says Lewis. “Just go quiet and try to listen for the farthest sound away from you. I had generally the fastest reaction time of any of the athletes because I would clear my mind and listen for the gun. Just having my peace, where it all stops and you’re just aware of where you need to be. I think there’s a source of strength in that silence because the 100 metres is the ultimate dichotomy—it’s total relaxation and explosion. Every record I set, I knew it was a record because it was the easiest race I ran.”
“Concentration means inner vigilance and alertness,” says Sri Chinmoy. “There are thieves all around us and within us. Fear, doubt, worry and anxiety are inner thieves that are trying to steal our inner poise and peace of mind. When we learn how to concentrate, it is very difficult for these forces to enter into us. If doubt enters into our mind, the power of concentration will tear doubt to pieces. If fear enters into our mind, the power of concentration will chase away our fear….Concentration is the surest way to reach our goal, whether the goal is God-realisation or merely the fulfillment of human desires. A real aspirant sooner or later acquires the power of concentration either through the Grace of God, through constant practice or through his own aspiration.”
Concentration can definitely be practised and cultivated. Don’t despair if you have poor concentration. Spend some time working on it and it will gradually improve. One method Sri Chinmoy recommended was meditation on a black dot. Sounds strange but it’s not really. It is such a simple thing. It is easy to notice when your wandering mind interferes and intrusive thoughts interfere taking away from your concentration on the dot. Below is a black dot. Paste it onto a sheet of paper, print it out (don’t try it on a computer screen) and give it a go.
Below are Sri Chinmoy’s instructions on the concentration exercise using just a simple black dot.
“First wash your face and eyes properly with cold water. Then make a black dot on the wall at eye level. Stand facing the dot, about ten inches away, and concentrate on it. After a few minutes, try to feel that when you are breathing in, your breath is actually coming from the dot, and that the dot is also breathing in, getting its breath from you. Try to feel that there are two persons: you and the black dot. Your breath is coming from the dot and its breath is coming from you. In ten minutes, if your concentration is very powerful, you will feel that your soul has left you and entered into the black dot on the wall. At this time try to feel that you and your soul are conversing. Your soul is taking you into the soul’s world for realisation, and you are bringing the soul into the physical world for manifestation. In this way you can develop your power of concentration very easily. But this method has to be practised. There are many things which are very easy with practice, but just because we do not practise them we do not get the result.”
In our free meditation classes we try a number of other exercises using eyes open concentration methods. Candles for example, are effective to practise concentration. We also do other breathing concentration exercises and offer a lot of practical advice. So visit our calendar for our latest activities, meditation classes and seminars in Perth, Western Australia or phone 61614156.
Many people want to know how they can meditate when they are very stressed or exhausted. Try this 5-minute exercise to get yourself back on track.
Step 1: Don’t think of meditation right now. To go directly from a state of stress or exhaustion to a state of meditation and inner peace is too big a jump. If you try to force meditation at this point, you may only end up even more stressed! Certain preliminaries are necessary before you are ready to begin meditating.
Step 2: Meditation is best done in a sitting position. For this exercise, however, Sri Chinmoy recommends that you lie down on your back.
Step 3: Breathe in as slowly as possible. Sri Chinmoy continues, “While breathing, you have to feel that peace has descended and entered into your mind. From head to foot it is going. Feel that all the nerves are getting nourishment. Breathe as slowly and as quietly as possible, so that even if you put a thread right in front of your nose, the thread will not move to and fro. If the thread moves this side and that side, it means you are not breathing slowly and quietly. You can use the thread to examine your breathing. If it does not move, that means your breathing is correct.”
Step 4: Feel that peace is percolating inside your entire body.
Step 5: After five minutes, you will be ready to sit up and begin your meditation. You will feel renewed energy, mental clarity and inner peace.
Thinking and meditating are two totally different things. The aim of meditation is to free ourselves from all thought, Sri Chinmoy says. Unfortunately, the endless flow of thoughts through the mind is the major barrier that beginners encounter in meditation. It seems the more you try to reduce the volume of thoughts, the more they turn into a real onslaught. Don’t despair! With practice, you can empty your mind of all thoughts. Once you empty your mind, then you will experience the fulness of meditation-silence. So don’t give up before trying at least one of the exercises below.
Sri Chinmoy advises that you can deal with thoughts in three different ways. Over a period of several meditation sessions, you may wish to try all three ways before you decide which one is best for you.
Step 1: Sit in a quiet place, with your spine upright, and gradually slow your breathing pattern. Try to breathe very gently.
Step 2: With your eyes softly looking, not staring, focus your attention on an object that inspires you. Let us take a flower as an example.
Step 3: Look at the entire flower and become aware of its colour, the shape of its petals, even its fragrance.
Step 4: Now focus your attention on one particular petal. Feel that you are inwardly connected to that petal. As you breathe out, you are offering your breath to the petal. When you breathe in, you are receiving your breath from the petal. The petal represents your entire existence.
Step 5: Close your eyes and feel the presence of the same flower inside your chest where your spiritual heart is located. Feel its beauty, purity and fragrance. If you can, try to locate the same petal you concentrated on earlier, the one that somehow embodies your life.
Step 6: Now feel that the flower is expanding. It has merged with your entire existence. You have become the flower. The flower has become you. See if you can remain in that consciousness for five or ten minutes, absorbing and assimilating the experience you have just had.
Roadblock: Were you able to get through the entire exercise or did thoughts come to bother you? Was your mind in overdrive the entire time? If so, here is what you can do the next time you try the same exercise:
The Closed Door
Imagine that your mind is a room. When thoughts come, they knock on the door. At present, you simply open the door and allow them all in—good thoughts, mundane thoughts, stupid thoughts. It is so difficult to try to sort them out. One minute you will be thinking of something inspiring, next minute you will be wondering what to have for dinner. So in this method you just keep your mind-door firmly closed. Do not allow any thought to enter. Continually bring your awareness back to the flower or candle flame or whatever you are focusing on.
The Partially Open Door
If you cannot block all thoughts from entering, then try to allow only thoughts that are of a higher kind—thoughts that are inspiring and fulfilling; thoughts that help you progress in our inner life. These thoughts can help you make progress and often have a strong intuitive connection. Sri Chinmoy says, “Suppose you are meditating and after a few minutes there comes to your mind a thought which is divine, progressive, encouraging, inspiring. Please try to feel that these kinds of thoughts are like tender roots—roots of infinite light and bliss—and try to let your body, mind, heart and soul grow with these roots.”
The Open Door
The third method is to allow thoughts of all kinds to enter your mind, but not to pursue them or develop them at all. In that way, your meditation will not be affected by them. Sri Chinmoy describes it like this: “When we meditate, what we actually do is enter into a vacant, calm, still, silent mind. We go deep within and approach our true existence, which is our soul. When we live in the soul, we feel that we are actually meditating spontaneously. The surface of the sea is a multitude of waves, but the sea below is not affected. In the deepest depths, at the bottom of the sea, it is all tranquility. So when you start meditating, try to feel your own inner existence is like the bottom of the sea—calm and quiet. Feel that your whole being is surcharged with peace and tranquility. Then let the waves come from the outside world. Fear, doubt, worry—the earthly turmoil—will all be washed away, because inside is solid peace. You cannot be afraid of anything when you are in your highest meditation. Your mind is all peace, all silence, all oneness. If thoughts or ideas want to come in, you control them with your inner peace, for they will not be able to affect you. Like fish in the sea, they jump and swim but leave no mark on the water. Like birds flying in the sky, they leave no trace behind them. When you meditate, feel that you are the sea, and all the animals in the sea do not affect you. Feel that you are the sky, and all the birds flying past do not affect you. Feel that your mind is the vast sky and your heart is the infinite ocean. That is meditation.”
Much of the hard work of learning to meditate is done in the preliminary stages. After you have learnt how to breathe correctly, it is time to perfect the art of concentration. Sri Chinmoy explains it like this:
“It is the work of concentration to clear the roads when meditation wants to go either deep within or high above.”
There are many exercises to help you concentrate. One of our favourite guided meditations is this:
Step 1: Place a lighted candle on a table in front of you.
Step 2: Settle into a comfortable position with your spine upright. You can be seated on the floor or in a chair. Rest your hands on your knees or in your lap.
Step 3: Breathe slowly and very softly.
Step 4: To begin with, just gaze at the candle as a whole until your breathing establishes a gentle rhythm.
Step 5: Now focus your attention only on the tiny candle flame. Make sure you are not staring or straining your eyes. If you can keep the edges of your eyes soft and your eyelids lowered a fraction, that will help you to keep the candle flame in your field of vision and not be aware of your surroundings. Remember, concentration is one-pointed awareness. It does not look sideways or backwards.
Step 6: Feel that there is an arc of golden light connecting your spiritual heart and the flame. Each time you breathe in, you are receiving light from the flame, and each time you breathe out, you are offering your existence to the flame.
Step 7: You will feel that the flame has a living presence. Perhaps you will even feel that it represents your own existence—always reaching higher and higher, soaring upwards.
Step 8: Try to dwell in that state of union with the light of the candle for 5 or 10 minutes. Then gradually become aware of your surroundings again and relax.
The Three Rungs
Sri Chinmoy says that concentration, meditation and contemplation are like the three rungs of a ladder.
“First comes concentration, then comes meditation and then comes contemplation. They are like three rungs of a ladder. First you concentrate, then you meditate and then you contemplate. If any of the rungs are missing, you may lose your footing. When you concentrate, you try to focus your one-pointed attention on a small object. Then, like a bullet or an arrow, your concentration-power tries to penetrate into the object. Meditation is totally different. Meditation is vastness. In meditation you are dealing with the vast sky or the vast sea—anything that is larger than the largest. In meditation, you try to make your mind calm, quiet, tranquil and vacant so that you can become one with the Vast. When you are concentrating, you are concentrating on the smallest possible thing. Like an arrow, you are trying to pierce the veil of ignorance. When you are meditating, you are dealing with what is vaster than the vastest. All around you are seeing Infinity.”
Since ancient times, meditation and walking have gone hand in hand. The sages and pilgrims of old used to cover many miles on foot, immersed in silence. Sometimes they used the rhythm of their footsteps to repeat a mantra over and over. Sometimes they also coordinated their breathing with their walking. In this way, they were able to gain tremendous control over their physical bodies. Walking meditation also allows us to absorb more deeply the peace and beauty of nature. We feel that we are part of the cosmic life-energy.
Try this simple exercise:
Choose a park or scenic area and start walking at a comfortable pace. Allow your arms to swing naturally and make sure your shoulders and neck are relaxed.
Now try inhaling for three strides, hold your breath for one stride, exhale for three strides, and then wait for one stride before you repeat this pattern. See if you can maintain this rhythm for a few hundred metres. If you need to adjust the number of strides, that is fine. Each person is different.
It is easier to do this exercise if you are alone. Conversation will only break your concentration. It is also important to fill your lungs when you breathe in.
After practising this exercise for a week or so, you can try saying a sacred word instead of counting your strides. Inwardly chant ‘peace’ with each stride and see if you can keep to the same breathing pattern. You can chant any sacred word that inspires you. Here are a few that we use: joy, love, gratitude, energy and Supreme.
According to Sri Chinmoy, meditation and music cannot be separated. He says, “When we cry from the inmost recesses of our heart for peace, light and bliss, that is the best type of meditation. Next to meditation is music. But it has to be soulful music, the music that stirs and elevates our aspiring consciousness. When we play soulful music, psychic music, then immediately we are transported to the highest realm of consciousness. Each time soulful music is played, we get inspiration and delight. In the twinkling of an eye, music can elevate our consciousness.”
Step 1: Choose a quiet time and place for your meditation.
Step 2: Begin playing your music at a soft volume. You can also light a stick of incense if you wish.
Step 3: Sit comfortably, with your spine upright, and breathe slowly and gently.
Step 4: Focus your entire awareness on the music. If you can focus on a single instrument, such as a flute, that is even better.
Step 5: Try to feel that your entire being has merged into the music. Allow the music to carry you to a realm of purest joy and peace. You will feel that you are no longer bound by your physical body. You have established your oneness with the universe. Sri Chinmoy says, “The universe itself is music. Unfortunately, most of the time we do not hear the music of the universe. We can hear it only when we dive deep within.”
Roadblock: Inevitably, random thoughts will come into your mind and try to disrupt your meditation. With practice, you can empty your mind of all thoughts. Sri Chinmoy advises that you can deal with thoughts in three different ways: You can reject all thoughts, you can allow only inspiring thoughts, or you can allow all thoughts. If you would like to learn more, please read Stopping the thought process.
Music for Meditation Sampler
It may inspire you to put together your own library of music for meditation. Here are some samples:
Gifted ultra-distance runner Grahak Cunningham offers advice on how to combine meditation with running.
We have all finished up a workout and felt great afterwards. It relieves stress and improves fitness. For me, something about running especially invokes clarity in our mind and hearts. So what is the connection between heading out for a run and feeling good during and afterwards? What is the connection between the inner and the outer?
Let’s initially look at situations where things aren’t going to plan. I went for a 10k recently and couldn’t get into a rhythm. There was no flow. I got all the traffic lights. I kept telling myself how difficult this particular run was and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. It happens on occasions. When we hit the wall, our bodies have reached the limit and our minds will make comments that are continually negative. These times are challenging. It would be easier to quit, to catch a taxi home and sit on the couch, but we don’t. Something within us won’t give up and we keep trying to reach the goal we have set ourselves.
To run you need determination, resilience and concentration–skills that can be learnt through practice. “Determination and impossibility,” says distance runner Sri Chinmoy, who was perhaps the most famous exponent of combining meditation with exercise, “are never to be found together.” The main thing about running is its simplicity. It helps force you to be focused. If thoughts bother you it is very obvious and you have a difficult time on the run, as I did. This is actually a good thing: you notice, refocus or change your attitude and carry on.
Thankfully, most of the time when we are inspired to get out for a run, good experiences occur. Clean air, nature, cyclical movements and repetitive breathing bring about a calm and reflective mind and allowing us to be more inside our hearts. Connecting with nature brings with it peace and a positive power.
Meditation and Formal Practice
Never tried meditation formally? It’s probably not that foreign. Everyone has experienced meditation at some time in their life. Watching the sunset, walking in the forest, the smile of a child, the vastness of the ocean–these things stir something inside us and make us feel uplifted. It is the same with ultra-running. It’s certainly possible to keep your clarity and peace while participating. Running longer distances pushes us. We must take that extra step, move forward despite difficulties, transcend ourselves to make progress. The longer or faster you go, the deeper you have to dig.
Combining meditation and sports on a more formal level is done by many high achievers. Great sportsmen talk about moments of conviction before an event. They feel at home and peace with the game or task ahead. Nothing is forced and victory or achievement just flows. Professional golfers have amazing visualisation skills. Tennis players, concentration. Watch them about to receive serve and you will notice! Olympic champion Carl Lewis meditated before his sprints. “I would just go quiet and try to listen for the farthest sound away…just having my peace, where it all stops and you’re just aware of where you need to be,” he has said. “Every record I set, I knew it was a record because it was the easiest race I ran.”
Running is a way to achieve fulfilment and so is meditation. When you can get outdoors for a run or meditate in the morning your entire outlook on the entire day gets better. Combining the two your whole outlook on life improves.
By Grahak Cunningham
When we meditate, what we actually do is enter into the deeper part of our being. At that time, we are able to bring to the fore the wealth that we have deep within us.