Concentration meditation is the foundation of one’s meditation practice. In concentration meditation, we hold the mind on an object, such as the breath or a visualized image, in order to strengthen our focus and to cultivate peacefulness by overcoming inner agitation and lethargy. We develop this practice by following the three aspects of meditation: preparation, setting the object, and bringing the mind bacK.
When we do physical exercise, we are accustomed to making preparations. We must decide when to exercise (morning, lunchtime, evening, or weekends), make sure we are physically ready (wear the right clothes and ensure the stomach is not too full), and decide where to exercise (home, gym, or outdoors). Meditation is similar in that we need to take some simple steps to prepare. It is better to think of the preparation as part of the meditation itself, because the process of preparation helps us to calm down and turn inward. Preparing to meditate has three elements: time, place, and posture.
It is best to pick a set time to meditate, beginning with at least five minutes and extending the time as the habit of meditation becomes more stable. Possibilities include when we wake up, after breakfast, before dinner, before we go to bed, or any other convenient time. The time of day itself does not matter as much as our commitment to it. We can, of course, change the time or alter it according to our schedule, but it is good to have in mind a set time. It is also good to make it a daily endeavor. Five minutes a day is better than an hour on the weekends. It is fine if we miss a day here and there but we recommend a commitment to a daily meditation practice at a particular time. If you wish, it is often helpful to use a countdown timer to set a specific time period for your meditation session.
Surprisingly, it can be challenging to find a good place to meditate. The difficulty of finding a clean, quiet place to sit for a short time is perhaps testimony to the amount of distraction in our lives and the need to meditate. It is not easy to remove ourselves from phones, computers, TV, and other distractions, so we need to put a little effort into it. We recommend picking one place to meditate and sticking to it—any clean and reasonably quiet place where you can sit for a little while undisturbed. Of course, if you are traveling, then you could find any place that works while you are away (the beach or the mountains, for example, can be wonderful places to meditate).
It is important to pay attention to our posture when we meditate. This has a dual effect. First, we can meditate more comfortably and for longer periods when we have good posture. Second, keeping the body in a good posture helps our inner energy and vitality to flow better. Because we are all physically different, there is no formula for how to sit correctly during meditation. We have to experiment until we find what works. Consider this effort part of the meditation itself. As we grow accustomed to meditation, it is likely that our posture will evolve. There are several aspects of meditation posture to consider.
- Floor or chair: We recommend sitting upright on the floor or in a chair. We do not recommend lying down because it is too easy to fall asleep. If your legs can handle it, we suggest trying to sit on the floor; otherwise, a chair is fine.
- Legs: If you are on the floor, you can cross your legs in the lotus, half-lotus, or ordinary cross-legged position. Any comfortable cross-legged position will work as long as you can sustain it for a little while. Because we are unaccustomed to sitting cross-legged, we generally need one or more cushions to sit on, and sometimes a small cushion under each knee. The goal is to raise the hips and buttocks so the knees rest firmly on the floor. Any reasonably firm cushions will do.
- Spine and shoulders: Try to keep the spine erect. If it slouches as you meditate, straighten it again. Keep the shoulders relaxed, not tight or hunched up.
- Eyes: It is best not to have the eyes fully open, because there are too many distractions, nor fully closed, because this makes it easier to fall asleep. If you can, close the eyes almost all the way, allowing in just a sliver of light.
- Hands: We recommend placing the hands in your lap, palms up, with the right palm resting gently in the left, and the ends of the thumbs gently touching.
It is best not to be too rigid in finding the right posture. You can have a great meditation without twisting the legs into uncomfortable positions. Experiment to see what works.
2. Setting the Object
The second aspect of meditation is setting the object. In meditation we do not “space out” or allow the mind to drift. It always involves focusing the mind on an object that has the capacity to enhance and strengthen the mind. In concentration meditation, we want to anchor the mind on the object, and keep it there, so it is important to decide ahead of time what the object of our meditation will be. As we will see later, in analytical meditation we apply reflection and reason on particular topics in order to establish the object of meditation.
There are many possible objects for concentration meditation, including physical objects such as the breath or visualized objects such as a small blue orb of light at the center of the chest (heart center) or a small Buddha Shakyamuni or Buddha Tara image in front of us. We recommend beginning with the breath and adding additional objects later.
To set the object, in the case of the breath, we have to decide exactly how and where we will focus on the breath. Our recommendation is to breathe normally and naturally. Then pick one spot where you feel the breath. One possibility is the abdomen, where the belly moves in and out. Another possibility is the tips of the nostrils, where you can feel the breath coming in and out. The important point is to make a clear commitment to that location. At the beginning of your meditation, take a breath or two to relax, then focus the mind on your object of meditation. Bring your attention to it and try to keep it there.
3. Bringing the Mind Back
The third aspect of meditation is bringing the mind back. After we start to meditate, it will not take long for the mind to wander. Maybe a few seconds. This is normal. The mind is active, and the first thing meditation does is remind us of that. Observe the distraction, trying not to become wrapped up in it, and gently bring your attention back to the object of meditation—in this case, the breath.
For a great many individuals, this is easier said than done. It is as if our minds have minds of their own. We want to focus the mind in one direction but it is going headlong in another. Our minds may be excited and distracted, focusing on the issues or emotions of the day, or our minds may be lethargic, taking the opportunity to drift off sleepily. This is all normal. This is one reason we recommend meditating in short sessions, such as five or ten minutes, especially at the outset. Making a habit of meditation will help build the capacity to stay focused on the object. Just bring the mind back to the breath as well as you can.
Sometimes it helps to count the breath as you focus on it. This provides an additional anchor. Counting each in-and-out breath as one, count down from twenty to one, repeating the cycle when you are finished. If your mind drifts from focusing on your breath before you make it all the way down to one, start again from twenty.
These, then, are the three aspects of meditation: preparation, setting the object and bringing the mind back. As your practice develops you can expand it in a number of ways. For example, you can lengthen the time of your meditation session, count down from a higher number, or not count at all and just focus on the breath. You can also add other objects of meditation, such as the visualized images described earlier.
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