In a recent visit to my former home, New York City, I enjoyed an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between concentration and the development of steadiness, including consistent spiritual awareness. This place, of course, has got quite a lot going on; any number of things demanding one’s attention at every moment. It strikes me that it is rather like the space of an untamed mind.
Over the years as a teacher of ISHTA yoga, I’ve had several of my students express frustration that they were able to reach meditative states quickly and easily at first, but could not remain in them or progress from there. One common ingredient to many of these experiences was the sense of disconnection between one's will and actions.
In his Yoga Sutras, Sage Patanjali provides a robust eight-limbed program; however, one limb, or step, is unfortunately routinely overlooked by both practitioners and teachers: dharana (concentration).
In this article, I offer 10 insights into the role of concentration in your development as a yogi, as inspired by the Yoga Sutras.
10 Mind-Blowing Insights About Concentration (Dharana)
#1 The beginning of all accomplishment is concentration
Book III of the Yoga Sutras is the book on accomplishments, and it is no accident that this book begins by defining dharana, which is to fix the mind on one object.
(Get more familiar with the difference between Dharana and Dhyana: Misconceptions of Meditation Explained.)
#2 Distraction is the enemy of all progress
This is really a way of rephrasing the first point, but it bears repeating. I am fond of saying it in class, so I will mention it here. The easiest way to strike out is to take your eye off the ball.
#3 You don’t need to know everything about yoga to develop yourself
Indeed, the opposite is perhaps the case. Before publicly available books and articles and public classes, our teacher would give us further instruction only when we had mastered what we had already been given. Book I, Sutra 32 tells us that the practice of concentration on a single subject (or a single technique) is the best way to prevent the obstacles and their accompaniments.
#4 Devote yourself completely to a single practice for a whole year
Book I, Sutra 30 describes the distractions (caused by the obstacles) we encounter in our practice, such as dullness, doubt, laziness and false perception (among others). Patanjali insists that the best way to avoid the obstacles and the distractions they produce is through concentration — not only during your practice, but within it.
He even offers us one, single practice on which to concentrate: OM.
#5 OM is your starting point
Ishvara is not a divine avatar in the sense of a being with bones or flesh or form; Ishvara transcends such confines. To devote ourselves to Ishvara without a concept of unbounded consciousness is, of course, rather difficult.
If you have not been given a different mantra by your teacher, begin with OM.
(In addition, here are 5 Benefits of Chanting OM.)
#6 There is no limit to what you can learn from repeating OM
As Patanjali teaches in Book I, Sutra 45:
The subtlety of possible objects of concentration ends only at the undefinable.
The limits to our learning come from the limits of our concentration. Thus, we must develop our concentration.
#7 Of all the obstacles, ignorance has the deepest roots
In Book II, Sutra 3, Patanjali explains the kleshas, or "obstacles" — obstacles to practice, to correct perception and, ultimately, to liberation.
Of all the kleshas, ignorance (avidya) of our true nature is the sneakiest. How can we know what we don’t know? Patanjali answers this question for us in the first sutra of Book II: We can develop tapas (the fire of transformation that does not reject pain), we can surrender our notion of our selves to Ishvara, and we can study both the scriptures and our selves.
Every moment of contact with the Infinite relieves us of the belief that we are separate.
#8 One-pointed concentration is necessary for the removal of ignorance
In order to experience the "uninterrupted discriminative discernment" that is the method for the removal of avidya (Book II, Sutra 26), we must learn dharana.
#9 Asana is the beginning of the road, not the end
While the first five limbs listed by Patanjali have their own importance, each can help us develop our concentration, and the ability to focus on a single thing supports all the rest of our practice and our lives.
(More on why yoga is Not All Asana: The Eight Limbs of Yoga and What They Mean for Your Practice.)
#10 Future pain is avoidable
We are not stuck. We are imprisoned neither by the past nor by the present. Book II, Sutra 16 tells us that the pain that is not yet here is a product of attachment, hatred, egoism, clinging to live and ignorance; and that such pain can be avoided.
An Offering of Encouragement
It takes less than the one space of one breath to remember what you wish to be focused on, to reorient your concentration. No matter how many times you must do it, every time you make the choice is a fresh success. Each and every time you choose to cultivate your powers of concentration is a commitment to the experience of true freedom and the development of the means to achieve that freedom.
Please note: I used the translation of the Yoga Sutras by Sri Swami Satchidananda in the preparation of this article.