Concentration

Today we are going to talk about concentration, which in Sanskrit is dharana.

This series is called Starting Out With Spirituality and explores the most significant scriptures from the tradition of Yoga: the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Lord”) and the Yoga Sutras, a very short scripture written by Patanjali to explain what Yoga is and how to practice Yoga.

The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj” which means “to join.” The word religion comes from a Latin root “religare” which means “to link, to bind together.” So the two words yoga and religion mean the same thing. It is how we restore or reunite the consciousness in us with its natural state, the root that it came from. Thus, we are here to learn about restoring or recovering the state of purity that we once had but lost because of our fall into sin, desire, lust, anger, pride and all of the other qualities that scriptures throughout history have been trying to point out to us are the cause of our problems.

Of course, nowadays people think Yoga is stretching or being a circus acrobat, able to twist your body into knots. In fact, that has almost nothing to do with real Yoga. Hatha Yoga, the stretching exercises, are like the kindergarten level of getting a PhD. To get a PhD, a doctorate, requires many years of work, effort, and education, yet you only go to kindergarten for 8 or 9 months. So the stretching part of yoga is like kindergarten; it has a place in the tradition of Yoga, it is how you prepare the body for meditation, but it is not the whole of the work. It is merely pre-school, the first introductory phase of yoga. Stretching your physical body cannot liberate your consciousness from conditioning. That is rather obvious, yet sadly many people are being misled in this regard.

Thus far in this course we have explained a lot of preliminaries, a lot of terms, and we have gone into detail about the core structures of what Yoga is. In today’s lecture, I will not repeat that introductory material, but will be talking specifically about one aspect: dharana.

Before today’s lecture, we did not meditate. Instead, we did some preliminary exercises, training exercises that can teach us how to reach meditation. This distinction is really important. Meditation is not a practice. It is not even a theory. It is not something that can be imitated. Properly defined, meditation is a state of consciousness. As a state of consciousness, it is an experiential phenomena that cannot be conveyed through words, money, membership in a group, or through belief. It can only be provoked within yourself through cause and effect. If you understand the causes of that state of consciousness, and you produce those causes, then inevitably you will experience the state that is called meditation. That has nothing to do with beliefs, religions, traditions, race, sex, culture, or any of that.

Meditation is a state of consciousness; it is actually your natural state. It is the state of unconditioned consciousness, meaning, when the consciousness is extracted from the conditioned state it is in now, it becomes completely free of suffering. Right now, our consciousness is heavily conditioned. We learn the steps of meditation in order to liberate the consciousness from that conditioning, even if briefly, so that we can then understand that natural state, and then understand how to liberate the consciousness permanently.

The state of meditation is a state of perception in which the consciousness knows itself and is not bound by pride, anger, fear, lust, envy, greed, gluttony, laziness, anxiety. All of the problems and suffering that we have now are lifted. In the state of meditation, the consciousness is free, natural, spontaneous, content, joyful, wise, intelligent, insightful and most importantly, perceives reality and understands what it perceives. This is the state of meditation.

To access that state, there are requirements. In the same way that you cannot grow a plant without water, light, and nutrients, to reach meditation you need certain elements. Today, we have reached the sixth step of yoga: dharana, concentration.

“…concentration is the first and foremost thing a sadhaka or aspirant should acquire in the spiritual path.” —Swami Sivananda

Concentration is the ability to pay attention without being distracted. We all have this ability. Everyone here is able to watch their favourite TV show, or listen to their favourite song, or play their favourite game, or pursue their favourite hobby and be very concentrated. This demonstrates the capacity of the consciousness to maintain a continuity of attention when it is interested in the subject that it is attentive towards. The problem that we have is that we generally do not know how to place attention on the right things, in the right way, at the right time. We are easily drawn to pay attention to things that correspond with our desires, fears, anxieties, or anger. When someone provokes us and hurts our feelings, it is very easy for us to pay a lot of attention to that pain, to be very focused on that pain and sustain that attention for long periods of time, even a lifetime of constantly paying attention to that trauma in the psyche, but that is a mistaken use of attention. It does not resolve the pain, but exacerbates it, strengthens it, nourishes it and makes that psychological trauma fat and heavy, and gives it power over the consciousness. That is one way we cause suffering for ourselves and others. We do this in millions of ways: through concentration on the objects of desires, we strengthen and lengthen our suffering.

Thus, in spiritual life, the simple purpose of concentration is to take concentration away from harmful tendencies and redirect it towards beneficial ones. We learn to withdraw attention from harmful behaviours and direct it into beneficial ones and sustain it.

Concentration is really critical in our spiritual development, but most people do not know what concentration really is. Most people that try to learn meditation may go to a few classes or retreats, or read some books, and they may try meditation a few times, but when they are confronted with their wild state of mind, that unstable mind that is constantly darting from thought to thought, sensation to sensation, memory to memory with a surging chaos of anxiety and pain, stress, uncertainty, it is overwhelming, painful, and frustrating, so they give up. The vast majority of people who have an interest in meditation stop before they even truly begin, because when they see the reality of their mind, they cannot accept the truth of that, and they are not educated in how to deal with it, so they give up and walk away. Instead, they go looking for something easier, a magic pill, or some master or spiritual group that will just give them a spiritual guarantee, make them feel good about themselves so they can forget about the reality of the mind and, naturally, that goes nowhere good.

Spiritual progress depends upon facing reality, and that reality is in the mirror, staring us in the face.

To learn to meditate is not about escaping the truth or avoiding reality, it is about facing the truth, understanding it, and learning how to change for our own benefit and for the benefit of other people. This is what the steps of yoga are all about.