Meditation for Focus

5 Practices for Building Concentration in Meditation

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5 Practices for Building Concentration in Meditation

Why Concentration?

We try to write posts with the intention of offering something useful to our readers. One topic about which we receive a lot of questions is focus in and out of our practice. Many people come to meditation for focus, hoping to find a way to center the mind, increase productivity, or use it in the professional lives. Studies have validated the benefits of mindfulness practice, finding that it increases attention span, leads to more focus, and creates positive changes in the health of workers.

Concentration is beneficial both in and out of meditation practice. As we cultivate a mind that is able to focus, we are able to be present more deeply in other meditation practices. As we practice meditation for focus more consistently, we notice that we are more concentrated in our daily lives. Furthermore, states of concentration in meditation practice can be very peaceful and insightful.

Ways to Build Concentration in MeditationWhat is Concentration?

From a more Buddhist perspective, concentration is an important factor of the path. The Buddha taught about developing samadhi, or concentration as a necessary part of awakening. Samadhi is a Pali word (the language of the Buddha’s teachings), and is believed to mean “one-pointedness” or “brought together.” It can be understood in our language perhaps as focus or concentration, but I love the translation of “one-pointedness.” When the mind is concentrated (in a state of samadhi), it is collected and at a point on whatever we are focusing on.

This is most often done through concentration practice, or samatha. Samatha may be translated as “cooling down” or “pacificying.” It is what we call in English a concentration practice. Through samatha we develop samadhi. I know this may seem like a bunch of unnecessary information, but it’s important to understand these two terms and their differences.

The point of concentration practice (samatha) is to develop concentrated states (samadhi). That is, we don’t do meditations for focus to show off how focused we are. Rather, it is an opportunity to cultivate a mind-state that is focused. We often have students in our groups share that they cannot meditate because they cannot focus. Perhaps this is a rather blunt way to put it, but that is a complete misconception.

We practice meditation WITH a mind that wanders in order to cultivate a mind that can focus. If the mind is already able to settle into samadhi, we wouldn’t need samatha. This is important to remember. You’re not a “bad meditator” if the mind wanders; you’re just experiencing the mind.

Now, how do we develop focus through meditation practice? We often think of focusing on the breath, which is an incredibly useful practice. However, there are other ways to cultivate states of concentration and the ability to focus in daily life. Here are five ways that we cultivate concentration in our meditation practice:

5 Practices for Cultivating Concentration

1. Count the Breaths

Yes, we are starting with the breath. This may be a practice with which you’re already familiar, but it’s certainly the most popular way to develop concentration in meditation. We can focus on the breath at one point in the body and practice staying with the experience. You can use the center of the chest, a spot in the abdomen, or the tip of the nose/nostrils. We can over-complicate this practice, but it really is quite simple (simple does not mean easy).

A practice I use myself quite a bit is that of counting. I count 1 on the first exhale, 2 on the second, and so on. I count up to eight, then count back down to one. The numbers are not meant to be a measurement of how good at meditating we are. Rather, it can help us focus by giving us something to keep us on track. We can also use the numbers to help us know when the mind has wandered. I sometimes find myself counting up to 20 or forgetting what number I am on.

There’s nothing wrong with starting at one over and over. With this practice, and the other concentration practices we’re sharing about, we have to remember that we are CULTIVATING concentration. When the mind wanders and we start back at one, we’re building the ability for the mind to focus.

One of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever received regarding this practice is to rest the awareness gently on the breath and not pin the awareness down with force. We can try to keep a light heart and gentle mind-state while practicing. When we stress and judge, we lessen our ability to concentrate.

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Guided Concentration Meditation2. Repeat Phrases

There are meditation traditions such as TM® that focus solely on the repetition of phrases or mantras. You may have practices with phrases in working with the brahma-viharas. Working with the heart practices is a great way to build the ability to focus. Rather than the breath being the object of our concentration, we use the phrases which we are repeating in our heads.

I find it helpful to sync the phrases with the breath. Sometimes I will offer a phrase with each exhale, and sometimes I will offer a phrase once every other exhale. Using the phrases as the object of concentration means tuning into the phrases completely, and the silence in our minds between. Just like we do with breath concentration, we leave the other thoughts and experiences be.

I didn’t initially see my metta practice as a concentration practice. However, I noticed that my concentration was growing as I began practicing more regularly. I often use metta phrases at the beginning of my sitting periods to help me settle in and build the ability to focus. Practicing with phrases like we do in metta, compassion, equanimity, and appreciative joy really benefits us in many ways.

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Techniques for Building Concentration3. Play with Fire

Please, don’t actually play with fire! If you do this practice, please make sure you’re awake and safe. This practice is just another way to cultivate focus in meditation. Rather than using the sensation of breathing or the auditory thought process of repeating phrases, we are using the sense-door of sight. Elizabeth’s teacher JoAnna Harper introduced her to this practice, and Elizabeth introduced it to me.

Instead of meditating with eyes closed, leave them open and focused on the flame of a candle. Much as you’d do with a traditional breath practice, simply observe the flame with a gentle awareness. Although it may seem stagnant or boring, you may notice some subtle changes if you try bringing some curiosity to the practice. Use the sense-door of sight, focusing your awareness on the single flame in front of you.

4. Listen Closely

Here we are jumping into another sense-door: hearing. In my experience working with students, if you have tinnitus this practice may not be super beneficial for you. I encourage you to investigate for yourself, but know that it’s okay. We all find what works for us given our experience and perspective.

Most of us can hear a ringing in our ears if we are in a relatively quiet space. It may be subtle, but it’s there for most people. If you can’t seem to hear it, perhaps you can hear another relatively steady noise. For example, I have a refrigerator that gives off a pretty constant humming. Maybe it’s the noise of a light, an appliance, or nature.

Tune into the sound with your attention, and focus on it as much as possible. This is the same practice we do with our breath, just with a different experience. When the mind wanders, come back to the sound. Look at it with some curiosity and try to find something interesting about it. This practice can also help us in daily life. We can become more mindful of the noises going on around us throughout our days.

5. Be Open

Mindfulness and concentration are intimately linked. In order to practice open awareness, we need the ability to concentrate on whatever experience arises. In order to cultivate concentration, we need mindfulness to recognize when the mind wanders, when we become stressed trying to focus perfectly, and when we are actually concentrated!

Mix in meditation periods of mindfulness practice. As you cultivate a mind of awareness, you will be better able to notice when the mind has grabbed hold of something other than what you’re focusing on. This is useful both in concentration practice and in our daily lives. It’s a piece to the concentration puzzle that is sometimes neglected, and we must take our mindfulness practice seriously if we are to cultivate focus!

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These are just a few practices we have found helpful in developing the ability to focus. With all of these practices, we can benefit from remembering that they are just that: practices. It takes time and effort to develop concentration.

When we stress or try to force concentration, we actually move away from what we are hoping to gain. Part of concentration is ease. The Five Factors of Concentration, which we will cover in a post later this month, are:
Vitakka (initial application of awareness)
Vicara (sustained application of awareness)
Piti (joy)
Sukha (happiness)
Ekaggata (one-pointedness)

We will cover this more in depth later, but the point I wanted to make here is that joy and happiness are factors in building concentration. When we strain to concentrate perfectly, we lose the joy and happiness that is necessary. Whatever practice you work with to build concentration, try to remember to not stress or strain, and practice with gentleness.

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