A fundamental yoga practice, meditation cultivates three capacities that help you to recognize who you are behind thoughts. These three capacities are concentrating, witnessing, and resting in inner stillness. When you develop these skills you are able to relate to thoughts rather than be held captive by them.
Concentration helps you to move your attention away from thoughts, witnessing helps you to become aware of the kinds of thoughts your mind generates, and resting in inner stillness makes you aware that you are more than what you think.
Your capacity to relate wisely to your thoughts begins with learning how to focus your attention.
Concentrating Your Mind
Learning to concentrate is central to healing. Here is why. Your attention, unharnessed, is as unpredictable as an untamed stallion. Wild, it goes all over, including to places in your mind that you wish it would not.
On the other hand, your attention, well trained, is as powerful as a winged horse. Once you can say, “I am going to focus on this and not that,” you can take good care of your thoughts.
Concentration meditation practice, which we present shortly, trains your attention to focus on what you want it to. You know the experience of having thoughts you wish would leave you alone, yet your attention keeps going back to them. It is a miserable experience that debilitates. Luckily, you can train your attention to focus on ideas and sensations (such as breathing) that steady and empower you.
When you divert attention away from thoughts and focus on breath or a sacred mantra, thoughts recede into the background. Attention may drift back to thoughts, but as soon as you realize that your attention is not going in the direction you desire, you can redirect it.
This is how you cultivate concentration. Over time, with repeated practice, you can harness your attention as reliably as you can lead a well-trained horse.
Concentration and Your Brain
Concentration is a function of the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that sits above and behind your eyebrows. This brain region is pliable, meaning it is trainable. A fundamental way to train it is with concentration practices.
Each time you intentionally pay attention to your breath (or another object of focus) you strengthen your prefrontal cortex’s ability to move your attention away from some thoughts and redirect it toward other thoughts, at will.
In essence, concentration meditation is attentional training because it is a practice of focusing on something specific, on purpose. What you focus on is optional. Breath awareness, gazing at a sacred symbol, and mantra or sacred word recitation are traditional yoga practices, so we present all three. After discussing them we give instructions for meditation.
BREATH AWARENESS CONCENTRATION MEDITATION
There are good reasons to select breath awareness as a focal point for meditation. First of all, breath is always available. Second, focusing on breath directs attention into your body and away from your mind. This quiets your thinking mind. Third, focusing on breath, which is a physical sensation, makes you aware of your body.
This is an experience of being centered in the body rather than thoughts, which causes you to feel grounded. Experience this for yourself. Pause for a moment and pay attention to an in a breath and an out breath. Notice that your mind becomes quiet and you feel grounded.
Breath draws in vital life energy, which keeps you alive and utterly connected to life outside your body. Focusing on the breath in meditation can increase your awareness of the life force in which you live and breathe.
Interestingly, even language points to the unity of breath and something transcendent. The Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma) and the Hebrew word for “spirit” also mean “breath.”
It is no wonder then that you experience yourself and life joined together as one when your attention is fully absorbed in a breath. While you may think that you are disconnected, in reality, you are not.
You may also find it natural to close your eyes when focusing on the breath. This is a retreat from the outer world. Reducing sensory input shuts out the world of objects, which can increase your awareness of the connection you have with vital life energy.
When actually meditating, once your mind is quiet, there is no need to focus on breathing. Simply sit and enjoy the inner stillness. When attention drifts back toward thoughts, gently return your focus to your breath until silent awareness once again predominates.
GAZING CONCENTRATION MEDITATION
Looking at an object, such as a candle flame, a fresh flower, a sacred symbol, or the picture of a spiritual person, is a soothing meditation. In this meditation, you gaze at something that represents the divine as a way to relate, through your eyes, to higher consciousness. This is a soft gaze—there is no need to stare or not blink.
At first, you are aware of the distance between your eyes and what you are looking at. Then the sense of space dissolves and you become absorbed in or feel at one with the flickering light, orchid, or whatever else you are seeing. It’s as if you merge with the object and no longer experience yourself as disconnected from it. Once again, there you are, aware of the oneness of life.
This gentle meditation can feel psychologically safe since your eyes are open and you can see what is going on around you. Also, open eyes help you to remain comfortably alert in meditation and symbolize awakening to the truth of your sacred nature.
MANTRA CONCENTRATION MEDITATION
Mantra meditation consists of quietly chanting a sacred word or phrase over and over and is sometimes referred to as the prayer of the heart. In this meditation, you literally fill your mind with the sound of the divine by repeating a word or phrase such as “Beloved,” “Divine Mother,” or “My Lord.”
At the least, mantra meditation invites a relationship with the divine and has the potential of invoking an experience of deep spiritual union.
Within the yoga tradition, a sacred Sanskrit mantra “So Ham,” translated as “He is I” or “It is I,” is frequently recited in meditation. You may prefer the mantra “I Am,” from Psalm 46:10: “Be Still and Know That I Am God,” if it is more familiar to you.
Another revered Sanskrit chant is “Shree Ram”. Two examples of people who practiced mantra meditation are Gandhi, who recited “Ram,” and Mother Theresa, who recited the word “God” with her rosary.
In this meditation, you silently repeat a selected mantra until you enter into the domain of pure silence. When that happens, simply enjoy being aware of deep peace. There is no need to interrupt pure silence with a mantra. Then, when attention wanders off to thoughts, refocus on your mantra until again experiencing aware silence.
As yoga practices are not a religion and are appropriate for people of many faith traditions, we include a Christian mantra meditation practice called centering prayer.
Brought into contemporary Christianity by Father Thomas Keating, this practice is defined as a way to open to the presence and action of God in the center of your being. Father Keating (2010) likens this meditation to an act of friendship with God that becomes deep communion.
He also emphasizes that God appreciates all your efforts toward friendship. He recommends beginning meditation by silently whispering a sacred term, such as “Abba” or “Our Father,” to invite and consent to God’s presence and action in you. Then sit quietly.
When thoughts arise, silently say your chosen sacred word until your mind becomes quiet again. When you enter into stillness, you experience yourself in a pure way that is profoundly healing.
Practicing Concentration Meditation
Select breath awareness, gazing at a sacred object or reciting a mantra as your focal point. Explore all three to find the one that feels most natural or somehow right for you. After some experimentation, stay with one focal point for your sessions rather than switching them out.
Also, begin with just a few minutes, if that feels most doable for you. Gradually lengthen your practice, up to twenty minutes or more. Concentration meditation is so valuable that the minutes dedicated are well worth the effort.
Select a time of day to practice, preferably when your household is quiet. Early morning is especially nice, as it sets the tone for the day. Choose a comfortable chair or cushion in a quiet place, one that you are drawn to.
Ideally, sit up straight. However, if sitting is uncomfortable, recline in a position that is easy to be in. Practice in a posture that is pleasing and easy to return to most days.
To truly benefit, practice regularly. You do not have to sit for an hour. Research shows that even a twelve-minute practice makes a difference.
Andrew Newberg (2009) reported that US senior citizens who recited the Sanskrit mantra “Sa Ta Na Ma” twelve minutes a day for eight weeks produced positive changes in their brains. Practice concentration meditation to tap into the sacred within and all around you, gain freedom from trauma and take good care of your brain.
The Inner Experience of Concentration Meditation: Focus, Witness, and Stillness
To describe what the experience of concentration meditation is apt to be like on the inside, we’ve selected breath awareness as an example. It begins with focus. Sitting comfortably, you begin to pay attention to breathing. Before long, your attention wanders off to what you are thinking. There you are, lost in thought, until you realize what is happening.
As soon as you become aware of your thoughts, you are no longer lost in them. Meditation continues as you witness. As you observe thoughts, just observe—there is no need to do anything with them. Let them be and they pass by like leaves floating in the current of a stream.
You may even have a thought of recognition and spontaneously think, “Wait a minute—I am meditating.” Witness even that thought, then refocus on breathing, because in meditation witnessing leads to refocusing.
There are moments when all is silent inside. By the way, this is not being zoned out or in a trance, whereby you eventually come to or pop back from a foggy state. Rather than being unaware, you are aware, alert but not thinking, conscious but not focusing when silence overtakes you.
There you are, resting in the stillness of your deep interior, which feels incredibly peaceful, safe, and fulfilling. Soon enough, thoughts arise and distract you until you once again become aware of what is happening. Your experience may move from focus to witness to experiencing alert stillness many times in one session.
To further explore the inner experience we turn to Father Thomas Keating (2010), who gives easy-to-remember suggestions for relating to thoughts as they arise. Do not resist, retain, or react to thoughts. Resisting thoughts, an act of aversion, pushes them into subconsciousness.
Retaining thoughts, an act of attachment, reinforce them, and reacting to them creates emotional energy. Simply, nonviolently, let thoughts be and focus on breathing until silence overtakes you. Resting in silence during meditation is the true aim of meditation, and concentrating and witnessing is what quiet your mind.
Understanding and Taking Care of Thoughts
Left to itself, your mind generates thoughts that seem to go all over the place, drifting hither and yon, in a stream of thoughts that scientists call default network.
The contents of thoughts can be as varied as the movement of the wind. However, in the same way that the wind is limited to the four directions, thoughts are limited to four categories.
Swami Rama (1976) reported that, according to the yoga philosophy, the mind produces thoughts that fit into four main categories: the future, the past, the story of me (false sense of self), and judgment or assessment.
Learning to categorize your thoughts helps you to find out which types of thoughts predominate. For instance, you can discover if your thoughts drift more to the future or the past.
You can learn how often judgmental thoughts and story of me thoughts arise. To categorize thoughts, simply state to which of the four categories the arising thought belongs.
When you hear thoughts that fret about tomorrow, say “future”; when you hear thoughts that despair about the past, say “past.” When a thought scolds, such as “What were you thinking? Why did you do that?” says “judgment.” When a thought pouts, such as “Things never work out the way I want,” say “story of me.”
The act of categorizing a thought puts some space between you and it, which diffuses the influence the thought has on you. Literally, in the moment of categorizing a thought, you are no longer emotionally under its spell. Categorizing a thought buys you a couple seconds of quiet that allows you to make an intentional choice.
Often it helps to focus on breathing or a mantra for a little bit to quiet your mind even more. This steadies you so that you can deliberately decide what to focus on next to prevent your attention from drifting back to those old familiar thoughts that do not help you.
Imagine being able to respond to the thought “There is something horribly wrong with me” with “story of me.” This sounds easy enough, however, in reality, it is a daunting task. These old stories have been circulating in your mind for many years and they are not readily dismissed.
Some thoughts you have heard well over a thousand times. In fact, when you respond with “story of me,” you are likely to hear a rebuttal, something such as “You think you are so smart, categorizing thoughts—well, it won’t work.”
When this happens, gently whisper, “judgment” or “judging critic” and BREATHE as if your sanity depends on it. Then intentionally get up and get busy doing something constructive, like loading the dishwasher.
You cannot control the thought but you can witness, categorize, and take your attention off of it. Left unattended, the thought drifts away like a leaf in the current of a stream. You, on the other hand, are left alone to make a healthy choice for yourself.
Your Inner Critic
Even the yoga sages of more than two thousand years ago encountered judgmental thoughts.
The more recent concept of the inner critic, popularized this past decade, is very similar to the superego. The inner critic refers to an inner voice that attacks your worth.
It comes up with thoughts about how bad, wrong, or insufficient you are. The judge, or gremlin, as it is popularly named in self-help books, demeans, discourages, and reinforces your sense of self as unworthy.
If you have a shame-based story of identity, it is likely that your inner critic is severe with you, making sure that you do not come out from under the suffering of unworthiness. Unfortunately, it can be very harsh, even virulent.
As one associate said, “My inner critic has a Ph.D. and knows all the ways I try to escape it or get rid of it.” Try as you might, you cannot completely, for once and for all, shut it up.
RELATING TO YOUR INNER CRITIC
It is imperative to steer your attention away from the inner critic so that you are not beaten up by it. Move your attention to something safer, like your breath. Literally back your attention away from the harsh words.
Give yourself a moment to breathe and regroup. Whisper “judging critic” and then withdraw your attention from it. Like other thoughts, the harsh words of the inner critic roll on down the stream of thoughts when you redirect your focus onto your breath.
If its words come back in the next second, and the second after that, repeatedly place your attention on breathing. To really divert your attention, get up and do something.
There is no one perfect way to relate to your inner critic. You have to find your own way. Whatever you do, first call it by its name, take a deep breath, and do some mundane task.
Here is what James, a man who used to frequently collapse into self-loathing, learned to do. “My inner critic’s voice is like an unrelenting hammer that pounds on me,” described James.
Ignoring his inner critic was next to impossible. He said, “I can’t ignore being hammered on.” Something more was needed. After some experimenting, he named the inner critic “You.” When necessary, James would raise his hand up in the air, like you do when getting someone’s attention, and say, “You, not now.”
He would say “not now” in the same fatherly, firm voice that he disciplined his young sons with when they were overly rambunctious in public. This response bought him just enough time to redirect his attention to doing some routine chore, like putting fresh water in the dog’s water dish.
After about a year of this practice, James no longer had to raise his hand, at least not most of the time. He could let the inner critic’s voice (which is a thought, after all) go by like a clump of leaves in a stream.
He realized that the voice of the inner critic, like thoughts of racism and sexism, belongs to the category of collective judgmental thoughts. Harsh judgment can come from yourself as well as others.
Like other prejudicial attitudes, the voice of the inner critic causes great suffering. “And,” James said, “history is filled with painful examples of what happens when some people are categorized as inferior to others.”
He recognizes the toll the voice of the inner critic has taken on his esteem and acknowledges that, at times, the punch of the inner critic still takes his breath away. But, thanks to the strength of daily meditation practice, he is a skilled observer of his inner life, including the inner critic. He recovers from its caustic words more quickly then he used to.
As soon as he becomes aware of what is going on, he takes a deep breath and says, “Wait a minute—look at what happened.” Then he stands up, literally, and steps out on the deck or gets a drink of water. He understands the voice of his inner critic and knows how to relate to it.
Relating to Your False Self Story
While you cannot be separate from your sacred nature, you can be agonizingly unaware of it. However, you are not who you take yourself to be. Without a shadow of a doubt, the shame or trauma victim story is not who you are.
Relate to your false self-story by first recognizing it. Give it a personalized name if you like, something like “little me.” Then, when you hear its voice, whisper its name and take a breath.
Sometimes that response is sufficient to recover your equanimity. However, the voice of the false self can be associated with a lot of pain. When it is, you may want more of a response.
Since the story of me is a case of mistaken identity, after breathing and naming it to focus on words that point to your true self. Following are some suggestions.
Whisper “not this, not this” when the false self-voice says that you are inferior or superior, for neither is the truth. Alternatively, sing “I Am” as a chant. Sing along to the beautiful melody of “Amazing Grace” or even to the tune of “Happy Birthday to You.” Make your chant or song enjoyable and you may find that you feel better immediately.
Here is the bottom line: Your mind is capable of heavenly and hellish thoughts about you, others, and life. That is just the way it is. When you understand how your mind operates and know how to focus, you can be selective about which thoughts you pay attention to.
Focus on heavenly ideas rather than hellish thoughts. Singing the refrain “I Am” speaks about your true self. What a heavenly idea.
Buddhi: True Intelligence
The yoga tradition identifies another voice, one that speaks words of great insight. This voice comes from beyond the thinking mind and its four thought categories. This voice, the expression of true intelligence, arises out of silence.
The Sanskrit word for this voice is buddhi. Buddhi, the source of wisdom, communicates as inner guidance. You may sense it as a hunch, intuition, or inner knowing. Buddhi tends to arise when your mind is quiet or it may just be that you are more able to hear it then.
This is why it is prudent to make significant decisions after quiet reflection. The advice to sleep on important decisions is indeed sound because during sleep your thinking mind quiets down.
Then, early the next morning, before your mind gets busy, you are likely to hear the voice of inner guidance. Meditating, which quiets the thinking mind, also makes it easier to hear insights about important matters, including what is needed for healing.
Filling Your Mind with Knowledge of the Sacred
One yoga discipline is studying scriptures. Scriptures teach you about ultimate reality, point you to your spiritual essence, and infuse you with the presence of the divine. Paramhansa Yogananda, a twentieth-century yogi master, states that “no true freedom for man is possible without knowledge of the ultimate Reality.”
Reading scriptures and reciting the name of God are practices that correct painful, faulty thinking. They embed sacred truth into your mind and confront your identification with your false self-story.