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Yoga as a Universal Science
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 14: Concentration – Its Significance and Value

Sva-vishayasamprayoge chitta-svarurpanukara ivendriyanam pratyaharah: Such is the definition of pratyahara given in a sutra of Patanjali. Having detached themselves from their respective objects, and having assumed, as it were, the nature of the mind, when the senses stand in union with the psyche, it may be said that there is pratyahara or an abstraction of the senses. The senses not only move towards their objects, but identify themselves with the same, assume the form of those objects, become the objects as it were, losing their own self-identity for the time being. The subject becomes the object for all practical purposes. A wrenching oneself away from this false identification with that which one is not and a return to one's own self—for the time being, the mind—is the process of pratyahara. pratyahara means the opposite process.

“Yada panchavatishtante jnanani manasa saha, buddhischa na vicheshtati tamahuh paramam gatim”, says the Kathopanishad. The five senses and the intellect, together with the mind, stand steady, the intellect does not oscillate, and there is an integrated fixity of the total psyche, like the flame of a lamp which does not flicker in a windless place—such is the nature of this great achievement or attainment called pratyahara.

The Nature of Samsara and the Working of Maya

The personality of the individual is distracted and weakened on account of the energy getting spent out by way of sensory perception and contact. When we divide our property among various persons, there is a diminution in the extent of the property, or rather, when we lend out to various persons in the world the wealth that we have, we are left with very little for ourselves. The economic strength of ours is diminished, because of the fact that we have lent out all our money or property to other people. But, suppose we get the money back, the property or the wealth that was lent out is received back, then, again we are in our original status. The economic strength of ours is re-established in its pristine completeness. Something like this happens when we cognise objects through the mind, perceive through the senses, and lose ourselves in this oceanic distraction of sense-perception. There is a tearing up of personality, as it were, when there is too much of attachment to things of the world, attachment working through the sense-organs and propelled by the force of the desires. Man loses himself and becomes another in every form of attachment. The whole principle of Yoga is this much—the return of the consciousness of the purusha to its own self. The more the purusha ramifies its rays towards objects or the forms of prakriti externally, the less it remains as the purusha and the more it appears to be the prakriti, having imbibed the characteristics of prakriti. Purusha becomes the prakriti, as it were. The subject becomes the object. Consciousness becomes matter. What can be worse than this? But, this is the essence of what we call samsara, the aberration or the movement of the Self, away from itself, in the direction of what it is not. How can one become what one is not? It is logically an indefensible position; yet this is what happens. That is why they call it maya, a kind of delusive operation, an illusion that is cast before us, an appearance of that which cannot happen at all. Yet, this happens in some way. The whole thing is a mystery. This mystery is called maya. How can the subject become the object? How can purusha become prakriti? How can consciousness become matter? How can one become another person? But it has happened. This should not happen, and the great art of the return of the purusha to itself through the various stages of the entanglement of purusha in prakriti is the great Yoga, whether of Patanjali or of anybody else.

When the mind is very much agitated, disturbed for any reason, it is difficult for anyone to exercise discrimination. The reason fails when the emotions become wild. And to say that reason has to be exercised at that moment is to talk through the hat! It will not work, because the emotions become turbulent only when the reason fails. The reason has already failed, and if at that time one says “Exercise reason”, it is not possible. However, among many other techniques that we have to adopt to avoid this circumstance of failing utterly in this manner, Patanjali mentions that some sort of a kumbhaka may be of advantage when we are too much upset or disturbed by emotions of any kind. We have seen what kumbhaka is and what Patanjali means by pranayama. There is one particular sutra where he seems to tell us that distractions of the mind can be checked temporarily by the expulsion of the breath and retention of the same outside, though this is neither a remedy for the activity of the mind nor a solution to the problem—Pracchardana-vidharanabhyam va pranasya. By an expulsion of the breath and a retention of the same outside after expulsion, the violent activity of the mind can be subdued—a procedure which one can experiment with in one's own daily life. When the breath is expelled and held, the mind ceases to think for a few seconds. Tensions are not relieved, of course, but they are held in abeyance. Their further growth or movement is restrained, just as the forward movement of wild animals is to a large extent restrained when they are controlled by a set of reins, though the wildness of the animals is not remedied merely by a check exercised upon them. Patanjali's sutra does not prescribe a medicine for this illness of the mind in the form of violent attachments, but suggests a kind of tentative application of a method which will, for the time being, hold the mind in check from moving further on into greater and greater forms of velocity.

Every type of kumbhaka is a help in the control of the mind, because the retention of the breath in kumbhaka has a direct impact upon the workings of the mind. Prana and mind are very intimately related to each other. That is why so much importance is given to pranayama in the Yoga Sastra. As we have noted earlier, whenever we try to concentrate our mind on any important subject or theme or activity, we hold our breath unconsciously—because, the movement of the prana and the movement of the mind are almost parallel, and they act like brothers born to a single parent. One is an internal mechanism of power, another is the external application of it in the direction of the objects outside. We have already observed that the control of the senses should not be attempted with any excessive application of the force of will upon the senses and the mind. The whole of Yoga is an educational process; and education is not a force that is applied upon the mind, but a gradual remedying procedure. It is a growth into a healthy state of mind, into perfection finally. Thus, the impulsion of the mind working through the pranas and the senses has to be taken care of with great caution, by understanding and application of other methods, such as the study of scriptures and living with a group in an atmosphere which is comparatively free from unnecessary distractions.

Taking the Aid of Viveka

There are things in this world which are not absolutely essential for our lives, and there are things which are unavoidable. The unavoidables follow us wherever we go, and it should not be very difficult for any seeker or student of Yoga to free himself from involvement in things which are not essential. The first and foremost thing that we have to do is to find out what are the essentials and the non-essentials in life. This is not an easy thing to do, though it may look very simple. Because the mind is a trickster, it is very cunning in its actions, and it knows how to manipulate its longings. Every desire, every longing, every passion appears to be a necessary thing when it takes the upper hand. But, viveka sakti or the power of discrimination, when it is properly applied, will tell us what are the things that are really essential and most unavoidable. Those things that are even indirectly connected with our Yoga practice, and our minimum form of existence in the world, may be regarded as unavoidable. We cannot exist without them. Or, they are necessary in some way—socially, physically or psychologically—for helping us, aiding us for the time being, in the present state of affairs in our Yoga practices, though at a future date those so-called necessary things may become unnecessary. I may require a coat in winter. It does not mean that I require it always. Certain things are necessary under certain conditions and they are not necessary always. And we should not cling to them with greed. Often, we cannot distinguish between a luxury and a necessity. Every luxury looks like a necessity, because of the peculiar proclivity of the mind that is saturated with greed and covetousness of various types. That is why we come back once again to the point of the need for a good guide in Yoga. Because, without such a guide or a Guru, an immature man cannot know what is a luxury and what is a necessity; and he cannot know where he is side-tracked and led along the wrong way and given a false instruction that the path is the right one.

Living Faith in the Existence of God and in His Capacity to Help

So, at the earliest stages of Yoga practice, if the student is sincere in his aspiration for Yoga, it is necessary that to the extent practicable under the conditions of his life, he should be away from such atmosphere which directly affects his peace of mind. Sometimes it will not be easy to apply this technique. A person who is working in an office, where he is subjected to severe harassment by his boss, may like to leave that place and go elsewhere. This is easily said and done. But then, while it is true that this gentleman can move away from the troublesome place of his office, it is quite possible that he may be moving from the frying pan into the fire because even while he may gain something, he may lose something else. Circumstances of this type are galore in our life. We are not living under situations which are capable of compartmentalisation into airtight sections. Everything seeps into everything else. One thing seems to be connected with the other. And often it appears that we cannot take a bath in the ocean, after the waves subside. So, broadly speaking, these instructions are given to us that we may be away from things which are distracting and which are likely to cause emotional upheaval, create tension in the nerves and create social conflict. This is a very good admonition that is given to us by the elders. We should take the admonition seriously, though it may be hard when we actually try to live up to the advice, because life is not a straight-line movement along a beaten track. Oftentimes the movement called life is a winding process, with zigzag paths and blind alleys, various ups and downs, and with forces on the way which may directly oppose our further march. Difficult is life; it is not honey and milk. But, a sincerity in our heart, an honest longing to achieve the higher perfection in life, a love for God, we may say, has its own effect in spite of all the turmoils of life. Sincerity always pays, and it never suffers. Where our heart is wedded solemnly to this noble practice, this sublime endeavour of Yoga, we are sure to receive blessings from the quarters of the world, from the angels in heaven, why, from God Himself.

The mind of man is sunk so deep in the forms of the objects of sense that it cannot awaken itself to a faith in the existence of God and the capacity of the angels in heaven to help man in his need. The whole world is a friend, and it is a beautiful organisation of compassion and merciful forces. A good man never suffers, though often it is said that he only suffers. It looks as if it is so, but it is not so. There is, in the earlier stages, an appearance of the thriving of evil in the world, but it is an appearance only. In the long stretch of duration called eternity, these few years of our suffering are like the wisp of a second. So, we are likely to convert a mole into a mountain, and a little sorrow that has descended upon our heads, in the form of the powers of nature impinging upon ourselves, into a veritable hell. All our sufferings in life are, to a large extent, the repercussions produced by what we have done in the past. So, we should not be taken aback by these little sorrows of life. We should always remember that these are processes of purgation, of purification, and that we shall not be in this condition always. Finally, the world is very just and the law of the universe is exceptionally friendly.

That is why at some place Patanjali himself mentions that one of the best means of training the mind, of controlling the vrittis, is contemplation on Isvara, japa of the mantra with a connotation of God's existence—Tajjapas tad-artha-bhavanam. But, apart from this inward affiliation of the seeking spirit with the higher powers of nature, a constant watch upon the disciple by a Guru is necessary. Our intellect may fail one day or the other if we try to stand on our own legs, because the world is too big for a little individual.

Encountering the Powers of Nature

The powers of Nature are too incomprehensible and too incredibly large for the little individual to encounter them, to face them. To succeed in such an encounter with Nature, one has to develop a strength equal to the powers of Nature, which is not an ordinary job. So, we may have to apply various methods in trying to restrain the mind and should not rest content with applying only one method; just as in military manoeuvres, they apply many techniques and not only one technique. If they did not do so, there might be a retrograde movement and perhaps a defeat. Just as Nature works in many ways, just as we take different types of diet on different days, it is necessary that the student of Yoga should also apply the techniques of restraint of the mind in as many ways as possible. We do not eat the same food every day, though we eat every day. We change the type of diet daily, because the body and the mind have their own idiosyncrasies. Somehow we have to transform this process of the practice of Yoga into a happy and joyous undertaking, rather than imagine that it is painful work imposed upon us as in a prison-house. We do not try to practise Yoga as if we are captives in a concentration camp and as if Yoga is a punishment meted out to us. No. It is something that we have undertaken of our own accord with wide-open eyes, with a knowledge of what it is, and how essential it is for our life.

The mind refuses to concentrate on any particular object, because it has not been convinced that the object chosen for the purpose of concentration is capable of bestowing upon it all the boons that it seeks. We have only heard people say that concentration is good. We have read this in many books. We have been hammering on this matter. But, our heart has a reason which reason does not know. The heart cannot always agree with the reason's judgement, because we are more hearts than reasons oftentimes. Our feelings gain the upper hand and put down the opinions of the reasons. Who can be really convinced at the bottom of one's heart that all that the world can give to a person is also there in the object of concentration? Who can believe this? How can one force oneself or persuade oneself to believe that all the wealth and the riches of creation can be acquired merely by an act of concentration on a dot on the wall, or on the flame of a candle, or a flower that is rosy, or any imagery that is conceivable? Though there is a kind of rationale behind this argument, and intellectually perhaps we are capable of being convinced that there is a point in this type of concentration that we are required to practise, yet, there is a dissatisfaction at the core of the heart—the world is so rich, so beautiful, grand and perfect. There are many things in this world which are exceedingly beautiful and worth possessing, having and enjoying. What good is this concentration? “I have been doing this concentration for years. I have been a fool, a wool-gathering individual. I have lost this world, I have lost the other world, and am in a helpless condition.”—So saying, the mind weeps. We begin to cry inwardly that we have been befooled, as it were, by the so-called advice to concentrate the mind on some point. There is a revolt and a rebellion from inside, and nothing can be worse than psychological revolution.

This may happen to any person because Yoga is a terror, though it is also a mother and a father. Nothing can be so beneficial as Yoga is, and nothing can be so terrific and frightening as Yoga is. This is the irony of the whole matter. It is not easy for a person to feel in one's own heart that a concentration on a form, whatever that form may be, inward or outward, is capable of bestowing the abundance of the riches of the world. Who does not wish to become a king, if it could be possible? Who does not wish to possess the whole world, if it were practicable? We know that it is not possible. So, like the fox in the story rejecting the sour grapes, we are likely to reject the world as not worth having, because we cannot have it. We all know this very well. We are not fit and we have not got the capacity to possess the treasures of the universe; we have not got the means to acquire the powers by which we can be the masters of the universe, of the world. We are defeatists, poor nothings trying to practise Yoga, for an end which also appears to be nothing. These difficulties will have to be faced one day or the other. In facing them, many have failed, have had a fall. With such a thud they had to break their heads. They would have been better without Yoga than with it. This is a sorry state of affairs. If it has come about in the lives of some, it can come about in the lives of others also. So, it is necessary once again to bring back to our own memory the necessity to go slowly, and see that we are really convinced in our hearts that what we are doing is hundred per cent correct, and that we are on the right path. “Absolutely I have no doubt in my mind, and my practice is the one that I am expected to perform. I am treading the correct way, and the fact that I do not see any light in the horizon, the fact that I have no experience whatsoever even after years of practice, is not going to deter me from continuing the practice, because I already know that I have to pass through all these stages of oblivion, darkness and helplessness.”—Such should be the firm conviction of every Yoga student. Even when we are utterly helpless and seem to be falling down, we must be convinced that the so-called fall is only a part of the process of rising up. But, who can be convinced like this when one is actually falling? So, God save us and the Guru bless us! These are some of the cautions that have to be administered to the mind of a student of Yoga, if he is going to be sincere when he takes to its practice.

The Opposing Forces of Good and Evil

All this happens, unfortunately for us though, because nature with all its powers, though ultimately a great friend, has its own fancies; and the powers of nature move in two directions, inwardly to the centre and outwardly in the direction of objects, to the periphery of things. In the Sixteenth Chapter, as also in certain other passages, the Bhagavad Gita speaks of the daivi and the asuri sampat: Daivi-sampad-vimokshaya nibandhayasuri mata. It is said that the daivi sampat is for the liberation of the soul and the asuri sampat is for the bondage of the soul. The daivi sampat is nothing but the cumulative force of the movements of nature towards the centre of things, and the asuri sampat is the impulsion of nature towards space, time and objectivity. And we are caught up in the middle, between the devil and the deep sea. We are pulled in two directions. We are urged forward in the direction of space, time and objectivity on the one hand, while on the other, there is also an inward urge to move towards the centre of things. The difficulty arises on account of a conflict that often takes place between these two forces. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are nothing but the annals of these cosmic conflicts, through which every individual has to pass in the practice of Yoga. There is a place called Kurukshetra in this cosmos, where the rival powers dash against each other with daggers drawn, and we do not know who will win. Sometimes one side appears to win, and sometimes the other side, with no conclusive victory established on either side. But, it is said that truth triumphs—Satyameva jayate. And what is truth? Truth somehow seems to be a unitary comprehensiveness and an integration of things, a centrality of everything in the perfection of the Absolute. Any aspiration, any movement towards that centre should therefore be regarded as a movement towards truth, and therefore, that aspiration succeeds one day or the other—if not today, tomorrow. So, in the Mahabharata, the Pandavas had to succeed and not the Kauravas, not the forces that move towards things outside. Therefore we have to be happy even in hell itself in the thought that truth will triumph ultimately. And hell, for us, may take the form of these conflicts between the powers within and the powers without. Slow and steady should be the march of the Yogi towards Perfection.

The Philosophy behind Dharana or Concentration

These are some of the ideas that occur in the context of the practice of pratyahara, or the restraint of the senses and the mind, a difficult process indeed, a hard thing to achieve, but very, very important. Concentration of the mind on one thing is hard. It is a very difficult thing for the mind to accept that concentration on any one thing is going to be a real advantage to it. Many Yogis go on practising concentration and they seem to have achieved nothing. They themselves are not happy. They wander about hither and thither in search of things other than the object that they are expected to concentrate upon. The mind seeks some diversions, some satisfactions. Even a straw can appear as a support in a flood where one is sinking to his utter destruction. Even a little satisfaction is sufficient. It gives relief when everything has been lost. But, a thoroughgoing analysis of the psychology of dharana or concentration, or rather the philosophy behind it, should be able to convince the spiritual seeker that everything will be in his hands if only he will succeed even a little in concentration on anything. dharana is supposed to be a fixing of the attention of the mind on a particular thing, either externally or internally, a form outside or a concept inside. Both are good enough; both are permissible.

Here, the spiritual seeker may well ask: “But, why should I concentrate on a dot, on a flame, on a flower, on an image? What is the point behind it? Am I not aspiring for moksha, kaivalya, establishment of myself in the Infinite Purusha, God-realisation? What is this concentration on a point? What is its relevance to God-realisation?” When the mind cannot see any connection between this little, incipient, seed form of concentration and that great, grand ideal of liberation, or omnipotence and omnipresence, there will be a reluctance of the mind to concentrate. Why should a person stand for election, if he cannot see the relevance of the election to what is in his mind? The candidate knows that the sweating, and the sleepless nights that he spends in canvassing for his own election, will yield its fruit one day or the other, a thing that he is longing for in his mind. Otherwise, what is the good of merely sweating it out, if it has no connection at all with what one is aspiring for?

Is this concentration on something a kind of sweating unnecessarily? No. It has an internal relationship with the grand goal that we are aspiring for. The whole universe is an integrated completeness. Everything is connected with everything else. A little sand particle on the banks of the Ganga is connected with the stars in the heavens, with the solar system itself. The mighty sun who is ninety-three millions of miles away from us can know what is happening inside our kitchen. Inasmuch as the whole structure of creation is a totality and a completeness of the type of an organism, everything is connected with everything, even the little thing on which we may concentrate is connected with the great goal that we are aspiring for. Moksha in the Supreme Purusha is not unconnected with the point on which we might be concentrating, because everything inward as well as outward is connected with everything in the cosmos. So, let us be happy. Let us rejoice and dance in ecstasy that we are touching the Supreme Perfection Itself in some modicum, even when we are touching the point on a wall through our concentration. Why should we not be happy if we know the art of being happy? Yoga is a movement from joy to joy, ananda to ananda, and not a movement from duhkha to duhkha, from sorrow to sorrow. Yoga is not a curse that has descended upon us. It is a great blessing that has been bestowed upon us by the very structure of things, by the nature of the world, by the very justice of God. So, let us seat ourselves in a posture—Sthira-sukham asanam—and persuade ourselves to the joyous conviction that the few minutes that we spend in the concentration of the mind is a tremendous gain; a great achievement, some credit that we are adding to the bank-balance of our life. Nehabhikra-manasosti pratyavayo na vidyate: There is no loss of effort, especially in the spiritual field. Every effort is a gain. Every penny that is put in the bank account is an addition to the balance, even if it be only one penny. It does not matter; something has been added, no matter how small an amount. Likewise, a noble effort is a noble effort after all, even if it be only a small effort, and it helps. It increases the strength of one's spiritual wealth.

The mind will revolt after some time. The mind is an imp, a monkey. It is distracted already. Humorously, people tell us that the mind is worse than a monkey. It can be compared, if at all, to a distracted monkey, which has drunk liquor, and in that inebriated condition, is stung by a scorpion and is possessed by a devil as well. One can imagine how bad the human mind must be to deserve such a sort of comparison. But, there is some truth in it. Great masters have warned us that one may bind a wild elephant with a silken thread, one may swallow the waters of the ocean, or drink fire, but one cannot control the mind, because the mind is vehement in its impulse towards the objects outside in space and in time. It does not want anything other than this. So, by cajolement, by education, sometimes by pampering where it is essential, the mind has to be brought back to the point of concentration. Viveka is very essential. We have to exercise great discrimination, great reason. After days of concentration, the student of Yoga may find that his mind is dull, fatigued, exhausted, and not prepared to go further in concentration. In that case, he should take recourse to other aids in the control of the mind, like the study of elevating scriptures, or even a chat with friends on elevating spiritual topics. It is believed that one-fourth of our knowledge comes from our teacher, one-fourth from our own effort, one-fourth from our keeping company with colleagues and friends in the classroom, and one-fourth from the passage of time itself. So, discussion among friends is also good. Study, mutual discussion, consultation with one's Guru or teacher, and above all things, an utter sincerity of feeling will pave the way to success.

Breaking the Knot of the Mind

Desa-bandhas chittasya dharana, says Patanjali. The tying of the mind to a particular spot is called concentration, and this spot can be anything. One need not worry too much about the form of this spot. Any spot is good enough. In a great passage of the famous Panchadasi of Sage Vidyaranya, the author tells us that even a spade, a pickaxe, a shovel, a tree and a stone can be taken as objects of meditation on Isvara, because it is Isvara who has taken all these forms. God, the perfect omnipotent, omniscient Being is manifest even in the lowest of matter, in the least of forms, in the worst of things. So, if we can invoke the perfection, the omnipotence and omnipresence of God in anything in which we have faith, be it a stone image or any other conceptual God, on that we can concentrate. It does not matter, because concentration is a process by which we break the knot of the mind, by which it is tied to a complexity of ideas, by involvement in space and time. The mind is nothing but a knot. It is not a hard substance that we can touch with our fingers. But, it is not a knot that we can see with our eyes either. It is a psychic knot, a kind of confusion as it were, a mess, and a point with which everything seems to be associated, and from which we cannot extricate even one item easily. A complete chaos is the mind. But, in spite of its being this, it is inwardly connected by prehensive forces with everything in the world. The mind, to define it in another way, is an urge towards space and time. When consciousness drives itself or propels itself in the direction of space and time, we call it the mind. There is no mind other than consciousness, finally. It does not exist. It is a kind of hybrid. We do not know from where it is born. It has neither father nor mother. It has somehow cropped up. The force or the vehemence with which consciousness tries to rush towards externalised forms is what is called the mind. So restraint of the mind means the checking of this impulsion of consciousness to move outwardly in space and time. So, the concentration process or the fixing of the mind on something naturally checks this impulse, and instead of diversifying itself in various forms of space and time, the mind collects itself for the time being on one point. And concentration is a deathblow to the mind finally. The mind is nothing but an association of consciousness with forms, and this association is broken through by concentration, just as energy can be released by bombarding an atom. If an atom is bombarded with powerful rays of energy constantly and repeatedly, the so-called static atom opens up a terrific force that has been latent or hidden within it. The mind is the seed of the cosmic force. The whole universe is there inside the mind, though the mind looks like a small point. By a bombardment of the mind by means of repeated concentration, the cosmic energy is released, as it were, in the mind, and at once the Yoga practitioner feels an awakening of himself to the fact of his relationship with all things, in place of his previous thinking that he were just this body or something related to physical objects outside. A repeated practice has to be conducted every day and it should be without remission. Tivra-samveganam asannah. When the aspiration, the concentration, the effort, is very intense, success is immediate. And this practice has to be continued every day without break of effort, with a tremendous love, satkarasevita. Then it becomes dridha-bhumi; one gets established in the practice. So, the practice of concentration, dharana is a great boon, a blessing. It is divine grace itself that has been bequeathed to us, and therefore, let us be happy.