Which Method Is Best for You?
Focusing is about reducing the number of things in our field of view and concentrating on a single topic. It’s essential for emotional balance; these days we all have countless things all clamoring for our attention at the same time. As a result, we can wind up feeling scattered and out of focus quite often. It’s difficult to be truly “there” for your friends, family and work projects in this state; hence the importance of learning a method of focusing, of blocking out unessential stimuli.
Focusing is called a variety of things: coming back to yourself, finding your center, getting “in the zone.” People use mantra meditation, mandalas, breath extension exercises, progressive relaxation, creative visualization and other methods to achieve this. Which one, or which combination, is right for you?
Pranyama is the art of lengthening and deeping the breath (the Sanskrit word literally means “breath extension.”) One popular way to achieve a sense of balance relatively quickly is Nadi Suddhi, or alternate nostril breathing. The practitioner closes one nostril with a finger and completes one inhalation and exhalation through the open nostril; (s)he then duplicates the process with the other nostril. This pattern is then repeated several times. The process slows down and deepens respiration, providing more oxygen to the mind and body. The result? A sense of well-being, focus and balance.
The word “mantra” literally means “that which protects the mind.” The use of mantras in meditation most likely dates back to pre-history and is thought to have originated in the belief that certain words had magical powers. Most modern practitioners dismiss the magical piece, merely using the repeated word as a point of focus to achieve single-pointed concentration.
One of the world’s most famous mantras is Om Namah Shivaya (literally, “I bow before Shiva”). It was central to Hindu meditation for generations, and is still used by many meditation practitioners. Another well-known mantra is associated with the Buddhist tradition: Om mani padme hum (“Hail the jewel in the lotus”). Some would classify chanting the rosary in the Roman Catholic tradition as a mantra meditation practice.
It’s by no means necessary to subscribe to any of these belief systems, nor to use words in a foreign language, to achieve results from mantra meditation. Your mantra can be any word or phrase in your own language; some people use simple phrases such as “Be at peace,” or “I calm my mind.” The idea is to breathe in, then say (aloud or silently) the mantra on your out-breath. The practitioner repeats this until (s)he achieves single-pointed focus.
In this style of meditation, a visual image takes the place of a spoken mantra as the point of focus. Mandalas (Sanskrit for “circle”) are usually-circular works of visual art thought to help calm and quiet the mind. Rather than repeat a mantra, the mantra meditation practitioner gazes at the picture while slowing and deepening the breath. Again, like a mantra, the mandala simply provides a point of focus on which to concentrate.
Progressive relaxation involves awareness of muscle tension in specific muscle groups and consciously relaxing them to bring about full body and mind relaxation. With this method, it’s the muscles of the body — their tension and relaxation — that provides the focal point.
The progressive relaxation practitioner lies down or sits in a comfortable position, breathes deeply, and begins to be aware of individual muscle groups. Starting with the forehead and working all the way down to the feet, (s)he consciously tenses each group of muscles and relaxes them, enjoying the feeling of release each time. By the time you’ve done a full-body progressive relaxation, you are likely to feel focused, refreshed and (above all) relaxed!
This technique is related to the one above, but is more cerebral than physical. It involves the use of the imagination to reach your goals and create the things you want in your life. It involves goal-setting, creating clear pictures in your mind, focusing frequently on that image, imagining it surrounded by positive energy, and the suspension of disbelief about what is possible.
Practitioners often say that everyone uses creative visualization daily, whether they realize it or not. Almost everything we do begins in the realm of imagination. Long before reaching any goal, you have imagined what that achievement would look like. One of the most salient features of the technique is creating highly detailed images in the mind; the more details the mind has to focus on, the better the results tend to be.
These are just a few approaches to the important work of focusing; there are probably as many combinations of methods as there are practitioners. Try a few out, see which ones are best suited to your temperament, and focus!