Meditation is an incredibly powerful tool that can be difficult and frustrating to learn. When you first start practicing, you discover how easy it is to be distracted by all the other thoughts and emotions that swirl around in your mind. You also discover how much practice and determination to learn how to meditate, especially to practice regularly and consistently in your daily life. The key to meditating effectively is an ancient yogic technique called dharana—the sustained practice of focused concentration. Learning and practicing this mental skill can make your meditation easier, more effective, and much less agonizing.
The journey to stillness
As many who have tried meditation probably know, the journey to stillness requires a lot of patience. The scriptures of yoga describe a process to meditation that looks, on paper, to be rather linear. For example, Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga outline a step-by-step guide to reaching enlightenment in a way that almost reads as easy.
But how many times have you sat down to meditate only to observe a mind full of rapid thoughts moving in all directions? If this has happened on your cushion, you are in the majority. Let’s first recognize that even the master yogis were human. Remember—the very reason the eight limbs and other guidelines were created was so that we would have handrails to hold when the mind’s winds of change threatened to knock us over.
Patanjali intentionally decoupled concentration and focus from the practice of meditation. He realized you can’t meditate without a basic amount of sustained attention—this must be established first. Practicing one-pointed concentration for a period of time naturally leads to the seventh limb, dhyana or meditation.
What is Dharana?
Dharana in Sanskrit means concentration or single focus. “Dha” means “holding, carrying, or maintaining”, and “ana” means “other, or something else.” It is the sixth limb in the eight-limbed path of Ashtanga Yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras. It is the initial step in attaining a state of meditation.
Dharana is the sustained practice of focused concentration on a single object. This focus is usually the breath, but it can also be the repetition of a mantra, the visualization of a deity, or the contemplation of a deep truth. It’s not so important what this object is that we are focusing on; the purpose is to quiet the mind with this total concentration.
Dharana vs. dhyana
The difference between dharana and dhyana can be a bit confusing. Dharana is the active focusing and concentration on one point. Dhyana is a state of mind where one’s focus is maintained or absorbed in the point of focus. Dharana is like focusing the lens of a camera on a moving object and dhyana is when the object remains still and the camera’s focus is locked on to the object.
Are you ready to practice?
Classical yoga texts tell us that the last three of Patanjali’s limbs—dharana (deep concentration), dhyana (awareness of existence) and samadhi (oneness or enlightenment)—are to be practiced once we have a foundational understanding of yoga’s powers of illumination. According to B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, we are ready to practice dharana once “the body has been tempered by asanas, when the mind has been refined by the fire of pranayama, and when the senses have been brought under control by pratyahara.”
The other stages in the eight-fold path also provide a strong foundation for practice. The Yamas and Niyamas are the ethical and moral standards that support a yogic lifestyle. Having a comfortable seated position, one that doesn’t take too much effort to stay in, will be essential. A slow deep calming yogic breath will also be helpful to calm and steady the mind.
Four types of concentration
There are four stages of concentration that use different levels of objects, from the most physical to the most subtle, to increase concentration. The more subtle the object, the harder it will be to concentrate and create the absorption of mind on the particular object. These are considered progressive stages to challenge and deepen your power of concentration.
- Vitarka (dense) concentration focuses on a solid or tangible object. This would include objects such as the breath, the senses, visualizations, mantras, or thoughts.
- Vichara (subtle) concentration focuses on energy (prana, chakras, vayus), aspects of the mind, and spiritual and philosophical qualities.
- Ananda (enjoyment) concentration focuses on the joy and bliss found in deep states of meditation.
- Asmita (individuality) concentration focuses on the detached sense of self that is the witness of all of your experiences.
Dharana in practice
In dharana, the aim of the practice is to build the capacity to regain your focus when the mind wanders away from the object of your concentration. An essential aspect of this practice is building the awareness of when your attention wanders away towards other thoughts.
So what does it mean to practice dharana? Rolf Sovik, author of Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation, says that we can think of dhyana as “meditation proper,” and that our experience of dhyana is made possible by a sustained practice of dharana. If we were to think of dharana—our commitment to focus the mind on one breath, mantra, or sensation—as taking notice of every drop of water as it drips from a faucet, then dhyana is a stream of water droplets, flowing without pause. In other words, once we train the mind to return its focus to the present moment over and over again, eventually there is no pause between these moments and we experience pure, present awareness, or meditation.
An example of how yogis use dharana to move into dhyana is with mala beads, or mantra meditation. When meditating, close your eyes and touch each bead. With every touch, repeat a mantra to yourself or refocus your awareness on your breath. At first, you will have to re-harness your awareness with every bead; between every touch you’ll observe the brain’s habitual desire to chase another thought, memory, emotion or idea. But with continued practice, dharana’s duration will last for two beads, then three, then for an entire mala until you are seated in a steady stream of pure awareness. If you are using a mantra, it will begin to flow effortlessly without the exertion of the mind, and you will begin to experience a level of awareness that is distinct from the influence of any thoughts. It is here, yogis say, that we begin to learn and discover our true nature.
Benefits of dharana
Many people who practice dharana believe it helps them improve their memory and helps clear their minds of worry and negative thoughts. It can help you improve your yoga practice by bringing more attention and focus to the breath and alignment of the yoga asanas. Lastly, if you can learn to be focused in the midst of everyday life, you’ll find yourself more productive, relaxed, and able to deal with stress more effectively.