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The Art of Focusing: How to Practice Object Meditation
Meditation is sticking to one thought. That single thought keeps away other thoughts; distraction of mind is a sign of its weakness; by constant meditation it gains strength. –Ramana Maharshi
Finding the emptiness of meditation can be difficult. Often, thoughts rush in, distracting us from the “one thought” of meditation.
But with practice, we can train the mind to stay present and focused. In yoga, we call this stage of meditation—or meditation preparation—dharana.
Dharana is concentration or single focus of the mind on one particular thing. Once the mind can stay focused on a single object (breath, mantra, or object), it becomes easier for it to release into a place of emptiness.
Using a tree to practice dharana
When I was an art student in Israel, I lived in a small apartment that had a balcony facing a large tree. Sometimes, I would find myself sitting and staring at this tree blankly, just looking with no special intention.
This tree started to become more vivid, more three-dimensional than life itself. As long as there was no activity in my mind, there was no description, no preference, and no choice.
When you practice object meditation you might experience something very similar to this or you might experience something completely different. At the end of the day, it’s your experience when you practice that matters. The key is to practice without trying too hard, let your mind let go of the distracting thoughts.
How to practice object meditation
Step by step:
Start by sitting comfortably with a tall spine and relaxed body.
Keep your awareness and attention on an external object, such as the flame of a candle set three to four feet away from you, a flower, or a tree as I described before.
When you gaze at the object, find a balance between focusing on the object, and finding softness with the gaze so that you are not seeing any specific detail. Do not use words to label what you are seeing as you gaze at the object.
As you gaze at the object, simply see it for what it is without letting your mind interpret it. Do not go inward and drift into thoughts or stories about the object. Do not bring in stories from your past or create fantasies about the future.
Object meditation is a particularly helpful tool for facilitating the ability to be in meditative state while functioning in the “real world” because you learn to keep your mind calm and focused on everyday objects.
It is not easy at first. Sometimes I call this practice “the art of non-labeling.” The mind is well trained to see something and immediately associate it with a word. If labeling or stories begin to fill the mind, remember not to be hard on yourself but return to only seeing without interpreting.
Guided object meditation
Below is an example of guided object meditation with one of my students, Julia. I knew she loved animals, so I invited her to bring an image of an animal into her mind. She chose a horse.
Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Breathe. Breathe a little deeper. Now choose your favorite animal, one that you really can feel love toward.
Breathe deeply as the image appears and becomes clearer. Starting with the head, notice every detail of the animal. See the eyes, the fur, and the ears. Keep going and really get to know this animal. See every bit of the animal.
Once the image is clear—once you can feel as if it is right there in front of you—keep the image within the mind, maybe between the eyebrows around the third eye.
Sit in silence for a while and allow time for the image to deepen. Really allow the image to fill the mind’s entire capacity for concentration, dropping into the image so that all that that exists is the animal.
When Julia’s mind drifted away, she returned to horse. She began to see it more clearly, and a sense of love and joy appeared.
Practice makes perfect
With practice we learn to tap into this deeper experience of concentration and contentment. Over time, associating the image with a good feeling, both calmness and relaxation start to become more automatic.
[embedded content]We can use the image to return more easily to this state of calm and focus. We learn that by bringing an image to our mind, we can experience centeredness, focus, love, and ease, because these experiences have become attached.
The more we practice, the more quickly and easily our mind will obey. Eventually, whenever a distraction happens in life, we will be able to close our eyes and think of an image without any interruptions.
This will not happen overnight. Training the mind is like training the body. It takes time, patience and consistent practice. Do not get discouraged if you can’t help but describe what you are seeing at first. Concentration improves gradually.
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