On every level of mental activity, it is concentration that is the key to success. The student taking an exam, but plagued with a popular song running through his head; the businessman trying to write an important contract, but worried over an argument that he had that morning with his wife; the judge, distracted by the fact that a teenager to whose defense he is trying to listen bears a striking resemblance to his own son: All of these persons could tell us something of the disadvantages of poor concentration. But I don’t suppose anyone really needs to be told that lack of concentration means inefficiency.
What is not generally known is that a concentrated mind succeeds not only because it can solve problems with greater dispatch, but also because problems have a way of somehow vanishing before its focused energies, without even requiring to be solved. A concentrated mind often attracts opportunities for success that, to less focused (and therefore less successful) individuals, appear to come by sheer luck.
A person whose mind is concentrated receives inspirations in his work and in his thinking that, to duller minds, may often seem the proof of special divine favor. Yet such seeming “favors” are due simply to the power of concentration. Concentration it is that awakens our powers and channels them, dissolving obstacles in our path, literally attracting opportunities, insights, and inspirations. In many ways, subtle as well as obvious, concentration is the single most important key to success.
This is particularly true in yoga practice. The mind, in meditation especially, must be so perfectly still that not a ripple of thought enters it. God, the Subtlest Reality, cannot be perceived except in utter silence. Much of the teaching of yoga, therefore, centers on techniques designed specially for developing concentration.
Of these techniques, my guru [Paramhansa Yogananda] considered the most effective to be one which involves attentiveness to the natural process of breathing… The simplicity of this technique causes many a beginner to ignore it. Yet in its very simplicity lies much of its greatness.
What is concentration? Concentration implies, first, an ability to release one’s mental and emotional energies from all other interests and involvements, and second, an ability to focus them on a single object or state of awareness. Concentration may assume various manifestations, from a dynamic outpouring of energy to perfectly quiescent perceptions. In its higher stages, concentration becomes so deep that there is no longer any question of its remaining merely a practice: The yogi becomes so completely identified with the object of his concentration that he and it, as well as the act of concentration itself, become one.
In this way he can even, temporarily, become one with something external to himself, gaining thereby a far deeper understanding of it than would be possible by aloof scientific objectivity, that pride of Western heritage which has the disadvantage of setting man apart from nature, not in harmony with it. But in concentration on our own higher realities, identification with them becomes lasting. For in this case there is no other, more personal, reality to come back to. We are those realities. We are the infinite light, and love, and joy, and wisdom of God. Even now, our concentration should be developed with these higher directions in mind. And even now, our concentration should be so deep that the consciousness of diligent practice is refined into an effortless process of divine becoming.
Obviously, then, the most effective technique of concentration will be one which both interiorizes the mind, and permits a gradual transition from technical practice to utter stillness. The technique of watching the breath fulfills both of these requirements-better, perhaps, than any other technique possibly could. For not only is the breath one of the most natural focal points for the attention, but, as we shall see, the more deeply one concentrates on it, the more refined it becomes, until breathing is automatically and effortlessly suspended in breathlessness: Meditator, the act of concentration, and the object of concentration become one.
In the state of breathlessness, moreover, the senses themselves become automatically stilled, permitting an undisturbed continuation of the concentrated state. Once the mind is so perfectly focused, its concentrated power may be applied to any object one wishes. But because attentiveness to the breath involves the will in an act, not of doing, but of inward becoming (by concentration on the breath one acquires the consciousness of being air, or infinite space), the natural direction of the mind in this technique is toward superconsciousness. (If the will is not involved at all, the mind tends to slip downward into subconsciousness.)
Why is the breath a natural focal point for the attention? Because it is the most universal obstacle to deep attention. Notice how, when you want to concentrate deeply on something, you automatically restrain your breathing. A person holding a camera, and wishing to take a photograph with a slow exposure, must also hold his breath so as to minimize the movement of his arms. Instinctively we all understand, similarly, that the restless breath is an obstacle to holding the mind steady.
A devotee once complained to his guru that he was having difficulty concentrating in meditation. His distraction was a factory whistle that kept sounding near his home “Since the whistle disturbs you,” said his guru, “why not concentrate on the whistle itself?” The disciple found that by doing so his concentration became one-pointed; he became, in a sense, one with the whistle, accepting it now, since that it no longer seemed a disturbance. Thus he was able to pass easily from concentration on something outside himself to inward meditation on God.
A restless mind may be distracted by many things. In this condition, it may be necessary for one to command its attention forcefully-by yoga postures, perhaps, and loud chanting. But once the mind begins to grow still, the greatest obstacle to its becoming more so is the breath. By concentration on the breath, mental fixity is attained. Concentration on the breath, unlike other forms of concentration, leads naturally to meditation, which my guru defined as the direction of one’s focused attention on God, or on one of His attributes. Concentration on the factory whistle may bring about acceptance of the whistle, but such acceptance is not in itself an inducement to meditation. The whistle remains a whistle. By concentration on the breath, on the other hand, the breath actually diminishes; its gradual refinement leads naturally to an interiorized, meditative state.
Only in breathlessness can God be fully realized. Elsewhere in these lessons I have pointed out that the breath responds instantly to different mental and emotional states. Even the way in which it flows in the nostrils indicates one’s state of consciousness. The reverse also is true: As the breath flows, so flows the mind. Heavy breathing can make the mind restless. Calm breathing calms the mind. By concentration on the breath, too, the mind becomes calmer. This greater calmness is reflected in increasingly gentle breathing, which in turn induces still deeper concentration and calmness, a process that continues until mind and breathing both achieve perfect stillness.
It is possible to remain breathless for long periods of time without in any way damaging the body or the brain. (Indeed, the rejuvenating effects on the entire being of superconscious breathlessness are truly wonderful.) [When] the yogi attains breathlessness in samadhi, the body is kept alive by the direct flow of energy from the medulla oblongata. It is possible in this state to remain breathless for days, months, even for years. The body appears lifeless, outwardly, but inwardly one is filled with the consciousness of infinite life.
Periods of breathlessness may come to you, while practicing… Don’t be alarmed; they can’t possibly hurt you, as long as you let the breath flow naturally, and don’t try to hold it in or out of the lungs by force. When your body needs to breathe again, it will do so. By increasingly deeper calmness, however, you will find that you need less and less fresh air to sustain your body.