Why do we find it difficult to concentrate during meditation and what can we do to improve our ability to focus?

Concentration is said to be the key to meditation. Whether we are meditating on a candle, a mantra, a verse or our breathing, the most important aspect is to focus our mind on the object of our meditation.

Why is concentration so important?

In all walks of life, concentration is a great strength. Students who are able to concentrate on their studies without being distracted by the TV or by other members of their family are more like to succeed in their exams than those who can’t do this. Likewise, those who achieve success in the business world will often speak of devotedly applying themselves to their goal and not allowing other distractions to get in their way. This may be a very worldly form of concentration, but the principle is the same – concentration is the key to success. During meditation, concentration is needed in order for us to be able to bring the mind to rest; it is this rest that brings about the peace which so many of us long for in today’s society. Swami Paramananda, author of Concentration and Meditation (Eighth Edition, Vedanta Centre Publishers 1996) states it unequivocally:

“Meditation is inseparable from concentration. When the mind has gained its full strength through singleness, it naturally becomes meditative”.

Why is it hard to concentrate?

Although we talk about modern life being busier than ever, a restless, agitated mind has been a human problem for a very long time. In the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Geeta, (Faber & Faber 1982) estimated to be written 5,000 years ago, Arjuna presses the Lord Sri Krishna for advice on how to rest his “fickle and turbulent, obstinate and strong” mind. Krishna acknowledges his difficulty:

“Doubtless, O Mighty One! The mind is fickle and exceedingly difficulty to restrain, but O son of Kunti! with practice and renunciation it can be done”.

Our minds are very active – they’re used to making plans, forming opinions, commenting on what’s going on and generally chattering away. It’s not surprising, therefore, that when we sit down to meditate we find that it’s not so easy to stop all this chatter and attend to our intended focus. We’ve been allowing our minds to wander without any form of control for years – or decades – and unless we’re very fortunate, they’re not going to just fall calm and quiet just because we sit quietly and sound a mantra.

What do we do when we find it difficult to concentrate?

The ability to concentrate is an innate faculty, not only of humans, but of every living creature. Take a look at a cat who stops still for a couple of seconds before pouncing on a mouse. It’s true that our minds can be very scattered, but we’ll usually find that there are certain activities that we do attend to with a good degree of attention – reading a book, playing a musical instrument – even watching a football match requires concentration! There are steps we can take, however, if we wish to strengthen our ability to focus during meditation:

  • The most important point is not to criticize yourself when you notice your mind has abandoned its intended focus and wandered off. This criticism is just another activity and another distraction! Just leave the intruding thought alone and return your attention to the meditation. The mind can go off like this several times during a meditation session, but don’t get disheartened – just keep re-focusing the mind and this will gradually train it to attend more fully.
  • Notice how you conduct everyday activities. If you tend to be “scatty” or disorganized by nature, try to get into the habit of seeing a job or an activity through to its completion. Whether it’s washing the dishes, filing paperwork or tidying out the garage, leave things in an ordered state. This may seem to have little relevance to a spiritual practice like meditation, but it does help strengthen the mind and resolve.
  • Try to keep the habit regular and the circumstances propitious. Have a special place for meditation and stick to it; try to meditate every day for the required time – usually 20 or 30 minutes (sometimes twice a day). Unplug the telephone and ask your family not to disturb you – this is your spiritual development and all the family will benefit from it.

The above steps will enhance your ability to concentrate and subsequently help your meditation.