Methods for Quieting the Activity of the Mechanical Mind

The mind seems always to be busy, and we seem to have a constant inner commentary about sensations, perceptions, memories, anticipated activities, hopes and dreams, and worries about situations we need to address. Then there are the drives and cravings such as hunger, thirst, or sensations of discomfort, pain or desire. The mind remains constantly busy and there seems to be no way out. When we sit for meditation, we find it almost impossible to get rid of all of this activity, and in fact, simply because we are sitting quietly and trying to still the mind, we become much more aware of the activity than when we are involved in our constant round of activities externally.

Sri Aurobindo treats this as a more or less mechanical action of the mind and provides us various tools to address this. A primary aid is the separation of the witness-consciousness from the active nature. As we shift to this new standpoint, we begin to experience the mechanical action of the mind as something external to our awareness, and thus, it becomes easier to either disregard it or even reject it.

It is important, however, to exercise patience. Any impatience represents the stirring of rajasic desire which has the opposite effect and tends to disturb the mind rather than quiet it. The long habit of the mechanical mind is not something that is resolved in a day.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The mind is always in activity, but we do not observe fully what it is doing, but allow ourselves to be carried away in the stream of continual thinking. When we try to concentrate, this stream of self-made mechanical thinking becomes prominent to our observation. It is the first normal obstacle (the other is sleep during meditation) to the effort for yoga.”

“The best thing to do is to realise that the thought-flow is not yourself, it is not you who are thinking, but thought that is going on in the mind. It is Prakriti with its thought-energy that is raising all this whirl of thought in you, imposing it on the Purusha. You as the Purusha must stand back as the witness observing the action, but refusing to identify yourself with it. The next thing is to exercise a control and reject the thoughts — though sometimes by the very act of detachment the thought-habit falls away or diminishes during the meditation and there is a sufficient silence or at any rate a quietude which makes it easy to reject the thoughts that come and fix oneself on the object of meditation. If one becomes aware of the thoughts as coming from outside, from the universal Nature, then one can throw them out before they reach the mind; in that way the mind finally falls silent. If neither of these things happens, a persistent practice of rejection becomes necessary — there should be no struggle or wrestling with the thought, but only a quiet self-separation and refusal. Success does not come at first, but if consent is constantly withheld, the mechanical whirl eventually ceases and begins to die away and one can then have at will an inner quietude or silence.”

“It should be noted that the result of the yogic processes is not, except in rare cases, immediate and one must apply the will-patience till they give a result which is sometimes long in coming if there is much resistance in the outer nature.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 92-93


Tips for Optimizing Concentration

Substance rules over form. This concept is well known in legal circles when equity between parties is at issue. It also is obviously an important thing to remember in any field of life, but most especially in the practice of yoga. Sri Aurobindo illustrates this concept with several specific examples. Most people want to follow a set of specific rules to succeed in yoga. They are trained on how exactly to seat themselves, what exact breathing techniques to utilize, the exact manner of intoning the mantra, the timing of their practice and even where to focus their concentration. They are advised to focus, for example, between the eyebrows or at the tip of the nose, or in the heart. They believe that if they can carry out these external forms precisely they will achieve realisation.

Sri Aurobindo brings added clarity to this subject. While the form of the word or mantra may be important, it is more important to dwell on the deeper meaning of the term so that it is not simply a rote mechanical repetition one undertakes, but a full immersion in the meaning. Similarly, the question of where to focus the concentration is not related to a near-sighted attention to specific bodily areas, but refers to where the consciousness is “seated” during the process of concentration or meditation. It is not the space between the eyebrows that must be focused on, but rather, the Divine intention which is the object of the concentration, while the awareness “seats” itself in the specific location.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “If one concentrates on a thought or a word, one has to dwell on the essential idea contained in the word with the aspiration to feel the thing which it expresses.”

“There is no harm in concentrating sometimes in the heart and sometimes above the head. But concentration in either place does not mean keeping the attention fixed on a particular spot; you have to take your station of consciousness in either place and concentrate there not on the place, but on the Divine. This can be done with eyes shut or with eyes open, according as it best suits you.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 91-92

Yogic Concentration

The power of concentration is well-known. It is a power that we utilize daily to accomplish the various tasks set before us, or to achieve some goal that we have set for ourselves. In yoga, also, the power of concentration is required. The focus and intention behind the concentration is the primary difference between ordinary concentration and that utilized by practitioners of yoga. In his lectures on Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda devotes considerable efforts to explain concentration, describing the processes outlined by Patanjali, and how it can be intensified and focused, and the kind of results one can obtain. A systematic process of purification, quieting of the mind, control of the posture and the breath, and eventually, directing the concentration upon specific subjects or objects, is outlined. As the concentration intensifies, it becomes more and more directed and extraneous thoughts, feelings, and perceptions drop off. The result of such concentration is to see the manifestation of certain Siddhis, or powers, that arise when concentration is focused in particular areas, or attainment of the state of Samadhi. Sri Aurobindo provides additional insights to the process of concentration.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Ordinarily the consciousness is spread out everywhere, dispersed, running in this or that direction, after this subject and that object in multitude. When anything has to be done of a sustained nature the first thing one does is to draw back all this dispersed consciousness and concentrate. It is then, if one looks closely, bound to be concentrated in one place and on one occupation, subject or object — as when you are composing a poem or a botanist is studying a flower. The place is usually somewhere in the brain if it is the thought, in the heart if it is the feeling in which one is concentrated. The yogic concentration is simply an extension and intensification of the same thing. It may be on an object as when one does Tratak on a shining point — then one has to concentrate so that one sees only that point and has no other thought than that. It may be on an idea or word or a name, the idea of the Divine, the word OM, the name Krishna, or a combination of idea and word or idea and name. But further in yoga one also concentrates in a particular place. There is the famous rule of concentrating between the eyebrows — the centre of the inner mind, of occult vision, of the will is there. What you do is to think firmly from there on whatever you make the object of your concentration or else try to see the image of it from there. If you succeed in this then after a time you feel that your whole consciousness is centred there in that place — of course for the time being. After doing it for some time and often it becomes easy and normal….”

“It may be asked what becomes of the rest of the consciousness when there is this local concentration? Well, it either falls silent as in any concentration or, if it does not, then thoughts or other things may move about, as if outside, but the concentrated part does not attend to them or notice. That is when the concentration is reasonably successful.”

“One has not to fatigue oneself at first by long concentration if one is not accustomed, for then in a jaded mind it loses its power and value. One can relax and meditate instead of concentrating. It is only as the concentration becomes normal that one can go on for a longer and longer time.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 90-91

Distinguishing Concentration and Meditation from One Another

If we observe the mental status that takes place at times when we focus on achieving some objective or other, taking a test, working on a project, running a race, playing music, or creating some work of art, for example, we see that the attention is focused intensely on the task at hand, and there is in most cases, little perception of extraneous sensations or matters, or even of the passage of time. This is concentration. Concentration also applies when the focus is turned toward spiritual development, for instance, through intensive visualisation of a mandala, or through focus on awareness between the eyebrows, or in the heart region, or mindful attention on the breath or on recitation of a particular mantra. Brainwaves in a state of concentration tend to be tightly packed, dense and strong.

Meditation, on the other hand, has a different character when we view the process inwardly. The mental process may be more relaxed, the brainwaves less intense and more widely spaced from each other as the mind moves along its chosen object of meditation. Meditation, by definition, is an inward process, while concentration may be focused either internally or externally.

Each of these processes has its time and place and both clearly can be aids to the spiritual growth of the individual. It may be noted that in his lectures on Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda systematically explores the process of achieving concentration and describes the power of concentration and its effects. One-pointed focus is considered to be one of the ultimate achievements of spiritual discipline.

We find that the mind cannot remain constantly in a state of intense concentration. Thus, an alternation with the process of meditation can be highly beneficial and refreshing to the mind. Meditation is more reflective in nature, while concentration is more active.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Concentration is a gathering together of the consciousness and either centralising at one point or turning on a single object, e.g., the Divine; there can also be a gathered condition throughout the whole being, not at a point. In meditation it is not indispensable to gather like this, one can simply remain with a quiet mind thinking of one subject or observing what comes in the consciousness and dealing with it.”

“Concentration means fixing the consciousness in one place or on one object and in a single condition. Meditation can be diffusive, e.g., thinking about the Divine, receiving impressions and discriminating, watching what goes on in the nature and acting upon it, etc.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 89-90

Determining the Appropriate Posture for Beginning with Meditation

For someone beginning with meditation, every aspect of the process raises a question. One of these questions relates to the body. The eventual goal is to attain a state whereby meditation can occur regardless of what the body is doing or how it is positioned. However, this is not usually the way things start out. Sri Aurobindo responds on this point.

The practice of Yoga Nidra is widely discussed in modern yoga circles. This involves attaining a lying-down posture for the body and then systematically relaxing all the limbs, muscles and calming the breathing, such that a state of deep relaxation and meditation can result. This practice frequently leads to a state of sleep, as the mind, the breath and the body all are habituated to treat such actions as an invitation to sleep.

If one attempts meditation while walking or standing, there is an increased level of alertness to the outer world, as well as physical reactions required to remain standing or moving, and these are habitually treated as an invitation to the consciousness moving outwards to the external world.

It is thus that the seated posture becomes the most recommended one for those starting with meditation. There are many recommendations for specific asanas to be attained, and specific ways of sitting to be followed, but the main issue for starting meditation should be a comfortable seated posture that can be held motionless for some time while the mind moves its focus inward or upward.

Eventually, as the practice of meditation deepens in the being, it can take place anywhere under any circumstances. The seeker, however, should be prepared for steps or stages to reach this result.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The sitting motionless posture is the natural posture for concentrated meditation — walking and standing are active conditions. It is only when one has gained the enduring rest and passivity of the consciousness that it is easy to concentrate and receive when walking or doing anything. A fundamental passive condition of the consciousness gathered in itself is the proper poise for concentration and a seated gathered immobility in the body is the best position for that. It can be done also lying down, but that position is too passive, tending to be inert rather than gathered. This is the reason why yogis always sit in an asana. One can accustom oneself to meditate walking, standing, lying but sitting is the first natural position.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg. 87

Concentration Is Not the Same As Meditation

There is considerable confusion about meditation and concentration. They are, however, not quite the same. Achieving a meditative state inwardly can aid in the development of concentration. Certain forms of meditation utilize techniques that lead to concentration. Yet meditation can be calm, relaxed and peaceful without being a concentrated state of awareness that focuses on a single point, which is the definition of concentration. It can be ‘blank’ of ‘content’. Certain forms of meditation let the mind rest quietly in a state of vast general awareness, which is not ‘concentration’. In the stillness that thus arises in the mind, concentration then becomes more possible and more effective, yet it needs to be directed at a single object, whether that is an external object, or an internal one, such as the fire of aspiration that directs the attention solely to the Divine.

One can distinguish the gathered, focused energy of concentration through its intensity and the amplitude of the waves of awareness from the broader waves with lower amplitude of the meditative state. Scientists can measure the difference of waves being generated and have assigned different letters of the Greek alphabet to certain waves that are prevalent in the state of meditation from those that arise in the concentrated state, thus validating from the scientific perspective the differences between the two.

A disciple asks: “I read in the Conversations (1956): ‘Concentration alone will lead you to this goal.’ Should one increase the time of meditation?”

The Mother writes: “Concentration does not mean meditation; on the contrary, concentration is a state one must be in continuously, whatever the outer activity. By concentration I mean that all the energy, all the will, all the aspiration must be turned only towards the Divine and His integral realisation in our consciousness.”

“To keep constantly a concentrated and in-gathered attitude is more important than having fixed hours of meditation.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter IV Growth of Consciousness First Steps and Foundation, pg. 71

How to Convert Mental Seeking into Living Spiritual Experience

Sri Aurobindo describes the first step to move from a mental seeking to a living spiritual experience as “the practice of concentration of your consciousness within yourself.” We ask what this means exactly. Some observation of our mental state discloses what we normally consider to be concentration. We focus on solving some issue or problem in our lives, or we focus on some experience, some opportunity, some relationship, some event. In each case, we turn our concentration outwards towards the external world and attach our focus to those external objects. If we are not concentrated on some specific outer circumstance, we are, for the most part, receiving sense perceptions, and moving more or less randomly through whatever presents itself to our senses, or rises up as a result of past impressions. We may experience hunger or thirst, desire or ambition of some sort, or may simply distract our attention through various forms of entertainment. We may be caught up in the idea of accumulating clothes, or technology or cars, or jewelry. These distractions do not involve much in the way of concentration generally and the mind jumps from one object to another when concentration is lacking. None of this however, represents the “concentration within oneself” Sri Aurobindo references.

When the seeker first attempts to understand and experience an inner concentration, he is immediately confronted with the almost endless distracting forces of sense perceptions, feelings, thoughts, ideas, and emotions. There is no settled peace in the mind and he may feel like it is an impossible task! Yogic science provides various guiding techniques to systematically prepare for an inward concentration. Regardless of the specific method chosen, with regular practice and patience, the mind eventually comes to a status of quiescence which is the basis for inward concentration. Some paths advise following the breath in and out to attain this initial stage. Others use the combination of a mantra with the breath to drive out thoughts or perceptions which can act as disturbances. Still others recommend putting the whole attention on creation of a mood that one becomes, such as deep aspiration, where nothing else can intervene and the entire being is focused on this aspiration. Focusing on a visualisation, or even on a single point of light can move one away from the surface being and eventually a point comes where one can lose track of time, space and circumstance and simply dwell in an inner space of light and calm. The experience,when it first arises, may occur without warning and without any form of expectation as the consciousness simply shifts away from all surface distractions. It may be helpful to create a space, and a specific time to quiet the mind and undertake the practice, as the regular process sets up a rhythm in the being. Once the inward awareness becomes quite regular, the seeker no longer need depend on such a formal practice or discipline to recreate the inner space of awareness.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “You have asked what is the discipline to be followed in order to convert the mental seeking into a living spiritual experience. The first necessity is the practice of concentration of your consciousness within yourself. The ordinary human mind has an activity on the surface which veils the real Self. But there is another, a hidden consciousness within behind the surface, one in which we can become aware of the real Self and of a larger deeper truth of nature, can realise the Self and liberate and transform the nature. To quiet the surface mind and begin to live within is the object of this concentration.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter IV Growth of Consciousness First Steps and Foundation, pp. 70-71

The Power of Concentration is the Key to Realization in All Fields of Life

Every major accomplishment in human life involves some form of concentration. We live in a modern world that systematically distracts and disperses the mind, thus making it more difficult to achieve a state of concentration. Cell phones, internet surfing, music, flashing lights, entertainment, fast moving vehicles, powerful storms, news media gathering sensational reports to place before us 24 hours a day. It is a wonder that we can concentrate at all in the modern world! Those who achieve even a small modicum of concentration are able to achieve success in their field of focus far beyond that of most others who remain distracted and whose consciousness is confused, diffused and fragmented by falling victim to the distracting forces of modern day life.

For spiritual practitioners the development of the power of concentration is an important milestone in achieving spiritual realisation. Those who have a spiritual calling are frequently asked to avoid involvement with all the distracting influences, so they can focus on the object of their aspiration.

Some paths of yoga set forth intricate and highly detailed methods to train the concentration, such as the use of visualisation and the precise coordination and ordering of beings, shapes, colors and relationships. Mandalas, yantras, thangkas all represent methods that show or symbolize some force, event or relationship in the world of matter or the world of spirit. Disciples are asked to visualize these forms internally and to re-create them with utmost precision. This leads to a state of one-pointed concentration.

Raja Yoga also describes the processes whereby one attains “one pointed” concentration, which this path considers to be an essential aspect of the development of the super-conscient state characterized by the experience of samadhi.

Each of the major forms of yoga in the triple paths of knowledge, devotion and works, involves concentration on the respective objects of each path, whether it is light or some specific concept, a deity, a dedicated form of action, or some state of awareness to be developed and held intact, such as aspiration, devotion, surrender, etc.

The Mother observes: “… whatever you may want to do in life, one thing is absolutely indispensable and at the basis of everything, the capacity of concentrating the attention. If you are able to gather together the rays of attention and consciousness on one point and can maintain this concentration with a persistent will, nothing can resist it — whatever it may be, from the most material physical development to the highest spiritual one. But this discipline must be followed in a constant and, it may be said, imperturbable way; not that you should always be concentrated on the same thing — that’s not what I mean, I mean learning to concentrate. And materially, for studies, sports, all physical or mental development, it is absolutely indispensable. And the value of an individual is proportionate to the value of his attention.”

“And from the spiritual point of view it is still more important. There is no spiritual obstacle which can resist a penetrating power of concentration. For instance, the discovery of the psychic being, union with the inner Divine, opening to the higher spheres, all can be attained by an intense and obstinate power of concentration — but one must learn how to do it.”

“There is nothing in the human or even in the superhuman field, to which the power of concentration is not the key. … You can be the best athlete, you can be the best student, you can be an artistic, literary or scientific genius, you can be the greatest saint with that faculty. And everyone has in himself a tiny little beginning of it — it is given to everybody, but people do not cultivate it.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter IV Growth of Consciousness First Steps and Foundation, pp. 69-70

Focusing on the Signal While Eliminating the Noise: Concentration and Purification

Consider briefly that you have a television set that receives all the available channels, but you cannot tune the set, so that all picture and sound from the entire frequency range come in at the same time and mix up with each other, along with the static that occurs between various station signals. Obviously such a system is chaotic and does not function properly. In order to receive, understand and utilize whichever channel you want to watch, you need to be able to tune to that specific frequency and exclude all the others. Whether you are looking for spiritual instruction, religious channels, educational teachings, dramas, comedies, or cooking channels or those catering to other desires, the ability to focus and tune and maintain the setting is essential.

Our conscious awareness functions in a similar manner. We have the capability of receiving vibrations across a wide range of frequencies, but we tend to have a stream of confusing and mixed up incoming perceptions and the responses they provoke unless we have the ability to concentrate and focus on a particular signal, and eliminate the static and the conflicting signals at the same time. We need to focus on the desired “signal” and eliminate the ‘noise” from our interaction. Thus, concentration and purification go hand in hand for us to successfully interact with the manifestation of which we are a part.

The seeker’s role is to systematically work to tune toward the desired frequency that supports the spiritual aspiration and growth, and then to systematically reduce, and eventually eliminate the interference from competing signals that distract or take us away from the focus.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Along with purity and as a help to bring it about, concentration. Purity and concentration are indeed two aspects, feminine and masculine, passive and active, of the same status of being; purity is the condition in which concentration becomes entire, rightly effective, omnipotent; by concentration purity does its works and without it would only lead to a state of peaceful quiescence and eternal repose…. The fault of our nature is first an inert subjection to the impacts of things as they come in upon the mind pell-mell without order or control and then a haphazard imperfect concentration managed fitfully, irregularly with a more or less chance emphasis on this or on that object according as they happen to interest, not the higher soul or the judging and discerning intellect, but the restless, leaping, fickle, easily tired, easily distracted lower mind which is the chief enemy of our progress. In such a condition purity, the right working of the functions, the clear, unstained and luminous order of the being is an impossibility; the various workings, given over to the chances of the environment and external influences, must necessarily run into each other and clog, divert, distract, pervert. Equally, without purity the complete, equal, flexible concentration of the being in right thought, right will, right feeling or secure status of spiritual experience is not possible. Therefore the two must proceed together, each helping the victory of the other, until we arrive at that eternal calm from which may proceed some partial image in the human being of the eternal, omnipotent and omniscient activity.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter IV Growth of Consciousness First Steps and Foundation, pp. 68-69

Bringing Harmony Between the Inner Psychic Being and the External Nature

For Sri Aurobindo, truth of the spirit is to be lived, not attained by abandonment of life in the world. He looks at the evolution of body, life and mind as steps along the evolutionary process, and each one of them represents an important stage in an ongoing development. The action of these instruments is to be uplifted and perfected as new evolutionary powers enter into the world. The developed human being can participate consciously in this process, and thereby aid in bringing forth these new powers and transforming the nature and thereby the life in the world.

Sri Aurobindo recounts two primary mechanisms whereby the individual aligns himself with this development. The safest and easiest is the linking of the being with the inner psychic entity, the soul, deep within behind the heart. This brings a sense of devotion, compassion, good will and aspiration that helps to overcome all doubts, fears and uncertainties along the way. For some individuals, however, the path of development and linkage lies primarily through the mental centre. This path involves the shifting of the standpoint to one of the witness of the nature, and then exerting from there the pressure to break through the habitual patterns of the external being. Eventually, either way, there must result a harmony between the inner being, the aspiring soul, and the outer nature and actions so that the outer reflects the sense of the inner.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The other side of discipline is with regard to the activities of the nature, of the mind, of the life-self or vital, of the physical being. Here the principle is to accord the nature with the inner realisation so that one may not be divided into two discordant parts. There are here several disciplines or processes possible. One is to offer all the activities to the Divine and call for the inner guidance and the taking up of one’s nature by a Higher Power. If there is the inward soul-opening, if the psychic being comes forward, then there is no great difficulty — there comes with it a psychic discrimination, a constant intimation, finally a governance which discloses and quietly and patiently removes all imperfections, brings the right mental and vital movements and reshapes the physical consciousness also. Another method is to stand back detached from the movements of the mind, life, physical being, to regard their activities as only a habitual formation of general Nature in the individual imposed on us by past workings, not as any part of our real being; in proportion as one succeeds in this, becomes detached, sees mind and its activities as not oneself, life and its activities as not oneself, the body and its activities as not oneself, one becomes aware of an inner Being within us — inner mental, inner vital, inner physical — silent, calm, unbound, unattached which reflects the true Self above and can be its direct representative; from this inner silent Being proceeds a rejection of all that is to be rejected, an acceptance only of what can be kept and transformed, an inmost Will to perfection or a call to the Divine Power to do at each step what is necessary for the change of the Nature. It can also open mind, life and body to the inmost psychic entity and its guiding influence or its direct guidance. In most cases these two methods emerge and work together and finally fuse into one. But one can begin with either, the one that one feels most natural and easy to follow.”

“Finally, in all difficulties where personal effort is hampered, the help of the Teacher can intervene and bring about what is needed for the realisation or for the immediate step that is necessary.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Exercises for Growth and Mastery, Awakening the Inner Consciousness, pp. 134-138