Remember the last time you were totally focused and immerged in one activity? Whether something creative like painting or writing, or something physical like dancing or running, your mind was still except for that one thing.
This kind of state of total focus...It's a peaceful feeling, don't you agree? This in its essence is Dharana, the total concentration of the mind.
What is Dharana?
When we have moved on the eight-fold path of yoga through asana practice, meditation and control of the senses, we are ready to go deeper. This is where we start Dharana, the binding of the consciousness to a single point.
Dharana is about fixing the mind to one specific point. This could be something internal, like part of the body or a chakra, or something external like a picture, statue or another object. 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.
When we focus the mind intensely into one point, the rest of the mind tends to quiet down. When we practice concentration like this, there is less room for other thoughts, memories, and planning that the mind tends to otherwise be busy with.
Dharana is an important step on our way to the next step, Dhyana, meditation. We need to be able to concentrate the mind before we can move further. Although the last three steps on the eightfold path, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are all very interconnected. These three last steps represent the internal yoga, the activities of the mind, and they are independent from the physical senses.
We first will have the deep concentration of Dharana, through which we can move towards Dhyana, meditation, and finally Samadhi, union with the Whole.
Dharana in Practice
When you practice Dharana, try to find a comfortable seated position, one that doesn't take too much effort to stay in. When the muscles start pulling or the legs start twitching, the mind tends to follow the sensations and the concentration can be easily lost.
You can choose to close your eyes and focus on something within you, or focus your mind on a picture or an object in front of you. Imagine giving your mind the freedom to roam around, but in a very restricted area.
You are the one choosing what this restricted area is, and the mind is free to explore within the limits you set it. You can start with a wider area to concentrate on, to start with a wider circle of freedom for the mind. As you progress, the area of your concentration can become smaller and smaller.
Benefits of Dharana
When we practice Dharana, the mind gets peaceful. We strengthen the mind by focusing on one area and practicing control of the mind. The mind is like a muscle we can train, and it's not beyond our control that the thoughts just come and take us away with them. We are in control, and Dharana is one way we can practice this control.
When you have been practicing Dharana, you will find that general concentration in different areas of life becomes easier. You can study without the mind continuously running from here to there while you are trying to concentrate.
Practicing Dharana helps to focus and quiet the mind on our way to meditation. It gives the mind something to chew on while quieting the rest. Practicing Dharana helps us to become more aware of our mind throughout the day. Especially when we are experiencing strong emotions in life, Dharana can help to balance these feelings and we can find a place of rest.
Dharana in Daily Life
Ideally, we should remain in a state of Dharana throughout the entire day. Only focusing on the task at hand, only allowing the mind to stay where we want it to stay, using it like a tool at our disposal. But before we get to this point, let's just enjoy the small moments.
Modern life demands a lot from our focus, and the constant fast pace, jumping from one thing to the other, from emails to Facebook to TV to music makes the mind restless. It starts to get used to constant distractions, and old-fashioned focus in one thing gets lost.
To integrate this practice into your life, start by trying to concentrate on one thing at a time, whatever that may be. When you eat, just eat and don't read and browse the internet at the same time. When you go out for a walk, just walk and don't talk to your friends on the phone.
Instead of browsing through magazines or the internet, read something substantial where your mind has to really focus on for a period of time. When you wash the dishes, focus purely on what you are doing. These are all ways to start to practice Dharana in your life.
Then you can slowly move towards more focused concentration, towards meditation and eventually towards glimpses of unity with the whole. Until then, find peace and joy in the practice, in trusting yourself, in not giving up and showing up for yourself.