How To Concentrate When Meditating

This article first appeared in and is written by Dr. Paula Watkins

I’ve been witnessing a disturbing trend recently. Let’s call it the Protestant work ethic of meditation. Instantly recognizable when seen, it looks a little like this: furrowed forehead, scrunched nose, determined stiffness.

Firm and steady? Check.

Focused? Check.

At ease? Not really.

In flow with what is? Not a chance.

Behind those tense, determined eyelids there’s a mind ruled by some version of the “no pain, no gain” philosophy.

If it isn’t hard, it can’t be worth it.

If it’s easy, nothing’s happening.

Where do those beliefs come from? In modern mainstream meditation literature, they’re rampant. Simply Google meditation and you can probably find several versions of the following article titles:

  • “7 reasons it’s hard to meditate”
  • “Why we find it hard to meditate”
  • “Why is meditation so difficult?”

They have some basis in reality. The paradox is that meditation is at once so completely natural — what could be more natural than dropping into the flow of life exactly as it is? — while simultaneously at odds with much of the ancient and habitual processes of the brain and mind. So what can we do about it?

Here we can turn to yoga, a system that includes the practice of meditation. Specifically, we can turn to the teaching of balancing polarities. In Sanskrit: sthira sukham asanam.

This phrase means be steady (sthira) but comfortable (sukha); firm but soft; resolute but relaxed; strong but gentle; changeless but adaptive; vigilant but at ease. The teaching, from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, applies to meditation and daily life as much as it does to any yoga posture, or asana. After all, asana also translates as seat or camp — meaning a way of sitting (i.e. sitting for meditation) and way of setting up (i.e. “setting up camp”).

How do we set up camp and enter into the ritual of meditation? Do we even use the word ritual? Or do we see our meditation practice as a routine. Perhaps even a regimen (shudder). Semantics matter. Narratives matter. Do we set ourselves up in a mindset that brings sukha (joy and ease) to our practice or are we leaning a little too much to the side of sthira?

More practically, when we find ourselves with furrowed foreheads and deeply determined brows, we can embody — meaning physically exemplify — the sukha/ease that we need to balance all that firmness. How?

Wobble. Seriously, wobble on your base. Yes, I actually mean that. Shake it up a little. Loosen it out. Try it. You’ll see.

Then gently let the body settle back in, and smile. Relax the entire jaw, including the tongue. Soften the brows. Release the muscles behind the eyes and immerse into the delicious spot between effort and ease. It’s not so hard.

Dr. Paula Watkins is a clinical psychologist, meditation expert, and also holds a PhD in Public Health and Community Medicine.

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