The ability to concentrate on an object of focus is one of the key skills cultivated in insight practice. You can use this basic format to establish a concentration practice:
- Sit in a position that is relaxed but upright, using the least amount of muscle tension to hold the body in place. In concentration practice, it is important to hold the body still (to whatever degree is possible) for the period of sitting.
- Allow the breath to enter and leave the body naturally, through the nose. It isn't necessary to control the breathing. If you find yourself unable to "breathe naturally" (i.e. in an un-controlled way) that's fine.
- Bring attention to the feeling of the breath. You may choose to focus on a specific point in the body, such as the back of the throat, the nostrils, the chest, or the abdomen. You could also decide to spread awareness over the entire "body" of the breath--the changing pattern of sensations that represents the entire breathing process. Narrow focus and broad focus are both fine options. You may find that broad focus is more difficult to maintain.
- In auditory thinking, implement a counting strategy, counting from 1 up to 5, at the end of each in-breath and each out-breath. In other words, breathing in, count '1,' breathing out, count '2,' breathing in, '3,' breathing out, '4,' breathing in, '5,' breathing out, '1,' and so on.
- If you lose count, that's fine, just start back at 1.
- If that feels too hard: Feel free to stretch the numbers over the half-breaths, saying them along with each half-breath. Or repeat the numbers over and over again as each half-breath goes by. In short, put more emphasis on the counting.
- If that feels too easy: See if you can focus even more attention on the sensation of breathing, and less attention on the counting. Additional options: try going all the way to 10 before looping back. Or count only at the end of each full breath. Or count all the way up to 10 and then back down to 1. In short, make the numbering more complicated so it takes more focus to stay with.
The idea here is to focus as much attention as possible on the feeling of breathing, and as little attention as possible on the counting, without losing count. The counting is just a feedback mechanism, so you know if and when you've gotten lost in thinking (because, for example, you find yourself at '14,' or have no idea what number comes next).
If you find that thinking is going on in the background, but you haven't lost count, that's fine. As an experiment, see if you can focus even more fully on the sensations of breathing. No need to try to stop the thoughts.
As a framework for understanding concentration practice, think of it as a "full immersion" in the sensation of breathing. This can feel effortful at first, but deepening concentration often brings with it a light, gentle quality of attention. Examine the effect of applying less effort. Sometimes I use language like "falling into" experience to convey the effortless immersion of concentration.
How do I know when I'm concentrated?
Concentration is defined in different ways by different people. I like to think of it as a spectrum. We aren't going for SUUUPER concentrated, but we need to be concentrated enough that our minds our calm and agile, so we can practice meditation (or whatever else we're doing) productively. The most useful threshold to pay attention for is the moment when you are no longer pulled into any of the five forms of mental disturbance which can arise in practice. In Buddhist meditation, these are called the Five Hindrances. They are:
- Craving - Desiring physical comfort, pleasant sensations, pleasurable experiences.
- Aversion - The opposite of Craving. Pushing away discomfort, wanting to reject feelings, things, thoughts, people. Resentment, anger, harshness.
- Sloth/Torpor - Sleepiness, dullness, lack of energy.
- Restlessness/Worry - The opposite of Sloth/Torpor. Agitation, inability to settle.
- Doubt - Doubt or skepticism about whether one is practicing correctly, or whether or not meditation is useful.
In any moment when none of these hindrances are present during meditation, I would claim that concentration is stable and sufficient. And of course, some days will be more concentrated than others. That's ok! All we can do is sit on our cushion and be sincere. I've been practicing for 8 years and I experience these hindrances regularly!
...If you'd like to read more on the Five Hindrances, the WikiPedia article is great.