According to raja yoga, concentration (dharana) is a phase that proceeds into meditation (dhyan). Dharana is the sixth step of the ashtanga-yoga of Patañjali, who explains:
deshah bandhah chittasya dharana
Concentration (dharana) is the process of maintaining or fixing the attention of the mind upon an object or place. (Yoga Sutra, 3.1)
Concentration is the step that precedes meditation; it involves willfully and consciously focusing the rays of attention on a certain object. Consequently, mental agitation decreases and all the rays of attention unite in a single point. Concentration allows us to forget the objective reality and facilitates meditation.
Many students, professionals, and artists wish they had better concentration as it is crucial for any type of work. Since it does not come easy to most people, we witness the appearance of numerous new methods of improving concentration. However, no technique will help us without the understanding that our mind follows our heart. It is very difficult to concentrate on something that we do not love. We are truly present wherever our heart is. But as a rule, we try to focus on objects that have not gained our complete devotion and love. Our love and affection are not integrated in one single spot.
Most people experience a variety of apparently different affections. On the surface, they seem to love basketball, cats, money, their children, family, country, and thousands of other things. These may seem like different affections, yet it is possible to integrate all of them in one single focal point of concentration if we realize the common source hidden behind them.
Life branches out into a large variety of fields and our activities require integration. For example, work seems to be disconnected from family duties. Nevertheless, they are deeply intertwined. While working, we actually fulfill our duties as the head of the family. The yogic vision aims to integrate our different occupations, affections, and inclinations.
Relating to the deity in the proper way may facilitate our integration and concentration. We should understand that the ishta devata, or “preferred deity,” is not an object among many others but includes everything. Therefore, nothing separate from it can distract our attention. In our ishta devata, we can find the same satisfaction that is provided by any attractive object in the universe. If we have a hundred dollars, we also have the cents contained in that sum. We do not lack cents because we only have dollars. By concentrating on the Whole, we will naturally cease to worry about the parts and our mind will stop jumping from one object to another. This concentration spontaneously flows into meditation. Unlike mundane love, devotion to God is inclusive. It contains everything that evokes in us some degree of affection and attraction. True bhakti is born from the understanding that the deity is a representation of the Whole, and the objects disappear to be then revealed as inseparable parts of God.
Idolatry is the attitude that considers God to be another object among many. A religion that evolves only on the subject-object platform cannot guide us beyond concentration. In order to meditate, we have to stop being religious and forget any idea, belief, or concept about God. When we transcend duality, we no longer speak of Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism, but of pure subjectivity.
In meditation, we get rid of religion to enter into the realm of pure consciousness, of what is, of the Self. We recognize the ocean in the wave, the Whole in the part, and the Absolute in the depths of our interior. Real concentration leads us to discover that nothing can divert our attention from the one divine nature that underlies everyone and everything.