Swami Vivekananda on Concentration

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Editor’s note: This is a transcript of a lecture given by Swami Vivekananda at San Francisco on March 16, 1900. It is available in Volume 4 of Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda.


All knowledge that we have, either of the external or internal world, is obtained through only one method — by the concentration of the mind. No knowledge can be had of any science unless we can concentrate our minds upon the subject. The astronomer concentrates his mind through the telescope… and so on.

If you want to study your own mind, it will be the same process. You will have to concentrate your mind and turn it back upon itself. The difference in this world between mind and mind is simply the fact of concentration. One, more concentrated than the other, gets more knowledge.

In the lives of all great men, past and present, we find this tremendous power of concentration. Those are men of genius, you say. The science of Yoga tells us that we are all geniuses if we try hard to be. Some will come into this life better fitted and will do it quicker perhaps. We can all do the same. The same power is in everyone.

The subject of the present lecture is how to concentrate the mind in order to study the mind itself. Yogis have laid down certain rules and this night I am going to give you a sketch of some of these rules.

Concentration, of course, comes from various sources. Through the senses you can get concentration. Some get it when they hear beautiful music, others when they see beautiful scenery. Some get concentrated by lying upon beds of spikes, sharp iron spikes, others by sitting upon sharp pebbles. These are extraordinary cases using most unscientific procedure. Scientific procedure is gradually training the mind.

One gets concentrated by holding his arm up. Torture gives him the concentration he wants. But all these are extraordinary.

Universal methods have been organised according to different philosophers. Some say the state we want to attain is superconsciousness of the mind — going beyond the limitations the body has made for us.

The value of ethics to the Yogi lies in that it makes the mind pure.

The purer the mind, the easier it is to control it. The mind takes every thought that rises and works it out. The grosser the mind, the more difficult it is to control it. The immoral man will never be able to concentrate his mind to study psychology. He may get a little control as he begins, get a little power of hearing… and even those powers will go from him.

The difficulty is that if you study closely, you see how the extraordinary power arrived at was not attained by regular scientific training. The men who, by the power of magic, control serpents will be killed by serpents. The man who attains any extraordinary powers will in the long run succumb to those powers. There are millions who receive power through all sorts of ways in India. The vast majority of them die raving lunatics. Quite a number commit suicide, the mind being unbalanced.

The study must be put on the safe side: scientific, slow, peaceful.

The first requisite is to be moral. Such a man wants the gods to come down, and they will come down and manifest themselves to him. That is our psychology and philosophy in essence, to be perfectly moral. Just think what that means! No injury, perfect purity, perfect austerity! These are absolutely necessary. Just think, if a man can attain all these in perfection! What more do you want?

If he is free from all enmity towards any being, all animals will give up their enmity in his presence. The Yogis lay down very strict laws, so that one cannot pass off for a charitable man without being charitable.

If you believe me, I have seen a man who used to live in a hole and there were cobras and frogs living with him. [The reference is evidently to Pavhari Baba.] Sometimes he would fast for days and months and then come out. He was always silent. . .

My old master used to say, “When the lotus of the heart has bloomed, the bees will come by themselves.” Men like that are there yet. They need not talk. When the man is perfect from his heart, without a thought of hatred, all animals will give up their hatred before him. So with purity. These are necessary for our dealings with our fellow beings.

We must love all, we have no business to look at the faults of others. It does no good. We must not even think of them. Our business is with the good. We are not here to deal with faults. Our business is to be good.

Here comes Miss So-and-so. She says, “I am going to be a Yogi.” She tells the news twenty times, meditates fifty days, then she says, “There is nothing in this religion. I have tried it. There is nothing in it.”

The very basis of spiritual life is not there. The foundation must be this perfect morality. That is the great difficulty.

In our country there are vegetarian sects. They will take in the early morning pounds of sugar and place it on the ground for ants. The story is that when one of them was putting sugar on the ground for ants, a man placed his foot upon the ants. The former said, “Wretch, you have killed the animals!” And he gave him such a blow that it killed the man.

External purity is very easy and all the world rushes towards it. If a certain kind of dress is the kind of morality to be observed, any fool can do that. When it is grappling with the mind itself, it is hard work.

The people who do external, superficial things are so self-righteous! I remember, when I was a boy I had great regard for the character of Jesus Christ. Then I read about the wedding feast in the Bible. I closed the book and said, “He ate meat and drank wine! He cannot be a good man.”

We are always losing sight of the real meaning of things. The little eating and dress! Every fool can see that. Who sees that which is beyond? It is culture of the heart that we want. …

One mass of people in India we see bathing twenty times a day sometimes, making themselves very pure. And they do not touch anyone. … The coarse facts, the external things! If by bathing one could be pure, fish are the purest beings.

Bathing, and dress, and food regulation — all these have their proper value when they are complementary to the spiritual. That is first, and these all help. But without it, no amount of eating grass is any good at all. They are helps if properly understood. But improperly understood, they are derogatory.

This is the reason why I am explaining these things. First, because in all religions everything degenerates upon being practiced by the ignorant. The camphor in the bottle evaporated, and they are fighting over the bottle.

Another thing: Spirituality evaporates when they say, “This is right, and that is wrong.” All quarrels are with forms and creeds, never in the spirit. The Buddhist offered for years glorious preaching; gradually, this spirituality evaporated. Similarly with Christianity.

And then began the quarrel whether it is three gods in one or one in three, when nobody wants to go to God Himself and know what He is. We have to go to God Himself to know whether He is three in one or one in three.

Now, with this explanation, the posture. Trying to control the mind, a certain posture is necessary. Any posture in which the person can sit easily — that is the posture for that person. As a rule, you will find that the spinal column must be left free. It is not intended to bear the weight of the body. The only thing to remember in the sitting posture: use any posture in which the spine is perfectly free of the weight of the body.

Next Prānāyāma, the breathing exercises. A great deal of stress is laid upon breathing. What I am telling you is not something gleaned from some sect in India. It is universally true. Just as in this country you teach your children certain prayers, in India they get the children and give them certain facts etc.

Children are not taught any religion in India except one or two prayers. Then they begin to seek for somebody with whom they can get en rapport. They go to different persons and find that “This man is the man for me,” and get initiation.

If I am married, my wife may possibly get another man teacher and my son will get somebody else, and that is always my secret between me and my teacher. The wife’s religion the husband need not know, and he would not dare ask her what her religion is. It is well known that they would never say. It is only known to that person and the teacher.

Sometimes you will find that what would be quite ludicrous to one will be just teaching for another. Each is carrying his own burden and is to be helped according to his particular mind. It is the business of every individual, between him, his teacher, and God. But there are certain general methods which all these teachers preach. Breathing and meditating are universal. That is the worship in India.

On the banks of the Gangā, we will see men, women, and children all practicing breathing and then meditating. Of course, they have other things to do. They cannot devote much time to this. But those who have taken this as the study of life, they practice various methods. There are eighty-four different āsana-s (postures). Those that take it up under some person, they always feel the breath and the movements in all the different parts of the body.

Next comes Dhāranā or concentration. Dhāranā is holding the mind in certain spots.

The Hindu boy or girl gets initiation. He gets from his Guru a word. This is called the root word. This word is given to the Guru by his Guru, and he gives it to his disciple. One such word is OM. All these symbols have a great deal of meaning, and they hold it secret, never write it. They must receive it through the ear — not through writing — from the teacher, and then hold it as God himself. Then they meditate on the word.

I used to pray like that at one time, all through the rainy season, four months. I used to get up and take a plunge in the river, and with all my wet clothes on repeat the Mantra till the sun set. Then I ate something — a little rice or something. Four months in the rainy season!

The Indian mind believes that there is nothing in the world that cannot be obtained.

If a man wants money in this country, he goes to work and earns money. There, he gets a formula and sits under a tree and believes that money must come. Everything must come by the power of his thought. You make money here. It is the same thing. You put forth your whole energy upon money making.

There are some sects called Hatha-Yogis. They say the greatest good is to keep the body from dying. Their whole process is clinging to the body. Twelve years training! And they begin with little children, otherwise it is impossible. One thing is very curious about the Hatha-Yogi. When he first becomes a disciple, he goes into the wilderness and lives alone forty days exactly. All they have they learn within those forty days.

A man in Calcutta claims to have lived five hundred years. The people all tell me that their grandfathers saw him. He takes a constitutional twenty miles, never walks, he runs. Goes into the water, covers himself from top to toe with mud. After that he plunges again into the water, again sticks himself with mud. I do not see any good in that. He must be very old, because I have travelled fourteen years in India and wherever I went everybody knew him. He has been travelling all his life.

The Hatha-Yogi will swallow a piece of rubber eighty inches long and take it out again. Four times a day he has to wash every part of his body, internal and external parts. The walls can keep their bodies thousands of years. What of that? I would not want to live so long. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” One little body, with all its delusions and limitations, is enough.

On Concentration, Interest and Attention

There are other sects. They give you a drop of the elixir of life and you remain young. It will take me months to enumerate all the sects. All their activity is on this side in the material world. Every day a new sect.

The power of all those sects is in the mind. Their idea is to hold the mind. First concentrate it and hold it at a certain place. They generally say, at certain parts of the body along the spinal column or upon the nerve centres. By holding the mind at the nerve centres, the Yogi gets power over the body. The body is the great cause of disturbance to his peace, is opposite of his highest ideal, so he wants control: to keep the body as servant.

Then comes meditation. That is the highest state. When the mind is doubtful that is not its great state. Its great state is meditation. It looks upon things and sees things, not identifying itself with anything else. As long as I feel pain, I have identified myself with the body. When I feel joy or pleasure, I have identified myself with the body.

But the high state will look with the same pleasure or blissfulness upon pleasure or upon pain. …

Every meditation is direct superconsciousness. In perfect concentration the soul becomes actually free from the bonds of the gross body and knows itself as it is.

Whatever one wants, that comes to him. Power and knowledge are already there. The soul identifies itself with that which is powerless matter and thus weeps. It identifies itself with mortal shapes. … But if that free soul wants to exercise any power, it will have it. If it does not, it does not come.

He who has known God has become God. There is nothing impossible to such a free soul. No more birth and death for him. He is free for ever.

Also Read:
Meditation and Concentration

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