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Concentration is impossible for most people for there are too many inner and outer disturbances. During meditative practice one is either overwhelmed by a continuous stream of inner mental chatter, worries, etc. or on the other hand, one is unable to break away from external noises and other disturbances. Both of these distractions prevent meditation. Of course, the inability to shut off outer noises is really a by-product of inner turmoil; if there is inner peace then one can automatically shut off outer influences.

Another trap in meditative practices is sleep. It is so easy for the practitioner to gain a little relaxation and, because this is such a rare thing, immediately start feeling drowsy and fall asleep. One must relax but remain wide awake. We have said this so many times before, but we are repeating it because this is a trap that many people fall into. Another trap is forced concentration. Many people realize the importance of concentration and try to force it, which causes tension and is not real concentration. Real concentration arises naturally through a relaxed mind. So we have a dilemma, either:

1. One does not try to concentrate. This generally leads to the pitfalls already mentioned - namely sleep, absorption in outside noises, etc. or forgetfulness in the inner bubbling thoughts of the mind.

2. One forces concentration in an endeavour to prevent sleep or the tendency to lose oneself in the outer world or the thought process. This generally leads to mental tension.

Both of the above approaches are incorrect and will tend to lead one away from gaining the benefits of the meditative practice. The answer as we have already said is not to concentrate, but instead remain aware1. Japa is a wonderful system of maintaining individual awareness. Furthermore, it prevents the practitioner becoming lost either in the outer world or in the inner world of thoughts. It also helps to prevent sleep or drowsiness. Let us discuss how this is achieved.

Duringjapa, one has to do two things: chant a mantra and rotate the beads of the mala. These act as a point of reference for awareness. After a short time of practice one gets into a rhythm; the movement of the mala becomes synchronized with the chanting. Your mind and body (one hand) have to do something. This prevents the pitfalls that we have already mentioned in the following manner.

1. Sleep: If one tends to fall asleep then the mantra repetition and the movement of the mala will become unrhythmical or will stop altogether. This will tend to bring about wakefulness and if necessary one can wash the face with cold water. Of course, if you totally lapse into deep sleep then the breaking of the rhythm will not help. You will be dead to the world. But in this case you are probably very-tired and need sleep. So there is no harm done. But the main point to remember is that the breaking of the rhythm of the mantra and the mala rotation tends to help you to be aware of sleepiness and then you can rectify the situation.

2. Preoccupation with the outside world: The rotation of the mala and the chanting of the mantra will quickly and automatically tend to make you introvert. This is particularly true if you chant the mantra with feeling and intensity.

3. Ab.sorption with the inner thought process: The important thing is that you don't suppress the thoughts. Let them arise, but you must be aware of them. You must not be totally lost in them. Don't become identified with them. You must watch them as a witness. Japa is an excellent method of being able to watch the thoughts without becoming totally lost in them. The method is as follows. You must, in a sense, split your awareness. That is, you should simultaneously be attentive to all the continuous thoughts that arise, as well as the mantra and the rotation of the mala. Let the thoughts come, but also be aware of the practice ofjapa. If you start to become lost in your thoughts, then you will stop rotating the mala, or the rotation of the mala and the chanting of the mantra will become uncoordinated. Whatever happens, you will quickly notice this loss of awareness in the japa and you can then again equally split your awareness. You must keep on doing this.

Eventually, if you practise correctly and for a sufficient length of time, the thought process will tend to exhaust itself. Mental turmoil subsides. There is a gradual transference. The mind becomes overwhelmed by the repetitive mantra, instead of the bubbling thoughts. The mind automatically becomes calm and more one-pointed. Your awareness will become riveted by the mantra and the process ofjapa. This is exactly what is required. At this stage the mind will have become very relaxed, not by suppression, but by exhaustion of the surface thoughts and a gradual weaning away of one's tendency to lapse into a reverie of thoughts. This state of natural thoughtlessness combined with awareness is the prelude to meditation.

Actually the continual bubbling of the thought processes is positive, especially when they come from the deeper realms of the subconscious mind. These are your inner problems. By watching them you will remove them. But the thoughts that most people become lost in during meditative practices tend to be very superficial thoughts. These have to be gradually wiped away, through japa, so that one can see deeper. So japa initially acts to systematically wean away one's attention from these superficial thoughts, which are merely a distraction.

When your mind becomes one-pointed and you become deeply absorbed in the mantra, you may be suddenly confronted by a vision or thought that arises almost unexpectedly. This represents one of your deeper problems and it is this that needs to be removed. Mere awareness will do this. It is at this stage, where you are going below surface thoughts, that you are starting to clean out the mind.

4. Concentration: This will arise automatically, when you have exhausted the continuous bombardment of your thoughts through japa. That is, awareness leads to concentration of mind. When you have exhausted the disruptive thoughts of the mind then you will have no choice but to concentrate. You will be almost forced to concentrate.

Japa is a simple, yet effective method of overcoming all the pitfalls that we previously mentioned. This is why it is such a widely practised method. It provides a balance between absorption in the outside world and its opposite, total loss in the world of thoughts. It helps to bring concentration through awareness. It provides a method of calming the chatter of the mind, not by mental suppression, but by allowing the thoughts to arise, while anchoring awareness to a mantra and mala rotation. It is a very sensible, scientific method. It is a useful tool for people who don't have a concentrated mind . . . which is most people.

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