Training ourselves to be less distractible, and why this is a good thing to do
This article, and the next two, are heavily indebted to meditation teacher Shinzen Young, whose work you can find at https://www.shinzen.org/.
What is meditative concentration?
One of the key skills that we develop through meditation practice is the ability to direct our attention where we want it to go, when we want it to go there. This skill is often called 'concentration', although that word is tricky for a lot of people, as we'll see below. For now, though, I'll keep using it anyway, for the sake of using standard terminology.
So when we 'concentrate', in the meditative sense, we're generally separating our experience into two components: the part of our experience that we're choosing to pay attention to, and everything else. We then focus on the relevant part, and set everything else to one side for the time being.
A common meditation - and one which is often given to beginners, but please don't think of it as a 'beginner practice', because it can be incredibly profound - is to pay attention to the breath. You breathe in, you breathe out, and you notice the physical sensations of the breath. Every time the mind wanders away from the breath - when you start thinking about what you're going to do later, or get distracted by a sound outside the room - you gently bring the attention back to the breath. Simple, right? (If you'd like to give this a try, there are guided breath meditations on my Audio page.)
Concentration in practice
In practice, most people quickly find that the mind doesn't want to stay put. In fact, as Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida wrote in his 1975 'Zen Training': "Any beginner who has tried [breath counting] for the first time must have experienced this failure and been surprised by his inability to control his thoughts as he wanted. Some readers may find this hard to believe. Then they should try it themselves, and they will say, 'Indeed!' and say to themselves, 'This won't do.'"
On the other hand, many of us have had at least glimpses of what it can be like to be totally focused on something. Athletes call it being 'in the zone', and psychologist Mihaly Csizszentmihalyi coined the term 'Flow' to describe it. This condition has now been studied quite a lot, and as a result we can say some things about what it's like to be highly concentrated with great confidence.
1. It's rewarding.
People who experience flow generally want to experience it again and again. When we're fully engaged with something, all of the usual mental chatter falls away, and we're left with a pristine experience of total immersion which flows (hence the name) from one moment to the next.
In fact, happiness researchers have shown that people tend to report higher levels of subjective well-being (i.e. they feel better) when focused on what they're doing, compared to when distracted. Perhaps more surprisingly, the level of focus is a better predictor of happiness than the type of activity being undertaken. This is great news, because it means that we don't need to wait for ideal external conditions in order to be happy. We can actually improve our happiness by paying attention to whatever we're doing.
2. It's effective.
When we're completely focused on what we're doing, we tend to do a better job. Being distracted from the task at hand is clearly a recipe for mistakes, but so is focusing more on the outcome of the task than the task itself. When we're fully present for what we're doing, we notice more details and can respond better to the particulars of what's happening, and this makes for better results.
Some misconceptions about concentration
1. If you're not 100% focused on the breath, you're doing it wrong and wasting your time.
This is probably the single biggest misconception about meditation in general, never mind concentration practice. I've lost count of the number of people who've complained that they're unable to stop their mind wandering when they meditate.
Mind wandering is part of the practice. The mind simply doesn't stay put, at least until you're advanced enough that you probably aren't reading this article. But the mind-wandering is actually a great opportunity, because each time it wanders we can notice that it's wandered, and return our attention to the object of focus. Doing this repeatedly encourages our attention to stay put for progressively longer stretches of time, and we also get better at spotting the wandering, so we notice and come back sooner. Eventually you may reach a point where you can see the mind starting to wobble, and catching it before it wanders away. Now that's a high level of skill!
2. Concentration means actively suppressing everything else.
Please don't do this. Trying to play whack-a-mole with wandering thoughts is not only futile, but it actually makes matters worse. Our minds are busy because we're constantly filling them with stuff, until there's so much pressure that random thoughts can't help but leak out all day long. Trying to suppress those wandering thoughts actually adds more pressure to the system, shaking things up even more. Talk about counter-productive!
To borrow an image from Shinzen Young, you can give the spotlight to one dancer without pushing all the other dancers off the stage. That's what we're doing here: spotlighting some part of our experience, and simply leaving the rest of it alone.
3. Concentration involves a ton of effort.
Not really. It does take some effort to learn a new skill, or to improve an existing one, but you don't need a furrowed brow and tensed muscles to concentrate. Unfortunately the word 'concentration' implies effort for many people, so sometimes I'll explore other terms with them, like 'stability', 'resting', 'focus', or my teacher Leigh's preferred term, 'indistractibility'.
When you're doing the practice, each time the mind wanders away and you come back again, that process of 'recommitting' to the object does take a little bit of energy, and you'll probably find that your concentration is worse at the end of a long day when you're tired. But, over time, your baseline level of concentration - i.e. how indistractible you are in the course of your daily life - will increase, so you'll find yourself becoming steadily more focused without applying any conscious effort.
4. Concentration means focusing on something small.
It's pretty common for concentration practices to be taught using a small area of focus, such as the sensations of breathing at the nostrils. Focusing on a small area can be a nice way to train concentration for many people, because it's crystal clear when you're focusing and when your attention has wandered.
On the other hand, some people find too narrow an area of focus to be tight or confining, and that they do much better with a broader area of focus, such as the breath in the belly, or even the sensations of the whole body. For the ultimate in 'broad focus', you can even rest in open awareness, experiencing all sensations freely without focusing in on anything in particular. (Again, you'll find a guided open awareness practice on the Audio page.)
It's also a good idea to step outside your comfort zone once in a while. If you mostly work with the breath at the nostrils, try working with the whole body, or open awareness. And vice versa. Challenge yourself!
5. Concentration means keeping your attention on one fixed point for a long period of time.
Although many concentration practices do aim to cultivate stable, unmoving attention - 'one-pointed', as it's called in the tradition - we can also cultivate another kind of concentration, called 'moment-to-moment'. This means that, in any given moment, we have a high degree of focus on one particular sensation, but in a subsequent moment we might move to another sensation, with an equally high degree of focus.
For example, in the popular body scan practice, your attention moves around the body in a methodical way, spending a few seconds in each location. Wherever your attention is, you focus deeply on the physical sensations at that place - so, in that moment, that particular area of the body is very much in the spotlight, and everything else is out of it - but the spotlight is moving from place to place, rather than resting in one place for half an hour. (This practice is definitely worth trying too; you can find a couple of guided body scans on the Audio page.)
Building concentration power, your way
Actually, all meditation practices cultivate concentration power, so there's no need to practise in a special way; simply focus on whatever practice you're doing, and keep coming back to the practice each time your mind wanders.
That said, if you want to turbo-charge your concentration skills, you can work in a way which emphasises concentration and downplays everything else. The basic instructions for a pure concentration practice are simple:
1. Pick an object
2. Notice the sensations in your experience which correspond to that object
3. Each time the mind wanders away, gently bring the attention back to the object
4. Do nothing else
As for the object, you can pick anything at all, internal or external. The breath is a very common one, but some people like to use candles, sounds, mantras... There's a traditional list of 40 objects of meditation (many of which are pretty grim - take a look!), but feel free to get creative and use whatever you prefer. I suggest you try fairly simple, unchanging objects, because if you pick something too dynamic and 'interesting' then it's too easy to stay focused and you aren't really building the skill. (It doesn't take much effort to get absorbed in a good movie, but it also doesn't really train your indistractibility - if it did, we'd all be masters by now...)
So give it a go, and see how you get on!
tl;dr: More writing coming soon; value uncertain.
I've been teaching a weekly class for about two and a half years now, and over that time my class plans have gotten progressively more detailed and unwieldy. It's getting to the point that I often don't have enough time to say everything I've planned to, which cuts into meditation time. In a meditation class, that's... less than ideal.
Recently, there have been a few occasions when I haven't used the class plan, and have instead just followed the usual class outline (opening sit, talk, movement, closing sit) without any notes to back me up. It's been nice - I'm not so tied to my iPad, and I don't overrun because I shut up when it's time for the movement practice.
On the other hand, I kinda like planning. I spend a lot of time on it. Often, I'll do some research. And I'm just not interesting enough to speak extemporaneously every single week without any kind of prep work. Also, from time to time I've shared previous class plans with people and they've been useful, so it's nice to have something written down.
So the new plan is that, once a week, I'll write an article for this blog, and save it as a draft. Then I'll use that as the basis for the talk that week, and finally publish the article after the class has happened (so no spoilers). Maybe that will be of interest to people who can't make it along to the physical classes. It'll also allow me to exercise another of my passions (I like writing but don't find time for it any more), and it'll add a bit more of my personality to what is otherwise a fairly bland website (which might be good or bad, depending on your taste...).
That's the experiment; what's the caveat?
A question I've considered a lot lately is: 'Who am I to be teaching people about Zen?' I've been practising for about twelve years (I'm not sure exactly when I started), and I've had a certain amount of experience over those twelve years, but I regularly meet people with thirty or forty years of practice experience, compared to which I've barely begun. I'm nothing special, and, as keen as I am to share the practices that have been so valuable for me, I do sometimes wonder if calling myself a teacher is just a giant ego trip.
Still, people keep coming to my classes, so evidently at least some people get some value out of them, and perhaps by posting articles here, a few more people will benefit too. For my part, I'll do my best to give credit where it's due, rather than try to pass off the words of the great Zen masters as my own ideas - hopefully I won't pollute their teachings too much as I put them into my own words.
New articles will be posted most Thursdays, assuming I wrote something new that week and didn't have one of my improv sessions instead.
I hope you find something of value in these writings.
On Thursday October 10th 2019 I'll be giving an hour-long introduction to mindfulness for psychological health and well-being. This is a donation-based charity event in support of the Samaritans - please come along!
Sometimes in meditation we come into contact with critical aspects of ourselves - facets of our mind which have strong opinions about what we should be doing, how well we're doing those things, and so on. Some of these 'voices', as we'll call them, can be highly critical. This is actually so common in modern society that there's a name for this phenomenon: the 'inner critic'.
When we encounter a harsh inner critic, the temptation is either to believe the negative messages it's telling us, or to turn away and refuse to listen to it at all. However, there's a third option, based in mindfulness: turning toward the voice non-judgementally, and actually seeing what it has to say - getting to know it better, if you like.
It often helps to give the voice a name. You might find it helpful to pick a light-hearted name, because it helps to take what the voice is saying less seriously - 'Oh look, Mr Grumpy is grumbling about something again.' For me, I've identified a few different voices within myself which want slightly different things, so I've given them names accordingly - for example, part of me really wants everything to be perfect all the time, as if I'm going to be 'inspected' at any moment. This reminds me a lot of being an army cadet on camp when you literally could be inspected at any moment, so I call that voice 'Drill Sergeant'.
Having identified and named the voice, the next stage is to get to know it. This might seem daunting, and it's definitely worth proceeding slowly and carefully. If it ever gets too difficult, come completely out of the practice and do something else for a while - go for a walk, watch a funny cat video on YouTube, whatever it takes to blow out the cobwebs.
But a key point to understand is that, once upon a time, these voices were probably just trying to help. Maybe something happened that upset you, and so part of you made a mental note and said 'Right, let's never do that again.' But then it happened again anyway, maybe a few times - and this part of you that was trying to protect you started shouting louder and louder, trying to make itself heard, trying to keep you safe. Unfortunately, over time this became more and more severe, and has now become completely twisted, so we end up with these internal voices criticising our every move and constantly yelling at us, and it can be very difficult to detect any hint of kindness or good intention in what's being said.
So the idea with identifying, naming and then getting to know these critical inner voices is so that they can actually be heard. The inner critic is often so harsh because it's been ignored or avoided for so long. Turning toward it, really listening not just to what it's saying but actually asking it why it's saying those things, can begin to transform your relationship to it. Over time we can actually befriend these parts of ourselves, and the harsh, stinging nature of the criticism will gradually lessen.
It's really important to say that I'm not a trained therapist/counsellor or a medical professional, and severe situations might well need the support of a trained professional. On the other hand, these techniques have been used by many meditators successfully for a long time, so it's certainly worth giving them a shot to see what happens - you might just discover a kinder relationship to yourself, and find some relief from that inner critic. Just remember, as ever, to proceed slowly and gently, and stop at once if it gets too overwhelming.
Three levels of practice, three levels of awakening
Meditation practice can work on three levels - mind, heart and body. Different people will be drawn to different approaches; you’ll find that you get on much better with some techniques than others. In addition, sometimes working on one level can help to get past an inner block or difficulty that practices on another level haven’t been able to resolve - for example, a deep-seated anxiety that no amount of mental training has been able to shift might be resolved by doing some work with the body.
So let’s take a look at the three levels of practice and see what each might offer us!
The mind is an incredibly powerful resource if we can learn to harness it. It can also be a huge source of problems!
We can use meditation to train the mind in a couple of helpful ways:
- Focus. Many meditation practices use an object (sometimes called an ‘anchor’) to train the mind to focus. For example, we might pay attention to the breath, to a candle flame, or to a visualisation. Each time we notice that the mind has wandered away, we bring the attention gently back to the anchor. Over time, our attention becomes clearer, sharper and less unruly, and our minds become calmer and quieter.
- Insight. By looking closely at our moment-to-moment experience, we begin to see how the mind actually works - the endless loops of habitual thinking, the deep-seated patterns of behaviour which drive more of our actions than we might like. Over time we see deeper and deeper into the mind, and ultimately we come to discover who we really are, beyond all the ideas and stories we carry around. We come to see ourselves not as a solid, separate thing in a world of things, but as a fluid process in a world of processes. This shift of perspective, called kensho in Zen, brings great freedom and joy into our lives.
We awaken at the level of the mind when we bring stillness and clarity to our minds and see what’s really going on - we find new ways of relating to our experience which bring profound freedom from stress, anxiety and suffering.
Life is ultimately all about relationships; we exist in relation to our friends, families, co-workers and neighbours, and the quality of our lives can be measured in the quality of those relationships.
With this in mind, we can use meditation to open our hearts and connect with beautiful qualities of warmth and peace that are innate to our being but all too often buried under a lifetime of conditioning and pain.
Within ourselves, we find an inner reservoir of kindness and love, which is simply the natural expression of an open heart. When that open-hearted quality encounters suffering, it takes on the form of compassion - the earnest wish that the suffering be relieved. When an open heart encounters joy, it resonates in delight, whether that joy is found in ourselves or in another. And as we learn to settle into the experience of an open heart, we find the unshakeable peace of equanimity, a kind of inner stability from which we can view the comings and goings of the world without getting sucked into its drama against our will.
Through heart practices, we learn to extend these qualities toward the people around us, and also to ourselves - either or both of these can sadly be difficult at first, but with time and gentle practice the heart will respond. Initially it may be easier to feel or express these qualities toward some people (such as close friends) and harder towards others (the more difficult people in our lives, perhaps), but as the heart practices develop we find that a shift takes place - a breaking down of barriers, where we move beyond the mind’s categorisations of self and other, good and bad, friend and foe - and these beautiful qualities of the heart radiate out in all directions, equally and impartially. This radiant heart will inevitably enrich our lives and our relationships, as its warmth touches every person we encounter.
The third dimension of meditation practice is the physical body. Perhaps you’re already a physical person - an athlete, a dancer, an artisan - or perhaps you work at a computer all day long, but either way your body is the instrument through which you experience the world and express your innermost thoughts, intentions and desires.
The body, heart and mind are intimately connected. If we experience a lot of anxiety, that will tend to show up in the body as patterns of tension, stiffness and discomfort. And as we work with the body, we can often find strong memories or emotions bubbling up to the surface. Gently opening and aligning the body will often cause the release of mental or emotional blockages which are difficult to approach on the level of the mind or the heart.
Beyond the purely physical, we can also work with the body’s energetic system. There are many different traditions and practices for working with energy, such as kundalini yoga, qigong, or the energetic practices found in Rinzai Zen. These practices give us a way to connect with our bodies at the subtlest levels, to explore what’s going on inside us and work with areas of tension and blockage.
Body-based approaches also provide us with a bridge between meditation practices for the mind and heart, which are often carried out in stillness, and the rest of our lives, which are often filled with movement and activity. Bringing mindful attention and an open heart to a physical practice such as yoga, tai chi or running is a very powerful way of integrating all aspects of our spiritual lives, and allowing the benefits that we experience in formal meditation to infuse our daily lives and activities.
Bringing it together
Ultimately we must explore and integrate all three levels - mind, heart, and body. All three are connected: you might well find that experiencing kensho allows your heart to open naturally; that working with self-compassion helps to soften and relax tension in the body; or that aligning and opening the body naturally brings your mind to rest and allows you to see much more clearly than before. Or you might find that these are three separate paths of exploration, each of which will bring different discoveries and rewards - each bringing openings on different levels. Either way, however, awakening is most powerful when it unites wisdom and compassion in a fully embodied way.
So don’t be a one-dimensional practitioner! What might you be leaving out? What approaches could you explore to find new openings in your practice?
A common theme in Buddhist practice, including Zen, is what the earliest texts call 'dukkha'. The most common translation of this Pali term is 'suffering', but sometimes that word doesn't work so well for people - it can come across as pretty drab and heavyweight, like you need to be living in a Greek tragedy in order to qualify. A more modern term that's become quite popular is 'stress', but that comes with some other connotations and can make the whole thing sound a bit like a psychological therapy, which isn't quite what we're getting at in Zen. Personally, I quite like another term that I first encountered in the Chan (Chinese Zen) tradition - 'vexations'. From time to time, we all get vexed. We can all think of that one person who's... well, vexing.
People come to Zen practice for a variety of reasons. One common motivation is an excess of vexation: they find, for whatever reason, that life just isn't really working for them, and they want a way out, something to alleviate the suffering. This is the Buddha's own story: he looked at what life had in store for him - old age, sickness and death - and decided he didn't fancy it much, so set off to explore the spiritual path and see what could be done about it.
Not everyone comes to practice through being excessively vexed, of course. For some people it's more about curiosity, a sense of exploration, of wanting to know what's going on - this meditation thing seems to do something, but what? What do these cryptic texts actually mean? (That's been my primary motivation for practice.) And, of course, there are many other reasons too.
Whatever the motivation to practice, however, sooner or later we run into vexation and have to learn to deal with it. The mind spends a lot of time bouncing from one vexation to another, driven by preferences - a process of categorising our experience into things that we like (and hence want more of) and things we don't like (and hence want to get away from). This process is so deeply ingrained that it actually colours our very perception of the world, making the good things appear more attractive than they are, and the bad things more repulsive. So we're being constantly pushed and pulled around by these preferences, with the mind rarely given a moment's rest.
Allowing the mind to come to rest is an interesting experience. When the mind becomes still enough, we can temporarily drop the preferences colouring our perception. When that happens, we see 'things as they are', to use the traditional phrase - this moment appears to us without any sense of lack or insufficiency, any sense that it needs to be in any way different. This sense that things are fine just as they are, of wishlessness, develops into a feeling of profound contentment, a deep source of inner well-being which is not at all dependent on anything outside of ourselves. Sometimes in the Zen literature you'll see descriptions of reality appearing as spontaneously 'perfected' - perfect not in the sense that it glows and shoots rainbows, but in the sense that we truly experience the world as not needing to be different in any way, but rather to be completely and wholly fine just as it is - in other words, perfect.
So this gives a sense of one way the path of Zen can unfold. We begin by understanding what gives rise to vexations; only then can we begin to learn how to be free of those vexations. And then as the mind progressively lets go of vexation and settles into stillness, an experience of life that is rich and full, yet fundamentally peaceful and contented, becomes increasingly available to us.
If this sounds interesting, I'd like to suggest a practice that you can use to explore these themes - Zen is first and foremost about direct experience, not about ideas and philosophical arguments. So let's take a look at one way we can explore the mind's tendency to become agitated and see if we can find ways to relax and let go into peace and stillness.
One of the first meditation techniques I ever learnt is called Silent Illumination in the Chan tradition, more commonly known from Japanese Zen as 'just sitting' or shikantaza. In the Chan style, the practice begins by slowly sweeping your attention down the body, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet, relaxing any tension in each part of the body as the attention moves through that region. This helps the body to become still, which in turn helps the mind to become still. The whole process should take at least a few minutes, depending on how long you have to practise. When you've finished releasing tension, you then bring the attention to the body as a whole. The body is still, in a sitting posture; the mind is clearly aware that the body is sitting. And that's it. The 'silence' of Silent Illumination is the stillness of body and mind - whatever comes up (thoughts, sounds, bodily sensations, emotions), we don't get involved with it; we're simply aware of the body, sitting. But it isn't a dull or stagnant silence, a zoning out or switching off. Rather, the awareness is clear and bright - we know very precisely that the body is sitting, and that's the illumination aspect, the clarity which balances the stillness.
That's the basic practice. It may be that as the practice develops (or if you've done this kind of thing a lot already, it might happen almost immediately), it starts to feel a bit narrow and confining keeping the attention on the physical body. If so, it's okay to allow the awareness to expand to take in the whole environment; you can think of the whole environment as 'the body, sitting' and simply rest with that. (At this point the practice is essentially the same as the open awareness practice on the Audio page of this website.) But there's no need to rush to get to 'stage 2' of the practice - whether the focus is on the physical body or open to the whole environment, the skills of silence and illumination being trained are exactly the same. Neither approach is better or worse, they're just different expressions of the same fundamental experience.
Silent Illumination is a very 'complete' practice, in the sense that it develops concentration, insight and equanimity in equal measure, and once you have a taste for the attitude of allowing the mind to be still even in the midst of distraction and activity, you can bring that more and more into daily life, where it really delivers its greatest value. If you're temperamentally suited to this kind of practice it's a great way to go. It doesn't suit everyone, however; some people find that they prefer more 'active' practices such as self-inquiry, for example. As with anything in meditation, it's vital that you explore new practices with an open mind and be as honest with yourself as you possibly can. So give it a try and see how you get on!
A question that often comes up when teaching mindfulness to beginners is 'Do I really need to meditate, or can I just be mindful all the time instead?'
Before answering this, it's worth saying that some teachers use these terms interchangeably, so to be clear I'll say how I'm using them. When I refer to 'meditation' I mean a formal practice in which we set aside a period of time to sit, stand, lie down or walk in a specific way, engaging with a particular meditation technique such as following the breath or paying attention to bodily sensations. I'm using 'mindfulness' to mean 'the awareness which arises when paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally', which is how mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it in his book Full Catastrophe Living.
One of the motivations for practising meditation is to develop the skill of mindfulness, which we can then begin to integrate into our daily lives. So the question is essentially asking if we can skip the first step and go straight to being mindful in daily life, without the need to meditate at all. Sometimes the question is phrased a bit differently, like 'Can I meditate during my walk to work?', and sometimes it's phrased more as a statement, like 'I don't need to meditate because I walk my dogs mindfully.'
So, how about it? Do you actually need to meditate or is off-cushion mindfulness enough by itself?
Personally, I'm a big fan of starting with meditation and then gradually bringing mindfulness into daily life. That's how I teach, and that's the approach that seems to work best for most people - even the ones who are convinced they 'can't meditate'!
Practising mindfulness in daily life is extremely valuable, and at some point becomes vital if you want to bring the skills you're developing on the cushion into the hurly-burly of daily life, which is where they'll be the most useful. However, in the modern world with its oh-so-many distractions, so much to do and so many things on our minds, paying attention to the present moment without wandering off in thought doesn't come naturally to most people, and it's typically much more difficult to remain mindful while moving through your daily activities because there's usually so much to think about, or at least that's how it seems.
So, even if you find meditation difficult initially, you'll probably find it much easier to use meditation to develop a solid foundation in mindfulness, in the same way that it's easier to learn a language if you start with some simple phrases and exercises rather than jumping straight into fluent conversation with a native speaker.
Indeed, many people find that after they've been meditating for a few weeks, they seem to find it harder to stay in the present moment without wandering off into distraction. Believe it or not, this is actually a good sign! A big part of the process of meditation is becoming more aware of what's going on in our minds, and the often surprising discovery of how unaware we were beforehand. After some practice we start to notice just how often the mind does wander. Again, this is much harder to see if you jump straight into mindfulness in daily life without ever sitting quietly in meditation. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead people to believe that they're mindfulness experts simply because they're largely unaware of how often they're distracted!
In the interests of balance, it's worth saying that some people do develop great mindfulness without ever meditating. Elite athletes, skilled artisans and so on often describe their state of mind when engaged in their particular activity of expertise in a way that sounds remarkably like a high level of mindfulness. And if that approach really does work for you, that's great, and please don't let me stop you. But do consider whether this really is true, or whether it's just possible that your mindfulness would benefit from a formal meditation practice as well.
The progression that I recommend is for people to start off with a mindfulness-based meditation practice that they find appealing - some people like the body scan, some people like breath counting or following, some people like open awareness (guided meditations for all of these are available on the Audio page) - and spend a couple of weeks practising that to start to get a feel for what it means to be mindful.
Once you've built up some foundation in mindfulness through meditation, you can start to introduce it into daily life. It's usually best to start with one or two specific activities in your daily routine - for example, brushing your teeth, or washing the dishes (or loading the dishwasher!) - and try to do just those activities as mindfully as possible each day, until it becomes a habit, then add some more activities, and so on. Trying to go straight to 'being mindful' all day long is usually a recipe for frustration. Start small, build up, and keep going - over time you'll find mindfulness coming more often and more naturally, and the benefits becoming increasingly integrated into your daily life.
Over the last few entries in this blog, we've talked about a range of different meditation techniques. We've looked at mindfulness of breath and body, the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion, self-inquiry as a route to meditative insight, the development of mental stability and stillness, and open awareness as a way of 'being, not doing'.
When there are so many possibilities for practice, how do we decide what to do with our practice time? For some people it can be daunting even to get started - what happens if we pick the wrong technique? Should we practise just one technique, or several? And how long for - how much is 'enough'?
As I've said before, meditation is one of the most personal and individual activities you will ever undertake. As a teacher I can offer suggestions for how to practise, but ultimately the real power in this process comes when you start to figure out for yourself what works for you and what doesn't. There are really very few hard-and-fast rules about how to do this stuff - 'some' is better than 'none', and that's about it!
That being said, I'll give some suggestions here for how you might start to explore meditation practice. If you've never meditated before, I'd suggest it's worth trying a range of different techniques, to see what works for you and what doesn't feel like such a good fit right now. On my beginners' course we spend a week on each of six practices - mindfulness of the breath, the body scan, metta and compassion, self-inquiry, concentration and open awareness. (The links here take you to blog posts talking about each practice and providing some wider context.)
I'd suggest spending at least a week on each practice, rather than dropping them after a day or two. All meditation techniques take a while to get used to, and it might be that it takes you a few tries to get into the groove of a particular practice.
You can also use these first few weeks to explore how meditation fits into your life. Are you a morning person or an evening person? Are you better off finding ten or fifteen minutes in the middle of the day, perhaps during a lunch break if you're an office worker? Most people find it helpful to have a specific time each day when they practise, so it becomes part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth.
How long should you practise? Well, how long do you have? Five minutes is infinitely better than nothing! Even short sessions like this produce noticeable benefits given time. Ten minutes is at least twice as good as five minutes, of course. If you have longer, could you try sitting for twenty minutes, or half an hour? However, it's probably worth starting small and building up, rather than trying to jump straight into two-hour daily sits and giving up immediately. Trying to force yourself to sit for twenty minutes every day when you can really only honestly fit in ten minutes is usually counterproductive - at some point you'll start skipping days, and soon you won't be practising at all. The key thing is to do some practice, no matter how much, and keep doing it. That's all. If you can do that, you're on the right road!
So once you've figured out how to fit meditation into your day, and you've got a sense for which techniques work, how should you use the time you have?
Again, there's no one 'right answer', just some loose guidelines based on what I and others have found to be helpful. Any of the practices I've listed above have the potential to transform your life over time, so feel free to go with whatever speaks to you (although see the caveat below about concentration meditation).
I'll suggest three common ways to structure your practice which you might find helpful.
1. Pick one technique that you like and do that every day.
This is a great way to go - as the saying goes, it's better to dig one deep hole than lots of shallow ones. The only caveat here is that concentration practice shouldn't be the only meditation you ever do, since this can sometimes lead to a kind of avoidance strategy where we use our powers of concentration to turn away from our problems rather than dealing with them, and this can result in people disconnecting from their lives in a way that isn't helpful.
2. Pick a few techniques and cycle through them.
Perhaps you could do mindfulness of the breath on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and metta on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the weekend. Or maybe spend a week on one, then a week on another, and so on.
This can be a nice way to keep your practice fresh and interesting if you find that focusing on one technique gets boring quickly. Be careful that you don't jump around too much, however. Some of the modern meditation apps offer a constant stream of new guided practices, which can seem great at first, but actually tends to turn meditation into a kind of entertainment where there's always a new 'episode' to consume. The real power of meditation comes from consistently applying a technique to build skills and capacities within yourself, rather than simply entertaining yourself for ten minutes each day. (That's not to say that entertainment is a bad thing! But we're trying to do something different here.)
3. Use a specific sequence of techniques each time you sit.
For a long time, my own daily practice started with a few minutes of metta to open the heart, went into concentration practice for roughly half the remaining time to settle the mind, and then on to an insight practice for the final portion. Clearly it's helpful to have slightly longer sits if you want to use several techniques in a session - I was sitting around forty minutes each day at the time - and it's also important to be clear about what techniques you're going to use, for how long and in what order. Avoid the temptation to jump around from technique to technique whenever you get bored - that's just a more sophisticated form of distraction, the mind's way of wriggling out of having to settle down and meditate properly. But if you find several techniques appealing and would like to practise them every day, structuring your sits in this way can be a great way to do that.
All that being said, there are really no rules! Experiment, play, try things out and see what works for you. Sooner or later you'll find something that clicks, at least for the time being; take it, run with it and see where the path leads. You won't know until you try...
Some of us suffer from 'hurry sickness' - forever rushing from one task to the next, always thinking about everything that still needs to get done somehow, never giving our full attention to what we're doing right now. For others among us, time weighs heavily. The minutes and hours crawl by slowly, dragging on forever. In both cases, we experience 'time stress' as a result.
So is there anything we can do about it? (It might not surprise you to learn that I'm going to say 'yes', and that meditation can help...)
Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term 'Flow' to describe a powerful experience that he'd observed across many different people in many different situations. The 'Flow' state comes about when someone is engaged in a challenging activity which provides immediate feedback and is toward the upper limit of the skill of the practitioner, but not out of reach. (Think of a skilled acrobat performing a dangerous and challenging routine, or a concert pianist performing a very difficult piece.)
Some of the characteristics of the Flow state:
Interestingly, there's quite a bit of overlap between Flow and meditation. Csikszentmihályi even said that meditation is like a carefully planned Flow activity. It's also true that regular meditators seem to be more likely to experience Flow states and stay in them for longer, perhaps because the skills trained in meditation are so similar to the conditions of Flow.
One interesting point here is that this suggests a way to escape from time pressure. Flow activities are in part absorbing and enjoyable because they distort our sense of time - in Flow there's no room for worrying about the future or obsessing over the past, because we're purely focused on the present moment. Likewise, meditation trains us to come back to the present moment again and again, allowing us to step out of time pressure and into the 'timeless now'.
For people prone to 'hurry sickness', meditation can sometimes feel like just another thing that needs to be done. And some meditation techniques can even reinforce this - some techniques involve quite a bit of setup, a lot of 'doing' during the meditation period, and so on. But if we're looking to tap into a sense of timelessness, we need to emphasise being rather than doing, and it can be helpful to employ a meditation technique which really focuses on 'just being'.
In the Zen tradition, one very popular way of practising is an open awareness approach variously called 'just sitting', shikantaza or silent illumination. The practice is very simple, but can seem initially bewildering to people used to more structured practices. In the open awareness practice we don't use any particular 'anchor' or object of focus. We simply sit, and allow our experience to show itself to us. In a sense, there's nothing at all to 'do' here, but that can be a bit misleading because we very quickly find that the mind likes to wander and get tangled up in thoughts, sights or sounds. A better way to think of the practice might be as 'resting in awareness' - allowing our awareness to be broad and open, allowing absolutely anything and everything to come and go within our experience, while we 'do nothing', simply sitting there as it all unfolds.
Open awareness is a beautiful practice, but one with a couple of subtle pitfalls.
Sometimes people wonder if they're 'doing it right', because it's so hard to tell when there's 'nothing to do'. But as soon as you become aware that you're wondering if you're doing it right, you're already back in the open awareness, aware of the thoughts about whether you're meditating properly. So we can trust completely in awareness to do its thing without any interference from us, and let go deeply into the practice.
The other challenge is what's sometimes called the 'near enemy' of open awareness practice, which is a state of dullness. This is a kind of 'sinking' or 'drifting', a vague, hazy state in which the mind is subtly turned away from what's going on. It can feel vaguely pleasant, but it isn't particularly helpful. In true open awareness practice, the mind should be clear and bright, your attention turned toward your experience in all its fullness.
If you'd like to try stepping into the 'timeless now', you can find two guided open awareness practices in the Audio section of this website, one ten minutes long, the other twenty-five. Give it a try!
One of the most fundamental skills developed in meditation is the ability to focus. This is usually referred to as 'concentration', but for some people this word can conjure up ideas of striving, gut-busting effort and so on, so it might be more helpful to think of focus in terms of mental stillness, stable attention, or even simply the ability to stay with something without getting distracted. With enough practice you might even come to think of it as 'resting the mind' on an object or task, but for most beginners the experience of learning to focus doesn't feel particularly restful!
It turns out that the mind likes to be still, quiet and stable, at least once it's had some time to get used to the idea. We tend to go through life constantly absorbing new information and experiences, hyper-stimulated by adverts, music, television and the general busyness of modern society. This leaves our minds in a constant whirl of novelty, never able to rest for a minute, and so the mind habitually jumps from one thing to the next, never settling anywhere. When the mind is allowed to come to rest, however, we find that the resulting experience of peace and stillness is deeply enjoyable and profoundly nourishing. Over time and with practice, this comes to be experienced as a source of inner well-being - a place inside ourselves that we can go to experience joy and contentment, rather than always having to look outside ourselves.
Focus isn't just for sitting meditation, either. It's very helpful to cultivate a sense of being grounded - in the here and now, in our physical body and in the present moment. Many of us live most of our lives fretting about the future, regretting the past or caught up in abstract ideas about how things ought to be now. Learning to come into the present moment and stay here, without becoming distracted and wandering away into the past or the future again, is enormously helpful as we try to navigate life's ups and downs. Compared to the horrors of the past and the future's veiled threats, the present moment is usually not so bad!
Sitting meditation is one way to develop focus, but we can also use movement to explore focus and grounding together. In an informal way, it can be helpful simply to walk a little bit slower and tune in to the physical sensations of the walking - your feet on the ground, the air moving past your skin. It's important to be aware of your surroundings and notice the sights and sounds around you, of course, but learning to do that whilst remaining in touch with what's going on in your body, rather than being 'pulled out' into those external stimuli all the time, is the key to staying grounded. More formally, you can set aside a period of time for walking meditation, just as you might with sitting meditation. In walking meditation we generally choose a predetermined path - either round in a circle or back and forth in a straight line - and then walk slowly and mindfully, paying attention to the physical details of our experience (perhaps the soles of the feet on the ground, or alternatively the breath as it flows in and out of the body), for a set period of time.
A third, related, skill is what we might call embodiment. Embodiment is about how we are in the world; how we act, how we express our deepest intentions and truths, how we live in the most authentic way possible. It takes a lot to be fully embodied. We need a significant degree of grounding to provide the foundation. We also need a great deal of inner clarity (which we can reach through insight practices such as self-inquiry), and the integrity to be honest with ourselves about what we want to say and do and how we want to go about it. Finally, it takes courage to be fully embodied. Expressing that which is deepest within us can feel risky and vulnerable. But it's also hugely rewarding, and over time you'll develop a profound sense of confidence which others will instinctively recognise and respect.
Concentration is intrinsic to all meditation techniques, so it will develop simply through having a daily practice. However, it can also be useful and even fun to cultivate it more directly with a specific concentration practice. First, pick an object to focus on. Any object will do; the breath is a good one (it's very portable!), but you might also like to experiment with using a candle flame or any other visual object that you find appealing. Set a timer, bring your attention to the object, and any time you notice your attention has wandered, relax and come back to the object. And do nothing else! In concentration practice you aren't really interested in where the mind goes when it gets distracted; you're simply inclining toward the object, coming back to it again and again whenever the mind drifts away, allowing the mind to calm down and settle itself on the object of focus.
Guided concentration practice is a bit of a contradiction in terms, because the instructions tend to take the mind away from the object of focus. Nonetheless, I've recorded a ten-minute guided concentration practice with some sparse instructions scattered throughout. The main value of the instructions here is to serve as a gentle nudge if your attention has wandered far away from the object and you've become lost in distraction. You can find the guided meditation on the Audio page, but please feel free to practise without the audio as soon as you've gotten the hang of the technique.
Meditation helps us in many ways. Practising mindfulness meditation regularly helps to develop mental stability and reduce habits of reactivity which get us into trouble, and it can give us a vehicle for working with difficult emotions. Heart-opening practices such as metta and compassion help us to cultivate beautiful qualities of the heart-mind and extend those to others.
Another way meditation can help is to provide insight into our lives, by shining a light on processes which normally take place under the radar, in the unconscious or subconscious mind. For example, through regular meditation practice you might start to notice patterns that you've never consciously identified before.
Looking a little deeper, we start to see major trends in our behaviour. We start to notice that we play many different roles in our lives. Using myself as an example, depending on the situation at the time, I might be in any of these roles:
Each of these roles places different demands on me and comes with the expectation of a different set of behaviours, and in some cases even different ways of dressing and speaking. As I go through a typical week, I have to shift from one role to another many times.
Roles are not inherently good or bad by themselves; they're useful vehicles to help us relate to one another. But sometimes our relationship to our roles can be a problem. Sometimes a role demands something of us that we can't give at that moment. Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in roles that have outlived their usefulness, unable to move on. Learning to understand that roles are just roles, nothing more or less, and to be mindful of the process of inhabiting these roles in our own lives, can bring about a great loosening of tension and sense of openness, lightness and freedom.
(You might like to think about which roles you find yourself playing as you go through life. Which ones do you find particularly stressful, and why?)
Going further still, some of the deepest insights available to us in meditation practice concern more fundamental aspects of who we are and how our sense of self is constructed from moment to moment. These insights have the power to change our relationship to our own experience in fundamental ways, leading to significantly greater freedom and well-being. (This is the process sometimes called 'awakening' or 'enlightenment' in spiritual circles. In Zen we talk about 'kensho', or 'seeing one's true nature'.)
Many meditation techniques can result in insight - the key is to have a sense of investigation, inquiry, looking to see what's going on. We aren't trying to think our way to insight, to analyse ourselves and come up with a clever way of understanding what's happening; rather, we simply observe our minds, and allow the insights to come to us in an intuitive, experiential way. So insight meditation practices typically involve a technique which sets up a good environment in which insight can arise and encourages us to pay attention to see what happens next.
One very effective way to generate insight into the self is to work with the question 'Who am I?' If you'd like to try this, you can find a 10-minute 'Who am I?' meditation in the Audio section of this website. Give it a try and see what comes up for you!