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!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!