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.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.