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Demystifying Meditation: How to Find Your Mental Focus
PUBLISHED AUG 09, 2009
What is meditation? Why do we have so much trouble doing it? Why bother doing it anyway? I get asked these questions so often. I have worked with people around the world—from artists and executives to prison inmates and middle school students—and the same concerns, frustrations and confusion come up with all of them. Why do we have so much trouble concentrating? Why are there so many books, techniques, schools, and movements to try and explain something that is so simple at its core and yet so hard to do? If this is something you struggle with, read on for some clear advice.
The first thing to consider is that meditation is a practice. Take a moment and listen to the word—PRACTICE. If you are practicing something, you are not an expert at it yet! If you were, you wouldn’t need to practice it. So, the first mistake we make when we start meditating is that we get upset when “it doesn’t go well.”
Out with the Old, In with the New
Why doesn’t it go well? Because we haven’t developed that habit yet. The point of concentration meditation is to develop a new habit. It’s that simple. Actually, we are very good at concentrating on one thing for a very long time. Unfortunately, these are the things that distract us and stress us out. Think about someone who has made you angry, and how concentrated you can get spinning a story in your head. Think about an object or person you desire. How easy is it to stay focused on that? No practice needed! How long can you watch TV or be on your computer? That is concentration!
The healthy kind of meditation is harder to do simply because we haven’t done it as often and it may not be as stimulating as the other objects mentioned. That’s why it is hard to stick to a practice and be successful: it requires discipline, persistence and support from others.
Focused, Not Empty
Another confusing point about mediation is that we believe that we are supposed to empty our minds. This is not true. It is impossible for your mind to be empty. The mind works by “holding” objects—like seeing a tree, or thinking of a person, or conceptualizing an abstract concept like gravity, as well as many, many more ways the mind functions.
When meditation teachers are asking you to empty your mind, they are referring to the mind chatter that is running constantly. Yes, it is possible to empty your mind of the unnecessary white noise in your head, but under all of that is a subtler part of the mind that knows stillness, peace and light, that is clear and spacious. We empty the mind of the noise and we find that the mind can focus calmly and without distraction on a specific object—like your breath, your center, a holy object, a mantra, a clear sky. And that is the goal of concentration meditation—the ability to focus without distraction on one object for an indefinite amount of time.
And what are the benefits of a healthy meditation practice? The goal is to overcome the distracted mind and gain stronger access to our calm, centered mind. If we take a moment to observe and feel it, we know the effects of the distracted mind—stress, illness, unhappiness, lack of connection to others, fatigue, inability to realize our goals. The benefits of training our minds on a single object are inner peace, joy, deeper connection with others, vitality, purpose and meaning, and the ability to achieve goals—both worldly and spiritual.
Another misconception when we start mediating is that we think we need to sit for a long time. That is a mistake. I remember when a woman asked a question during a class given by my teacher. She expressed how frustrated she was because she was having trouble keeping up her 60-minute practice. She was finding it difficult to find the time, and when she had the time she was thinking about all the other things she could be doing. My teacher gave a brilliant answer—it changed my life. He said, “Stop doing an hour-long practice! If the point of meditation is to develop a new habit, then all you are doing is developing the habit of frustration and aversion to meditation.” He suggested she do five quality minutes a day. That blew my mind! I understood that one of the reasons we give up on our practice is because we feel we can’t commit. Well, how much can you commit to? Five minutes a day? How about one minute a day? Can you commit to that? One good strong high-quality minute a day of centered meditation will change your life! And think about it—there are 1440 minutes a day. Do you think you can find one minute of the 1440 to do something that will provide tremendous benefit to your life?
And one minute is more than enough. Why? Because the goal of a concentration meditation is to slowly and systematically improve the ability to stay focused on one object. Take a moment and check your own mind. Think of some object to focus on—a flower, a person, a holy object, anything—and see how long you can completely concentrate on that object before you start thinking of other objects, or you start judging yourself and the object, or you hear a sound, or you feel discomfort in your body. If you are like most people, you were able to truly stay concentrated for two to three seconds. I’m not kidding. And in our current MTV, internet culture, three seconds is a long time!
Now that you have honestly assessed what your personal span of time is that you can successfully stay focused on one object without distraction, then the purpose of meditating is to slowly, gradually increase that amount of time. So, if you start at two seconds and after four weeks of one minute per day of solid, committed meditation you get to five seconds, then you are doing great and you will already see changes in your life. And think about it—if your span of concentration is a few seconds, then one minute a day is more than enough to practice! And what you will discover is that when you are doing a daily practice with ease and you are not being hard on yourself, you will want to do more. Imagine going up to five minutes a day for the rest of your life!
How To Meditate
Here’s how a concentration meditation works: You sit in a posture that you can be comfortable in for the length of your practice. Your spine should be vertical and relaxed (either on the floor with legs crossed, or sitting at the edge of a chair), your breath steady and deep, your eyes closed or partially closed looking down towards the ground, your shoulders relaxed, your hands resting on your knees or in your lap and your jaw relaxed. (In my class, Full Body Meditation, I emphasize the importance of warming up the body as the best way to prepare for a concentration meditation.)
Now focus on your object—something you visualize with your mind’s eye, or your breath, or a mantra. Remember that this is your point of focus. Then notice as quickly as possible when you get distracted. The quicker, the better. When you realize you are distracted, remember the object you have decided to focus on and go back to it. And keep repeating this process. This is the essence of a concentration meditation. The purpose is to increase the amount of time you stay focused on an object, and, more importantly, to shorten the amount of time you are distracted and quickly get back to the chosen object. Many of us can go hours before we realize we are not focusing. The less time you are distracted, the more time you are concentrating, and therefore improving your concentration skills. Remember: you are expected to get distracted; the success lies in how quickly you notice it!
Words of Support
So the best way to approach your meditation is accepting the fact that you will get discouraged and you will get distracted. Here are some encouraging words for when you get discouraged:
Remember that you are doing a practice and not expected to do it perfectly.
Remember that you have been successful focusing on other things for a long time, so you are totally capable to focus on your concentration meditation.
Remember the benefits of a meditation practice.
Choose a pleasing object to meditate on and remember it every time you get distracted.
Start slow! One minute of really focused meditation is far more beneficial than 30 minutes of being frustrated.
And finally, you are not alone in your struggles. Meditating alone has benefits; so does meditating with a group.
Good luck and have fun with it!
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