Becoming a Zen master is really friggin’ difficult, and certainly can’t be accomplished by daily twenty-minute self-guided meditation sessions.
This week I tried “testing” myself at work to see if my ability to concentrate and focus increase. I tried working in focused bursts to no avail. I could maybe get about 10-15 minutes of work done without my mind desiring some form of novel stimulation in the form of internet articles. (One upside: I read this excellent article about creativity in The Atlantic).
I spoke to my girlfriend’s mother about my lack of progress. She is a meditation expert who went to India to train in Buddhist meditation in the seventies, so I thought she would do a good job of giving me feedback.
It turns out that my experience during meditation is pretty normal. Most people are very distracted when they first start meditating.
The good news is this means you are beginning to pay attention. The fact that you notice you have these thoughts is a sign of progress.
I can feel good about that at least.
Another point she made when I asked her about developing concentration and focus, was that concentration and mindfulness are very different, and almost mutually exclusive. Concentration involves eliminating awareness of everything but the object of focus.
Though concentration and mindfulness are complementary, developing concentration requires different exercises than ones designed to cultivate mindfulness.
The book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes two different forms of concentration, active and selective.
In active concentration, “the mind dwells on whatever is happening in the present moment, even as it changes.”
I interpret this as the ability to be a careful observer. It would be like sitting at a café and people watching without judgment. You notice someone walking a dog, a couple having lunch, a car driving by, etc. You focus on what is going on around you with detachment.
In selective concentration, we focus on one object.
“We know that the sky and the birds are there, but our attention is focused on our object. If the object of our concentration is a math problem, we don’t watch TV or talk on the phone. We abandon everything else and focus on the object. When we are driving the lives of the passengers in our car depend on our concentration.”
It’s this latter form of concentration that I hope to build, as I think it would be particularly useful.
My girlfriend’s mother gave me a few tips on how to do this.
The first is to change my current meditation practice. Instead of returning to the breath every time I notice a distraction, I should just focus on the distraction. For example, if I am in the middle of a meditation session and I hear people talking outside, I should direct my focus to their conversation. When the next distraction arises, I should focus on that.
By intentionally switching your focus to the distraction, it is no longer a distraction, it is an object of focus.
This seems like a good way to focus deeply on whatever it is that catches my attention.
The other recommendation she gave me was to practice “Walking Meditation.” This practice involves taking a walk and paying attention to the sensations of walking.
This is interesting to me because my tendency when walking is to get lost in thought. In fact, studies show that walking is especially good at increasing creativity.
Walking meditation would, in a sense, be the opposite of being lost in thought; it requires you to be fully present in the physical sensations of walking.
I’m going to start incorporating these practices into my routine over the next few weeks to see if I get any results.
I will keep you posted.