In the third week of our Meditation and Mindfulness for Beginners Course we introduce the idea that meditation is a simple three-step process in which you continually:

  1. Focus
  2. Lose Focus
  3. Refocus

We stress that the idea in meditation is not to stay focused all the time (which is impossible) and that losing focus is actually the most important of the steps above, because that’s where you have the opportunity to respond in creative and skillful ways to the things that ‘distract’ you.

We go on to suggest that there are three attitudes that you can adopt to better navigate your way through those inevitable losses of focus. Namely:

  • Permission
  • Curiosity
  • Kindness

You can read about how to use these attitudes in the article Three Conditions for an Independent Meditation Practice.

A student once asked me to elaborate on these points, so I shared another model which can give you an idea of what to do when things aren’t flowing as you’d like.

    The model (illustrated above) starts with the notion that your attention will always be focused in one of four areas:

    • Body (including breath)
    • Thoughts
    • Emotions
    • Senses (including sounds, smells and tastes)

    Now, many people assume that in meditation you should try to keep your attention in one of these four areas (or quadrants), if not all the time, then at least during a given meditation.

    Typically, you’re instructed to keep your attention on the body or breath, or on some simple sensory experience. Drifting into the world of thought is often strongly discouraged. Emotions are often off-limits too, (except for some acceptable ones like compassion and calm).

    However, when we focus exclusively (or habitually) on one quadrant, we’re bound to create problems for ourselves. 

    Firstly, because attention given to one quadrant necessitates neglect of the others. Focusing exclusively on the body or breath can be beneficial. But there’s a cost. While you focus on the breath you are not focusing on your thoughts and emotions. And this means you are unlikely to develop more skillful and nuanced ways of working with and relating to them. In other words, it’s very hard to develop a balanced meditation practice if you neglect or exclude parts of your experience.

    The “meditation wheel” won’t turn well unless all four quadrants are given attention. Instead, you may find yourself stuck.

    Of course, keeping your attention fixed in one quadrant may help you to develop concentration, but it won’t necessarily result in increased clarity or equanimity. You may find that your attention becomes not just focused, but fixed, or stuck.

    At such times, it may be helpful to shift your attention from one quadrant to another.

    For example, say that you’re trying to focus on your breath, but doing so is just making your more and more agitated. Perhaps you’re finding it difficult not to control the breath, so it feels contrived or constrained. Or perhaps you have a blocked nose, and focusing on the breath just seems impossible.

    In such instances, trying harder to remain focused isn’t going to help. You could try to develop your equanimity, by accepting the situation; but it might be wiser still to shift your attention to the sounds you can hear.

    With the breath no longer a central focus, you may then find yourself feeling considerably calmer. You’re still concentrated, but now there’s also greater clarity and equanimity. There’s less resistance and struggle, and more acceptance and curiosity.

    But let’s say your neighbour’s teenage son turns up the heavy metal he listens to whilst studying, or someone starts up a loud phone conversation in a room nearby. Now the sounds aren’t so pleasant and you find yourself getting annoyed. Again, you could continue focusing on the sounds, but perhaps you’d be better off moving further around our meditation ‘wheel’, to the thinking quadrant.

    By doing so, you become more aware of the stories you’re telling yourself. You note that your thoughts are quite judgmental: “Can’t he turn the volume down?”, “How dare they talk so loud.” Recognising these stories you become a little less caught up in them; and going back to the sounds without these stories, you find them much more tolerable.

    Or, perhaps the opposite happens, and you get further entangled in the thoughts. From “How dare they talk so loud,” you soon find yourself thinking that “She’s always been an inconsiderate…” Now your thinking has you trapped, and even though you know it’s ungracious and unfair to entertain such thoughts, they keep on coming.

    Perhaps it’s time to shift gear again, so you check in with how you’re feeling.

    Welcoming your emotions with kindness and respect, you realise that you’re feeling agitated, disappointed, hurt, grumpy — and ashamed for feeling all this stuff. But those emotions are soothed by your careful attention and under your tender gaze they soon feel far less threatening. And now that they’re no longer triggering those judgmental thoughts the sounds suddenly don’t seem so bothersome. In fact, it seems your neigbour has finished his studies!

    There are many other paths you can take around the meditation wheel. You can go in any direction and from one quadrant to any other.

    It’s as though each quadrant offers a different perspective, and that the information you need to free yourself from some difficulty may be hiding in a quadrant that you’re ignoring.

    By choosing to move around the meditation wheel, instead of remaining focused on one quadrant, you can free your attention, enjoying a sense of freedom and flow, where once you may have felt constrained or stuck.

    And eventually, that sense of flow leads to a feeling of contentment. You may find that under such conditions your attention is quite happy to rest in one place, leaving you restfully focused, perhaps on the very breath that was agitating you earlier.