In recent months I’ve been writing about some of the many meditation myths and misconceptions which, when unquestioned, often make meditation much harder than it needs to be. I’ve addressed the idea that the aim of meditation is to still your mind; the notion that there’s a certain optimal posture to maintain; and the recommendation that you practice daily, irrespective of how you feel.
This month I’ll talk about whether you need to develop your ability to concentrate — to remain perfectly focused and never get distracted.
Some people take up meditation as a means of doing just these things. Others simply assume that a meditator should be able to stay on task. And some people just don’t like it when their mind feels scattered. They want a focused mind — simply as a respite from the incessant jumping of their attention from one place to another.
All these people are likely to be disappointed, mostly because our attentional systems are designed to notice changes — in our minds, in our bodies, and all around us. Furthermore, we don’t really have complete control over our attention. It operates largely beneath our awareness (in the same way that our nervous system operates outside our awareness). Just as you don’t choose to beat your heart or digest your food, you don’t choose what to pay attention to. Even when you think you’re choosing what to pay attention to, there are deeper parts of your mind preselecting what you need to be aware of, and what you can safely ignore. In other words, your attention will wander, inevitably, no matter how hard you try to keep it still. This is good, because if you could choose to remain perfectly focused, then you probably wouldn’t be alive today. It’s good for example, to be ‘distracted’ by a bus bearing down on you as you cross the road, or by your boss asking you a question, or by your child crying.
Knowing this, it might be wise not to try too hard to keep your mind still. Doing so would be somewhat futile. Accepting that your mind will move almost continuously, like a mouse scurrying across open ground, actually helps you to feel more at ease. Paradoxically, when you allow your attention to drift freely it’s more likely to find places where it’s comfortable resting.
Perhaps more controversially, I would argue that meditation would be rendered more or less useless if you could, through it, maintain perfect focus. It’s true that deep focus allows a sense of calm, stillness and peace to emerge, at least temporarily. But what would you learn about the sources of stress in your life? Would perfect focus lead to the insights and creativity that are generated in a mind that’s permitted to dream and free-associate? How would you know what’s important and what’s not?
It’s the things that distract you when you meditate that are actually most useful. Regulating your breath and scanning your body is useful too. But learning how to respond intelligently to your worries and concerns, to understand what your emotions are trying to say to you, and to cultivate attitudes that lead to self-understanding and self-responsibility — these are the skills that make meditation a worthwhile pursuit.
In Meditation Made Easy, Lorin Roche says “People concentrate a great deal at work, so it would be redundant to concentrate during meditation. It would be a busman’s holiday. In meditation you learn how to do the opposite of concentration; you learn to expand the scope of your attention. You learn a kind of attention that excludes nothing, and therefore the needy and unknown parts of yourself can come into range. This is what leads to integration of the personality and coordination of mind, heart and body. Unlearning concentration is a big part of learning to meditate.”
In other words, how long or well you focus during meditation is not that important. You will probably derive a lot more benefit from learning how to accept the inevitable meanderings of your mind than you will through trying to stop them. And you’ll probably find that you’ll be better able to focus post-meditation. That’s one reason to meditate — not so you can focus during the meditation, but so you can focus afterwards, whilst you’re engaged in conversation or on the job.
You can let focus be a byproduct of meditation, rather than a goal.