Don't try too hard to concentrate!
29 March 2019
A little while back I attended a 9-day retreat with Patrick Kearney (www.dharmasalon.net), an excellent and very experienced meditation teacher. He gave some wonderfully helpful guidance for those of us with active minds (for whom isn't this relevant?) so I want to share some of those insights here. The bottom line is: "Don't try too hard to get your mind to stay concentrated, because concentration is not that important and it will only blow up in your face!"
Concentration and mindfulness are two different aspects
It has always surprised me that I have had so many benefits in daily life since I have been practicing mindfulness, even though my concentration has always been rather poor. Patrick explained that concentration and mindfulness are actually two different things, with concentration being something like 'the action of focusing all one's attention on one object' (i.e. the breath). Mindfulness then, is about the 'awaring' (tracking in awareness over time) of whatever is here, so there can be multiple and changing objects (i.e. breath, bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions). And that one can have poor concentration, but good mindfulness...now doesn't that sound like good news!
Imagine you're doing your practice, focusing on the breath, and then you notice an ache in your left shoulder. You're curious, so you sense into the ache, wondering what it is, and notice a kind of heavy, tired, stretchy feeling. You also notice some memories coming up of a spontaneous game of cricket on the weekend, where you found yourself swinging that ball around for much longer then you initially intended. You notice that the memories of spending time with your friends on a beautiful spring day brings a smile to your face and a warm glow to your heart. And you think: 'Aha, that's why my shoulder is a little sore!'. And then you find your attention kind of naturally returning to the breath, satisfied it checked out this shoulder thing.
If our purpose is training concentration, then this whole episode is a distraction, and 'bad', but when the purpose is training mindfulness, it is just good practice that increases our self-awareness. In this view, something is only a distraction if we get completely caught up in it, are no longer 'here', have forgotten to be present to what is in our awareness. (This of course happens a lot too, but that's a different story for some other time!)
From the way meditation instructions are usually given, we can easily get the impression that we 'should' get our minds to concentrate and settle. That we should be able to eventually sustain our attention for, well, surely much longer than we find ourselves able to. So we try, and often try very hard: we want to get this right, right? And some of you, like me, may have had the experience where this approach seems to actually backfire. Where you feel more agitated, restless and grumpy by the end of the practice than when you started. And perhaps even start to dread or dislike this whole mindfulness business!
So I thought it was great news to hear from Patrick that this iron willpower approach to the practice is not necessary (since concentration is not that important!) and actually not that wise and skilful, judging the effect it has! If we want regular mindfulness practice to be a sustainable part of our life, it greatly helps if we find ways to make the practice easy and enjoyable. Where we cultivate a friendly, trusting, joyous relationship with our mind and body, like we would with our dog, or cat, or horse.
So just experiment with what works for you: which ways of practicing help you to stay present with the flow of your experience in an open, accepting way? If you get tense and frustrated during the practice, you might have been trying too hard to squeeze your attention in too small a box. Have a break, let your awareness expand outward, perhaps to the senses, perhaps gently (or even vigorously if that feels right!) moving the body, taking a few deeper breaths...give your mind space and freedom! And then after a few minutes, see if your mind is willing to become a bit more focused again. And no problem if it doesn't! Just give your mind a big paddock to roam in.