Focus is a kind of mental muscle. When you strengthen it by learning to hold your attention in one place for a while, you automatically strengthen your ability to hold subtle states in meditation and to find the inner pathways that lead you deeper.
Eventually, this subtle practice of catching yourself in distraction and bringing your mind back starts to affect your whole life. Not only does the mind become more stable in meditation, but it also acquires an ability to focus on things like reading, writing a report, perfecting your tennis game. The more you can resist distraction in meditation, the easier it becomes to resist boredom, worry, and depression, and the less you are driven by fantasies. Meditation, as Buddhist teacher Alan Wallace says, is one of the greatest antidotes to ADD.
Just Drop It
Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutra, tells us that there are two aspects to the process of steadying the mind. We've just discussed the first one: practice, or, in Sanskrit, abhyasa. The second part of the process of steadying the mind is called vairagya, meaning ‘detachment.' Detachment is a way of putting the gears in the mind into neutral, disengaging ourselves from the thoughts, feelings, and desires that normally jostle us out of peace.
A few years ago, a young woman was meditating at a retreat. She was planning an overseas trip, and during meditation her mind kept running through her checklist, wondering how many sweaters to take and whether she needed to pack a winter coat. Suddenly, a voice spoke in her mind. "Drop it!" said the voice. Shocked into mental silence, she refocused on her breath.
No sooner had she done that than she was overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness. She thought about how much she was going to miss her boyfriend. Then, she heard the inner voice again, "Drop it." She asked herself, "What should I drop? What's my biggest obstacle now?" What came up was, "My feeling of unworthiness." She imagined herself dropping her unworthiness thoughts into a mental trash basket.
Then the voice came again, "Drop it!" She didn't know what else she could drop. So she just said to herself, "Let go!" and fell into a deep feeling of calm. It was as if a powerful peacefulness had opened up in the ground of her mind. She felt as if she was swimming in the oceanic tide of this bliss, lulled on its waves. She thought, "Oh, don't let this end," and immediately the voice came again: "Drop it!" "Drop the bliss?" she asked. "No, drop wanting to keep it," said the voice—actually, she said, by now it was less a voice than an intuition.
She let go of the feeling of clinging to the bliss. With that, she fell into the deepest, quietest space she'd ever experienced. She felt present, loved, and as clear as running water.
Her experience actually points out a process we can follow. If you move through the stages she went through, you will also discover how much peace arises when you just drop everything—your plans, your thoughts, your doubts about yourself, and even your desire for a particular experience. Ultimately, you want to let go—at least for the space of your meditation—of the tendrils of deep-seated attachment, identification, and aversion that reinforce our sense of separation from the whole.
Here's the process I recommend:
- Begin by letting go of tension. Breathe into areas that seem tight, and as you breathe out, gently have the thought, "Let go." Move through your body gently breathing out tensions. This can be a relaxing meditation in itself.
- Let go of desire, expectation, fear, and worry. Just for now, notice some of the wants and expectations that are coming up in your mind. It could be the restlessness to finish what you're reading, a worry about whether you're late, an expectation that you'll get something out of reading this article. As soon as you notice one of these feelings come up, notice how it feels in your body. You'll probably recognize a kind of clutching, a tension or agitation connected to the desire or expectation. Now, breathe it out with the thought, "Let go." Notice the inner spaciousness that arises. See if you can stay with it for a moment or two.
- Let go of identifying with the thinker. This is more subtle, but especially powerful. Rather than identifying yourself as the thinker of the thoughts, or as the one who the thoughts refer to (as in "I'm tired"), see if you can be the watcher, the noticer of the thoughts. You don't try to get rid of thoughts. You let them be—but you pull back from them. You disengage.
A nice way to do this is to imagine your mind as sky, and the thoughts as clouds. Clouds are formed out of vapor; they appear and dissolve in the sky. The sky is untouched by them. It isn't changed if the clouds rain or hail or thunder. In the same way, your Awareness, your own pure mind, is not touched by thoughts. They pass through, and if you identify with them, they affect your state and even your body. Becoming the watcher of thoughts is simply a matter of shifting your perspective. Here's a simple way to make this perspective shift. Say to yourself, "My name is . . ." Then notice that another part of your mind notices that thought. That's the witness. Being the witness is simply identifying with the noticer rather than with the thoughts.
At this point, you can let the thoughts just be there, rather than being caught by them. And when you can do that, it's just a small step to experiencing the great truth about the mind: it's a field of energy, which can distract us and run us ragged, but which when we understand its power and its beauty, will reveal the wisdom and peace that lie just on the other side of thinking.