A capacity to focus is just one of the myriad byproducts of a meditation practice. Here we cover
- our mind’s tendency NOT to focus,
- the value of training it to focus,
- how meditation helps train your mind to focus.
Either watch our video below, or read on.
The crazy person you can’t avoid by crossing the street
Recently I did what many have probably done at least once in their lives: I crossed the street to avoid a crazy guy who was coming my way. Yelling incoherencies at the top of his lungs, he reminded me of this straight-to-the-gut quote by Eckhart Tolle:
“You have probably come across “mad” people in the street incessantly talking or muttering to themselves. Well, that’s not much different from what you and all other “normal” people do, except that you don’t do it out loud.”
Isn’t Eckhart right, though?
We only have to observe our sprawling inner monologue for a minute or two to see that we don’t exercise much control over it. YOU are the crazy person you can’t avoid by crossing the street!
Pointless mental activity
This is why the Buddha supposedly said that it’s like the mind is full of drunken monkeys, jumping around from branch to branch and chattering non-stop. (Hence the term “monkey mind”, which you have probably heard before.) As a result, we find ourselves spending a LOT of precious energy in pointless mental activity:
- Rattling off to-do lists
- Listing fears (whether they’re real or imaginary)
- Recalling past hurtful events
- Judging the present.
- Coming up with catastrophic “what if” scenarios of the future.
Do any of these sound familiar?
Mutually exclusive: monkey mind and peace of mind
This monkey mind and constant internal chatter is a major hindrance to peace of mind and therefore happiness. Consider a well-known 2010 Harvard study designed to investigate the relationship between a wandering mind and happiness.
The researchers developed an iPhone app for the study, and there were 5,000 participants. Randomly throughout the day, the participant’s app would chime, prompting them to fill out a short questionnaire. They would report:
- how happy they were feeling in the instant before the chime (scale from 1-100),
- what they were doing before the prompt,
- whether or not they had been thinking about what they were doing,
- If they were thinking of something else, describing the feeling as pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.
The study suggested that:
- “Wandering mind” seems to be a strongly wired default mode. Subjects’ reported their minds wandering away from the activity at hand as often as not.
- Wandering minds – or not having thoughts aligned with the activity at hand– was associated with unpleasant feelings.
- A focused mind, one aligned to the activity at hand was associated with pleasant feelings (even when the activity at hand was mundane, like washing the dishes).
We get the point: it’s easy for our minds to wander, but unfortunately, that’s not easy on our state of mind!
The value of focus for productivity and performance
If our mind is THE tool with which we navigate in the world, it makes a lot of sense to train ourselves to use it well. What does “using it well” entail? In a nutshell, it means being able to focus your attention. This is how things get done in the world — particularly the substantial things, which require commitment (another word for focused attention over time).
So whether you’re completing a Ph.d., mastering kung fu, writing the next great American Novel or potty training your kid, it can’t be done without focus.
Here’s a nice illustration of an unfocused mind (left) vs a focused mind (right).
When you focus your attention (and therefore your efforts), you can see results (symbolized by the length of the arrows):
How can meditation can train you to FOCUS and quiet the chatter of your monkey mind
Single-pointed meditation is one of the broad categories of meditation. In this type of meditation, you focus your mind on a particular exercise or activity. If you get distracted during the meditation, you do your best to notice and bring your mind back to the meditation activity. You do that over and over again.
Here are a few examples of single-pointed meditations:
- Watching a candle flame, absorbing yourself in the sight of it.
- Repeating a mantra in your head.
- Watching your breath.
- Focus on walking (walking meditation)
Flex that focusing muscle: a meditation to try
Here’s a simple meditation technique that has the happy consequence of fortifying your “focus” muscle.
- Sit in a quiet place and minimize distractions (disable the ringer on your phone).
- Set your timer for at least 5 minutes.
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to center yourself.
- Sit with your back straight and focus your attention on your breath (don’t try to control or influence your breathing , breath as naturally as possible).
- When you notice that your mind wanders, acknowledge the fact that it wandered.
- Bring your attention gently back to the breath.
- Continue until the timer sounds
Practice makes perfect
The more you sit for single-pointed meditation, the more skilled you become at focusing your mind–and that’s just ONE of the perks of meditation.
So many benefits to having a meditation practice
Explore our videos-articles covering several other benefits below.
More vacation time with a meditation practice
Develop more mental clarity to advance your truth-seeking and deep-thinking
Strip the problematic-ness from your problems
Judge less, discern more (and how that makes you happier)
Generate positive feelings (and spread them) with loving-kindness meditation
Make negative feelings more manageable with this simple technique
Sensitize yourself to the subtle (yet POWERFUL) thoughts and emotions that determine how you interpret the world
Develop life’s #1 most useful attitude with meditation: that of acceptance (and why practicing acceptance does NOT make you a doormat)
Questions or comments about meditation or your meditation practice?
We’d love to hear them! Please leave them in the comments below.