Everyday focus, everyday samadhi

Source: nmazca.com : fractalism

An interesting thing happens when I focus on my breath. I get distracted. Seriously. I count my breaths, and I get to about 14 or so, then all of a sudden, my brain “changes the channel” like it’s handling a big old remote control in my head, and before I realize it, I’m off thinking about something that has nothing to do with counting my breaths.

Sometimes it has nothing to do with anything in my present life at all.

And it can take a few minutes before I even realize I’ve wandered off.

Very interesting…

I’ve been reading some writing about zen and zazen, with a special focus on learning techniques for helping my mind better manage my brain. It’s been tremendously helpful to me over the years. I first started actively practicing silent meditation decades ago, and I started getting more into zen back in the early 1990’s.  I credit it with helping me get back on track, after a number of years of confusion and frustration after my car accident in the fall of 1987. Learning about zen and zazen from someone who practiced it regularly and showed me how it was anything but a dull, dreary way to fritter away the hours, and I learned a lot from sitting in silence regularly.

I also credit it with helping me after my car accident in 1996. I had a regular practice by that time, and I was able to get very deep and very quiet. I think the zazen really helped me get back on my feet. Between changing jobs to something that had me interacting more with stoic computer screens, and having an active zazen sitting meditation practice… and practicing intentional, mindful observation (instead of off-the-handle knee-jerk reactions) at work, it truly helped me handle the intense changes that were going on with me.

Alas, my fall in 2004 totally hosed my practice in a really severe way. I had been getting more into the “samadhi zone” (where you experience oneness with everything, and you’re in a place where no time and no space exists, there is only now), and it was  good. But then I fell down those stairs, and within a few weeks, I was swearing off the “fru-fru” meditation routine, journaling, or doing anything other than just living in a very reactionary way, taking cues only from outside me, not inside.

It was truly weird. I couldn’t figure out why, all of a sudden, I wasn’t at all interested in sitting in silence. It was the last thing I wanted. Very uncharacteristic for me, actually. And the sudden lack of ability to focus on things intentionally, along with the inability to just get started with what was in front of me, not only hosed my zazen practice, but also screwed the rest of my life in general.

Now I’m back at sitting zazen, after being convinced I had to give it up for good. I had been thinking for the longest time that there’s no way I can get back to my practice – my brain is too jumbled up, and I can’t manage to sit still for longer than 5 minutes. But then I dug up one of my old zen books (the only modern zen book that has much meaning for me, actually), and I started reading it, and I started thinking about my practice in terms of the Samurais of yesteryear, and something clicked.

TBI doesn’t make me less suited for zazen and that sort of focused practice. It makes me more suited for it.


So, now I’m back at it. I am realizing that I probably have to spend a lot of time building myself back to where I was before, but these things take time. I’m also reading more about how the kind of belly breathing that you use when you’re sitting zazen is extremely helpful for balancing and stabilizing the autonomic nervous system. It actually helps get heart rate variability under control and synch up circulation with your respiration. It works on all levels, and in Eastern and Western contexts. There have even been western medicine studies about how slow, controlled exhalation helps to balance out the autonomic nervous system, bringing the sympathetic (fight-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-digest) into good balance. Not too little of each, as that produces what one person calls a “puny” and weakly constitution, but more of each — in balance with one another — so that you can live your life in a good way. With balance.

That’s really what I’m seeking. Balance. Stability. Oneness of samadhi. And an even-keeled autonomic nervous system. I’ve had some pretty severe blow-ups in the past week or two, and when I look back on them, I can see very clearly the physiological sources of them — it wasn’t just emotional or mental — it was physical issues I was having. Too little sleep. Not enough rest. Letting my system get all revved over good things… only to have it get revved in the opposite direction and blow less-good things all out of proportion.

Molehills into mountains — and then I fall (and push everyone else) off the mountain.


So, I need to focus in. Spend the time in zazen and focus on my breath. Take care of my body, my physical vehicle, and stay present in the moment. My system is accustomed to fight-flight dramas and being fueled by the  biochemical cascade of stress hormones — so it naturally seeks a place where I’m in such a state of alarm and distress that I’m blocking out all “extraneous” stimuli that feel like they’re too much to handle. And if I can’t find that… I’ll actually create it. Because that’s what’s familiar and comfortable and useful to my system, which tends to get low and irritable without it.

But that unconscious biochemical “strategy” is a recipe for a nervous breakdown. I need an alternative — and I have it. I can create that 100% total-focus state in my mind in a positive, non-self-destructive way by deliberately focusing on my breath and counting… counting… counting… and making sure I don’t lose track around 14… and then 27…. and then 38… It’s really, really hard. It takes all my strength and focus to do it. And the deeper I go into it, the more I can replicate that present-only state which typically comes with a dramatic emergency. This way is cleaner, smoother, and it actually strengthens me instead of wiping me out. Granted, it is not as extreme and it’s not like the quick sugar-high of instant drama alert. But the high is more thorough and it lasts longer. And in the past I found that the more I worked at it, the easier it became.

So, I need to resume that practice, be patient with myself, and just breathe intentionally. Intention especially involves focusing more on exhalation than inhalation. That focus stimulates and puts the emphasis on the parasympathetic nervous system, which I can use, as I’m skewed towards the sympathetic.

Well, it’s all good, it’s all fascinating, and it’s all an excellent opportunity to learn.

Now, what is the most present task at hand? To get on with my day. Focus in. Let’s go. Onward.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

4 thoughts on “Everyday focus, everyday samadhi”

  1. BB –

    The ‘intrusion’ of random (and seeming unrelated) thoughts into focus on breath is true for 99% of the people who meditate – even for years – and in some ways this is an important awareness because the art of refocusing is a skill that gets slowly built up – and enables you to use this same skill to keep your focus even when you are NOT meditating.

    Will write more in a few days – in the middle of some intense project work and cannot get away but for a few minutes.


  2. BB –

    Okay – a little rambling about meditation.

    Mediation is not necessarily a way to calm oneself or to gain enlightenment or even to find joy and happiness or inner peace. You may, over time, enable those things, even if temporarily, but they are not the ‘goal’ of meditation. Indeed, meditation is actually a goal-less activity and THAT is why it is important.

    Our brains are filled with chatter, white noise – a background symphony of which we are often hardly aware, that assesses, filters, reminisces, ruminates, calculates, remembers, projects, switches from one process to another, moderates, etc etc. Much of this ‘noise’ is associated, in some fashion, with emotional content – since emotional content is a key factor in how we perceive, what we remember, our self image etc. Even those folks who are ‘rational’ and uber-logical are driven by some form of emotional content. That is the way of human beings.

    This chatter can get quite complex and can sometimes be misleading. The hardest person to know in the world is ourselves because we are brilliant in the art of self-deception. We have to be; our brain likes to insure that our actions are aligned with our thoughts and feelings and beliefs –so we make up the story of our lives.

    Meditation asks us to focus on a single thing, to put our efforts and energies on one single thought – and a thought that is relatively neutral – breath. This is not the only way to meditate – indeed some folks can do so with physical activities that are very demanding (thinking about finding your strength or balance is similar to breath), pronouncing a single word (om) or phrase, counting – and perhaps in others ways. Ritual and prayer can also be meditative though there is a stronger emotional content there which can create a kind of chatter (plea bargaining with God for example).
    Most beginner mediators feels that they are doing something wrong because it seems so easy – just breathe and think of breathing and the yet they struggle endlessly. They peek open one eye and everyone around them looks so calm and focused and they are twitching in their seat – so they must be failing at mediation!! (oh no). Their thoughts are a ramble of nonsense; the grocery list, an argument with a spouse, your best friend in high school, a moment from vacation 10 years ago, the love for your pet, the pride in graduating college, the things you need to do at work next week – on and on it goes, a whole carnival of thoughts, seemingly unrelated and obscure. Many of the thoughts shout at you and demand attention and before you know it you are thinking about them and have forgotten all about breathing. After experiencing this several times folks feel – I am not really getting anything from this, or I am not good at meditation, or this is a waste of time or something like that and so they quit.

    What they don’t realize is that they ARE meditating and this response is EXACTLY what one should expect. But you have to realize you don’t bench press 100 lbs the first time you walk into a gym. You are un-excercising your brain and it takes time. My mediation thoughts are often a series of images; some of which I don’t recognize. At times it feels like a bad Fellini movie. It is very distracting at times.

    What you learn to do then is to say, gently and kindly to yourself, thank you thought for coming to me but not right now. I will put you over to the side there and when I am done we can talk. And then you kindly and gently go back to square one with breath. It will take a million attempts (no kidding) to get past square one. This chatter (which is referred to as monkey mind by many mediation teachers) is all that ‘stuff’ that goes on.

    The wonderful thing is that you are training yourself to not get distracted by the stuff – to learn how to focus back on what YOU want and need to focus on. Initially you are starting with a ‘thing’ – breath – which can allow you to build some focus muscle. This is valuable because it gives your thoughts, your brain, a break – a breather so to speak. It turns down the noise (a very skilled practitioner can turn off the noise) and lets your brain rest a bit. This is not sleep (though often we associate it with sleep and may fall asleep since we are trained to sleep when we aren’t thinking actively about something). This is centering, settling. This is pausing to pay attention by not paying attention.

    In time you can expand this technique to your daily activities because you are learning the art of focus. You can learn how to say to chatter that distracts you from the task at hand ‘Thank you for appearing but not now, we will talk when I am done’. You build muscle.

    In time the intrusions will be more telling (at least I have found so – initially the random thoughts were so random that I couldn’t make connections but after a while I found the random thoughts were significant). These thoughts can sometimes reflect the emotional baggage that we carry and that influence our thinking. They can show us how we alter our perceptions and use our perceptions to re-inforce our belief systems – for good and bad (eg. I am brain injured and therefore ‘less than’ others). One does not engage these thoughts during meditation – as that would be thinking and one is trying to not think – but they can be useful in helping us recognize the direction of our thinking and how we color it. Some folks experience profound emotion during meditative practice – joy, sadness etc.

    We also experience physical discomfort when meditating – sometimes it is just an itch, sometimes it is pain, or a muscle cramp. This too can be a chance to explore ourselves; to examine what exactly we experience in these circumstances – not to dismiss the pain, or even ‘overcome’ it, but to see what exactly we feel when we feel pain. We often become numb to the exact feelings that we have and how we react to them. I for one experience tension in my jaw and neck. There are body scan meditations which help us become more attuned to our bodies and their responses to their environment. There are also walking meditations where in one strives for mindfulness of the environment. I have sometimes gone down to a river and lay on a rock and listened to the sound of water flowing. I am surprised sometimes at how as time passes I hear more and more about the water; subtle differences in sound and flow. However I still find (perhaps because I am such a beginner) that the breath mediation is the most helpful for me.

    I believe that mediation works on the connection between the amygdala and the frontal lobes. I am a big advocate of meditation for all folks that experience TBI (and of course even those who do not). There are however limited studies of mediation and brain injury – perhaps because there is not much big money to be found in teaching people how to not think and focus on their breath. I think it can be helpful in getting the brain to heal, in learning how to focus again, in helping folks recognize and address the subtle stories they tell themselves about themselves. I think it can be a non-narcotic way to deal with pain and sleep problems, and even depression. It is not a panacea and it is hard to persist – even after you have made some progress it requires a regular commitment and it can be hard to sustain that in a world where time is so demanding (work, physical exercise, caring for home and life stuff, family, relationships – who has time to ‘do nothing’ for 40 minutes? – or even 20). In the beginning one feels antsy and restless and there is no immediate benefit. Indeed even when there is a benefit one may not realize it since it is subtle – it doesn’t change your life overtly. Once again our need for major change NOW is so prevalent in our society that we cannot easily accept a low impact and long term process such as meditation.

    So for now recognize that experiencing those random thoughts is good – you are becoming aware of how much chatter you have and you are slowly learning how to turn away from chatter and focus. You are practicing self-kindness (accepting that chatter and kindly putting those thoughts aside) and in time you may discover patterns or themes in the chatter that reflect how your alter your self-perceptions. Do not be in a rush to be a skilled guru – accept the journey of the meditation process. If you can find a ½ day silent retreat to go on – there are many places that offer these. I also recommend, especially if you have a hard time with the commitment to mediation, to take an 8 week course in mindful mediation (based on Kabat-Zinn model). Sometime you can volunteer to be an assistant which can reduce the price considerably.

    I should add that even as I tell you this I have struggled for a long time now with my own practice. Knowing how helpful it is is an intellectual exercise; commitment is another thing altogether. Yet as I start this new job I feel great stress; I am a fish out of my usual waters and it is very very difficult – and I think that meditation would allow me to have greater focus, clearer thoughts and be less driven by emotional needs (wanting to prove I can do it) and more by simply taking up the task at hand.

    As I return to the ‘traditional workforce’ I am struck by the intensity of it; of the self-importance people develop in order to do their jobs, the always on subscription to technology, the relentless need to be active at something and the constant shifts in focus that are consider standard operating procedure for most – as well as my own feelings of inadequacy or simply my desire to ‘just be’ much of the time versus this selling of oneself. I hope that a return to mediation can ease the way a bit.


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