So, I was up at a decent hour this morning, and I took time to sit and breathe for about 20 minutes. Generally, I try to focus on my breath and counting how many times I breathe in and breathe out. It’s good for me. It gives my brain a rest. And it helps me start the day with good concentration.
Here’s the thing, though – when I am tired (which I am, today), my mind really wanders, and it takes a mammoth effort to bring me back to where I need to be — focused on counting my breaths. Suddenly, a ton of different things seem so critical that I can’t help but think about them. And I am convinced that I have to solve these problems right here and now.
So, there are a number of issues that I can address in this exercise:
- Distractability – being prone to have things catch my attention and pull it off where I need it to be.
- Impulse Control – just “going with” the stuff that comes up, instead of consciously deciding that I’m not going to pay attention to those things until after I’m done sitting.
- Weak Attention – if all these different thoughts are coming up, if my attention is strongly enough focused on what I’m doing, the two things above don’t need to bother me.
But they do. And that’s the thing. It’s a thing I need to address. And guess what – I can address it. Each morning, as well as at different times throughout the day.
Now, I know that meditation is supposedly good for your soul — it’s supposed to lead to enlightenment, and that’s why a lot of people pursue it. But enlightenment is not my main goal. I want something a whole lot less grand — I just want to be able to sustain my attention on a single fixed point for longer than a hummingbird focuses on drinking nectar from a flower.
Seriously. It’s just ridiculous, sometimes, what comes up in my mind for no apparent reason. Things like the current political debates, the task items I have to do for work by end of day Monday, my upcoming schedule this week, what I want to discuss with my neuropsych, repairs I need to make to the house, and of course the pain and discomfort I’ve been feeling in my left upper back, due to my body acclimating to the different movements I’ve been making when I work out in the morning.
It’s just this never-ending march of whatever-ness that just won’t quit. And there I sit, boldly attempting to hold my attention to the number of the breath I’m presently on.
I’ve read up on this a little bit, and apparently there are a number of different ways to spend your time while sitting in meditation. You can look at the end of your nose or your hand or a selected point out in front of you. You can count your breaths. You can recite mantras. You can can think about unsolvable puzzles in hopes of receiving a sudden flash of insight when your brain finally gives up trying to do what it isn’t designed to do.
I’m sure there are tons of people who have made good use of these practices, and for all those who sit in meditation in service to humanity waking up, I’d like to say “Thank you.”
For my purposes, however, the point of sitting is much more basic and far less grand. It’s just to get a handle on my head and extend my “attentional endurance” — to train myself to be able to focus on one single thing for longer than 15 seconds. Not being able to keep focused on one single thing for extended periods of time has serious repercussions for my work and my life. Just the other day, I misplaced some gift cards I’d received over the holidays, and now I can’t find them. Because I wasn’t paying attention when I put them away. I have no idea where they are. I’ve looked high and low. I’m sure at the time I thought was being clever, putting them somewhere “safe” — so safe, I can’t find them now.
This is just one example. At work, not being able to focus on things for longer than a few minutes at a time (partly because of constant interruption, but also because of poor practice), cuts into my productivity and keeps me from achieving what I set out to achieve. It makes everything that much harder to do, that much longer to finish, that much more of a chore.
In my personal life, too, not being able to attend to the people around me, not being able to focus exclusively on them while they are talking to me, not only makes them feel unimportant, but it also makes it really hard to have a conversation. I already have issues with working memory, so when I don’t pay attention and I don’t actively follow along in the conversation, I can lose pieces of what we are talking about, and then I sound like I’m talking gibberish.
And that’s no good.
So, that’s why I sit and count my breaths each morning. If enlightenment comes, that’s fine. 🙂 But I’ll (hopefully) be so focused on keeping my attention fixed on a certain point, that I won’t exactly notice. And that’s how I think I’d like it to be. The day when I can keep my attention fixed so intently on something as “insignificant” as a shoe lying on the floor in front of me, that I’m not distracted by something as profound as an evolutionary bump to the next level, is the day my attention is good to go.