Understanding Meditation and Learning to Focus
by Marcus Antebi
Article at a Glance:
To practice meditation, we must understand exactly what it is.
We grew up in the West having an opinion of the word “meditation” and the concept it referred to that was inaccurate for the most part. We associated it with spiritual people and with achieving things that we found to be curious. We might not have liked the associations we made with the word meditation because they seemed pretentious.
Some see meditation as a religious practice of some kind; they would contend that to meditate properly you would need to be connected with God or with the divine. Meditation can be practiced in the context of pursuing such a connection with God, yet it does not have to be. Meditation can simply be a means of getting control over the thoughts that flow through your mind. Doing so takes a lot of practice, and it begins with determining how much difficulty you have quieting your mind.
I personally find quieting my mind to be very difficult. When I first began meditating, it would be all I could do to meditate on one thought for 30 seconds. By that time I would usually be distracted by a different thought and be drifting off again.
It took me a long time to both engage in the practice and to understand the value of it. But after some time, I realized that the nature of my struggles with addiction and suffering was linked to my own thinking patterns. Certain things such as childhood events and my responses to them precipitated my addictive behavior, but I realized that I had to “own” my own inappropriate thinking patterns to overcome my emotional difficulties.
Willingness to take control of our own thoughts and reprogram our own thinking patterns is absolutely essential. We have to be able to control our reactions to everything that happens in the outside world. Our consciousness has a relationship or a connection between what's going on in the outside world and what’s happening in the world inside of us. The connection doesn't serve us properly if our thoughts take us in many directions and keep us from concentrating on matters of timely importance.
Learning to focus our thoughts properly takes practice. There's some difficulty in learning to keep our minds on one thing and one thing only. But the initial process of learning to do so is simple. You can start with laying on your back and saying, “I'm going to focus on each inhalation and each exhalation. I'm going to focus on my breath.”
As you do this exercise, make sure that you're in a fairly dark room and don't have external distractions. Begin by breathing deeply through your nose, following the breath in your mind and following the sensations in your body. You should do this for 10 cycles and do your best to not become distracted. Doing this is what I would refer to as “the second grade of meditation.”
I suggest that people who struggle particularly hard with this go about something that I'd term “the first grade of meditation.” Specifically, that is making an attempt to do some type of activity without being distracted by something unrelated to that particular activity.
Walking can be an example of this. As I'm walking, I should stay in my footsteps and at a certain pace, concentrating on being in the moment and thinking only about my breath as I'm participating in this short journey.
Doing a first grade level active meditation in a way is a bit easier than the exercise I first described. It's easier because there are distractions, some of which may be pleasant and entertaining to a degree.
Although a first grade level act of meditation can be easier than something like the initial exercise I mentioned, it can be more challenging. That's the case because of the distractions which can make it difficult to keep the mind on one thing. But some people like myself have extreme difficulty focusing when they are in complete stillness. To a degree that is because of the boredom that active people characteristically have a low tolerance for. For such people to engage in second degree meditation, it's helpful for them to focus on a physical object while in the stillness of the practice.
I'm reminded of an experience I had after the birth of my third daughter. Five days after she was born, one morning I got into bed and my wife put my daughter on my chest. The little girl was unbelievably precious and lovely, and I thought of how fleeting the beautiful moment with her was. I asked myself how I could experience the moment again and savor it after she was grown up.
I made a decision to concentrate completely on the joy of the moment. I resolved to move into the experience with total focus. I placed my hand on her little body, I listened to the sound of her breathing, and I felt her soft cheek against my neck as I reflected on her helplessness and her beauty. I stayed with the moment for about 30 minutes. And at that point I got distracted (because I had to pee).
After that I got inundated with other distractions. I thought of how I needed to be somewhere in a few hours. I wondered what I was going to wear. I began planning for the walk to my appointment. Then I started thinking about the project I was working on the day before. I considered how quickly and easily my mind would begin racing in so many directions and I found it humorous.
Being able to direct attention to things that need attention is a sign of strength. It’s a strength that comes from development of character and maturity of one's intellect.
If I can control the thoughts that flow through my head then I can become more relaxed. I can then better control my reactions to things. I can study my behavior, personality, and character attributes. If I have problems with things, I can go inside my mind and take measures to change some of them. At times I'll need outside help along the lines of books, lectures, and wise counsel to make such change happen.
Control is the key. I must learn to control where my mind goes. If I don't do so, my mind will wander into the realm of my lower self. When it does, I'll think about negative things and be unhappy.
You begin to learn how to control your thoughts by first learning how to focus. Learn to focus on a single thing for a short period of time, perhaps two to five minutes. When you can master that, you can begin to move onto more advanced meditation practices.