A recent article in the New York Times reports the findings of scientists at Harvard that people are happier when their minds do not wander from what they are doing.
Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.
This is the other side of the coin from the article, Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants.
If we are not able to stay in the here and now, we are naturally not able to enjoy it. And so we miss out on a lot. As John Lennon put it:
“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
Mindfulness is the ability to remember what we are doing without forgetting. If you check, when you forget something, it is because you’ve remembered something else — these are called “distractions”, and the job of mindfulness is to overcome distractions. Concentration is the ability to focus single-pointedly on what we are doing. These two qualities of mind enable us to stay in the here and now, and enjoy it, as opposed to missing out on it. Meditation uses both mindfulness and concentration and improves them both very effectively.
Enjoying, interesting, valuable…
This scientific study shows that we concentrate well on things that we really enjoy. (It also works the other way around, we enjoy the things we concentrate on.) No surprises with sex, it is generally more pleasurable than anything else going on around us at the time, so we are easily able to stay focused on it. Billions of people enjoy TV shows and movies because they draw us in, engage us, please us, such that we resent the distractions (namely the ads). Sport, acting, playing an instrument, art… all these activities have the power to hold our attention if we enjoy doing them more than whatever else is going on.
We also concentrate easily on the things we find interesting or fascinating. A self-described computer geek told me recently that, at work, software problems can keep him absorbed while the hours fly by.
Also, if we perceive something to be valuable or important, we do not find it difficult to keep focused — for example, people in emergency rooms saving others’ lives. Wild horses will not tear them away.
How to meditate well
So to be a good meditator, we need to enjoy our object, find it interesting, and/or find it valuable. In particular, we need to find the object of meditation more enjoyable, interesting and valuable than all the other thoughts that are bound to arise, or those other thoughts will definitely steal our attention.
You know how if you’re engrossed in a conversation, even if you are in a room full of other people talking, although the sound of talking appears to your mind you do not notice it? Whereas if you’re a little bored by your talking companion, you start surreptitiously looking over their shoulder, eventually exclaiming, “Ah, excuse me, there is someone over there I need to talk to.” Its a bit like that.
Before teaching how to do any meditation, Buddha would commonly explain the benefits of doing it. Our breath, for example, may not be sufficiently gripping to hold our attention if we do not know ahead of time how peaceful, relaxed, clear-headed and contented we will become if we simply follow our breath. If we understand the value of what we are doing, we engage in it fully, and concentration comes far more easily.
So because we are more likely to be motivated to stay on our object and not follow distractions if we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it, at the beginning of any meditation it helps to spend a minute or two reminding ourselves.
(To begin a meditation practice, see this article: Meditation: simple, easy instructions for getting started.)