Improving our focus

6 mins read.

focus on the solutionWhen we first attempt breathing meditation:

Our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. ~ How to Transform Your Life

All we are asking our mind to do is focus on the in-breath and out-breath, how hard can that be?! But apparently we have an inane and endless talk show going on in our head. This is what we are dealing with when we close our eyes and try to focus on our breath — our uncontrolled mind has other ideas. A lot of other ideas. Some of them terrible ideas! Which is all the more reason why we need to bring it under control through improving our focus.

Mac n med

Concentration as explained in Buddhism is our ability to control our mind, to direct it at will, to focus on one meaningful object and eventually stay there for as long as we want. It allows us to think the thoughts we want to think as opposed to the thoughts that make us feel sad, bad, or mad.

Concentration makes our mind strong, clear, and relaxed, and we become more productive. It always makes us feel better, far more peaceful. It even makes us more physically comfortable. And, as mentioned in this article, we are not a moment too soon in getting better at it.

lotusConcentration goes along with mindfulness, which remembers our object by preventing forgetfulness or distractions. In How to Understand the Mind, where these mental factors or states of mind are all explained in detail, it says:

If we meditate with strong mindfulness our mind will remain on its object without distraction and we will naturally develop stable concentration.

Concentration also goes along with alertness, which is a type of wisdom or self-awareness that actually knows what our mind is up to, including wandering off to other things.

Meditation makes full use of all three – mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC for short 😉 ) – improving them steadily. If we are to have any hope of experiencing the lasting happiness and mental freedom we long for, we need to train in MAC both in meditation sessions and in all areas of our life.

And it doesn’t have to be hard work. Frankly, it is far harder work to spend all day every day having to keep pace with our uncontrolled thoughts.

Reclaim your mind

distractionsWe don’t need to go on courses to learn how to feel busy and have out of control thoughts. That comes pretty naturally already. What we do need to learn to do is control our mind so we can direct it at will, get it to do what we want it to do rather than the other way around.

We already try and control everything else – where we eat, what we wear, who we date, where we live, what we do for a job, who we root for in politics, and so on. Of course this doesn’t always work out – but, even those times we do manage to control other people or our external circumstances, it makes little difference to our peace of mind if we don’t have control over our thoughts.

It is frankly weird that we don’t have control over the thoughts in our own mind, if you think about it. It is torture to have to think stupid stuff all the time — yet it is also utterly “normal”. We accept it as normal. But it is the reason we are suffering. And it doesn’t have to be like this. With just a little effort, we can get a whole lot better at staying focused on peace and happiness.

(By the way, some people don’t really like the term “controlling the mind” as it sounds a bit too, well, controlling. So you can think of it as taking charge of our mind and/or having choice over what our mind does and/or mastering our mind. Being a real superhero.)

Bigger picture

duckNot to mention the bigger picture … where are all these uncontrolled, unchosen thoughts taking us? To more uncontrolled, unchosen life — more samsara. How could they be taking us anywhere else? With irritation and attachment, jealousy and confusion, and so on, and the confused intentions and actions that arise from these minds, we are busy creating the karmic causes to experience some form of future unease or pain in our body and mind.

Today I overheard a woman in the park saying, “In my next life I want to be a duck.” Although she was watching an admittedly laid-back duck sunning himself on a rock, I thought, “No. Mm mm. No, you don’t. Don’t even joke about it.”

Our conceptual thoughts and sense consciousnesses cease at death, along with our sense of self or our current personality; but our deepest level of mental consciousness continues after this body screeches to a halt, our karma going with it. If I die today without having controlled my mind and my karma, where can I guarantee ending up tomorrow? What choices will I have?

Single-pointedness

Concentration is the ability to stay single-pointedly focused on an object, a skill that is key in the pursuit of happiness. For example, we may be surrounded by all the necessary conditions to become upset, such as grumpy co-workers or scary politics, but if our bench and reflectionmental spot light is trained on patient acceptance, we will not experience any unhappiness. And we will be able to respond more constructively to whatever is going on.

Concentration is the focus in our mind that enables us to get closer and closer to the object. With strong concentration our mind mixes with the object, as if there is no space between the object and us. It is like that beautiful TS Eliot quote:

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

We’re actually already very good at concentrating on some things, namely objects of desire or aversion. When we’re attracted to someone, we call up all their features in ravishing detail with very little effort. When we’re angry with someone, we have single-pointed concentration on their faults. But this is not the concentration referred to by Buddha, which is necessarily positive or virtuous. To be happy, we want to be able to maintain these levels of concentration on wise and virtuous objects, which lead us in a positive direction. If we focus all our attention on, for example, the loving thought ‘May everyone be happy’, it’s like a laser beam trained onto a happy, powerful experience.

Buddha said that there is nothing more powerful in this universe than a fully concentrated mind. The reason our mind lacks power is because it is fractured. It is all over the place. We talk to ourselves, apparently, at a rate of a thousand words a minute: IMG_5328-EFFECTS‘What’s going on, who’s that coming in, what am I doing later, how should I respond to that insult?’ We rarely focus on one object. Our mind is currently in a state of constant motion, flitting onto anything that catches its fancy, then flitting away again.

Buddha likened the uncontrolled mind to a monkey scampering up and down a tree grabbing and throwing stuff, or a crazy elephant wreaking havoc on a village. For a modern-day example, I think that being trapped in an out of control, unfocused mind is like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel. Or without brakes. Or even while we are locked in the trunk!

Next installment is here: Getting started with mindfulness.

Over to you! Comments welcome below.

Related articles

How to meditate – a selection of articles on breathing meditation 

When the mind wanders, happiness also strays

Breathe your way to inner peace