What are we going to do about our short attention spans?!

10 mins read.

How’s your attention span? These days, people are complaining of being more scatter-brained than ever – some studies even suggest that we may have the attention span of your average guppy!

Having a short attention span affects everything from being able to get much done through to feelings of restlessness, lack of inner peace, AND boredom. 

I’ll talk more about this in the context of boredom because, as mentioned in Searching relief from tedium, boredom arises from diminished meaning and attention span. However, lengthening our attention span will be of huge benefit in most other areas of our life as well. So do read on … !

Got spare time?!

All this spare time! Finally I can read all those novels, or write my own! Or study Italian! Or meditate! Or sort out all my drawers! Or learn all about Buddhism!

Ironically, however, in these endless days of the Pandemic, people are reporting to getting even less done than usual. (Might explain why I started writing these boredom articles back in May …) With so many crises erupting — such as the headline today that almost one person a minute is now dying from COVID in the United States — nothing seems like nearly so much fun anymore. And in this context, it seems harder to get anything to hold our attention for long.

#3 cause of boredom: short attention span

We can only get things done if we can keep our focus. With all the fears and uncertainties floating around, a lot of people are finding it hard to concentrate.

From the article quoted here:

Multiply that experience across billions of people, and you’ll get a sense of how much boredom the world is facing right now. The problem is exacerbated for people with difficult home lives, people who have lost their jobs and can’t afford rent, and even for the swaths of Americans still showing up in person for work: the more stress we experience, the more at risk we are for losing our ability to focus and find meaning.

Even if we find something meaningful to do, we have to be able to focus on it to not feel bored or restless.

Pick up the phone syndrome

To take writing this blog as an example — although in theory I find it meaningful, have hundreds of ideas for it, and some times am focused and in flow, at other times I am too distracted to focus on writing sufficiently for it to hold my interest and I don’t really want to do it. To deal with this restlessness I distract myself further with, for example, non-essential tasks or, more pointless still, seeing what everyone has been up in the last 15 minutes according to Facebook or the news – “I will just take a quick break to check!” Of course that just undermines my attention span even more, and I end up feeling more restless, not less.

(I read today in one of these breaks that Dolly Parton gets up at 3am, prays and meditates, and then writes for 4 hours before making breakfast for herself and her husband. Impressive, eh?! Clearly it can be done …)

In this age of distraction, we can find almost infinite distractions when bored – however, what we are doing when we give in to restlessness is just strengthening that habit, becoming more restless. If we want to not feel bored we have to pay MORE attention, not less, so that we feel immersed and find what we are doing enjoyable and valuable.

Sometimes boredom arises because we bite off more than we can chew. If we find things too hard, we cannot engage with them so we can get fed up with them — like throwing a Rubik cube to one side, “This is boring!” We can make this mistake with Buddhism as well, if we launch with expectations into teachings we’re not ready for. Although identifying with our potential is always important, we also need to be skillful and start where we are, building up a repertoire of understanding and experience. So rather than immediately trying, say, to master Ocean of Nectar (600 pages of Madhyamika philosophy), we’d be better off immersing ourselves in an easier book and base our meditation practice on genuine experience, building up our wisdom over time.

If the teachings ever seem boring, it is generally because we don’t really understand them or are not practicing them. If you find yourself getting bored with Dharma, my suggestion is always to return to those aspects of Dharma that work for you, that got you interested in the first place – whatever those are, everyone is different. Get that back, re-engage, and, on that foundation, you can then go back to that difficult subject without getting bent out of shape if it’s hard. Dharma progress is based on feeling happy and confident, not feeling worried or inadequate because we don’t understand everything.

Valuable, interesting, enjoyable

Buddhism specializes in finding meaning in life AND increasing our attention span or ability to concentrate, therefore providing the perfect antidote to these two causes of boredom. If we can find meaning in what we are doing — find it valuable, interesting, and enjoyable as I explain here – it is not too hard to overcome our distractions. Focusing on it, the boredom will go away. Eventually we’ll be in the zone. 

We must understand that our creativity comes alive when we spend time alone focusing on our projects without distractions.

From a Buddhist technical point of view, to maintain interest and attention span requires what is called the “object-ascertaining mental factors.” A mental factor is a type or state of mind.

First we need “aspiration”, defined as “a mental factor that focuses on a desired object and takes an interest in it.” We can become interested in developing more love, for example, by meditating on the benefits of doing it and disadvantages of not doing it. Buddha explained the benefits of every meditation he taught, probably because he knows how our monkey minds need incentive. We can do something similar for tasks as well — if I bother to take a bit more time to think about why I am writing this blog, for example, that gets me in the mood.

Aspiration leads to firm apprehension, where we can hold our object firmly and understand it more deeply. This gives rise to mindfulness, which in turn gives rise to concentration. These mental factors will directly oppose our lack of attention span.

Moreover, concentration gives rise to wisdom, with which we can solve our problems permanently. You can read more about these five object-ascertaining mental factors in How to Understand the Mind.

Why the modern world is bad for your brain

Let me just add a little plug here for training in concentration – not only will it overcome boredom, it will also lead to a lot of other benefits. Check out this rather sobering but useful recent article in the media, as well as this incredibly helpful guest article partly inspired by it: Digital addiction and a plan for recovery

I won’t go too much into it here, except to say that completely unchecked distractions are what really destroy us. And it is concentration, not distraction, that brings us peace and joy. Here is a wonderful explanation of why, from Introduction to Buddhism:

When the mind is stilled by concentration, the delusions subside and the mind becomes extremely lucid. At the moment, our minds are intractable, refusing to cooperate with our virtuous intentions; but concentration melts the tension in our body and mind and makes them supple, comfortable and easy to work with.

See, it is concentration that melts the tension in our body and mind, not endless scrolling through our Instagram feeds! (with the exception of Gen Samten’s kadampa.turtles – that HELPS our concentration 😁)

We (at least I) get pulled in by our gadgets because we are addicted, but also in the mistaken assumption that they will help us relax — but do they, do they really?! And, even if they do in smaller quantities, and can sometimes be useful in smaller quantities, the sheer amount of time we are spending following our distractions is what characterizes our modern age perhaps more than anything else. An age that is leading to unprecedented amounts of anxiety, depression, and other mental ills. A bit more from Introduction to Buddhism

It is difficult for a distracted mind to become sufficiently acquainted with its object to induce spontaneous realizations, because it feels as if the mind is here and the object there.

Spontaneous realizations can be understood as having to make no effort – we gain effortless insights or mixing with our object, which might be love, for example, or impermanence, or any of the stages of the path to enlightenment. When we cannot mix our mind with its object, that sense of separation is actually what induces tension, because it causes dualistic pushing and grasping in the mind.

We may already have learned a lot of good objects to concentrate on that will make us so un-bored and so happy – from just our breath to love to the clarity of our mind to bliss & emptiness – but our mind won’t stabilize on them, even if we understand them intellectually, because we are too much in the habit of following our other thoughts. We all need to train in concentration if we want peace.

A concentrated mind, however, enters into its object and mixes with it, and, as a result, realizations of the stages of the path are quickly attained.

Notice the word “quickly”. As opposed to following all our distractions, on the other hand, when any mental development we manage to get around to is slow and arduous. Why would we want to stretch out our spiritual path unnecessarily? We can get the same results far more quickly and with far less hassle if we just bother to concentrate a bit more. And it is not as difficult as you may think – fact be told, it is hugely less painful and less tiring than continually chasing after distractions.

Normally our mind is moving all over the place. When we allow it to become still and stable by focusing single-pointedly on a meaningful object, it becomes peaceful, it becomes deep. This starts from our first meditations on the breath right through to being absorbed into the most profound mind of all, the clear light of bliss:

Through stabilizing this meditation the movement of my inner winds of conceptions will cease. 
Thus, I will perceive a fully qualified clear light. 
~ The Hundreds of Deities of the Joyful Land

If you put a glass down, it won’t move until you move it. Wouldn’t you like a mind like that, staying on whatever wise or blissful thought you want for as long as you want?! Eventually our mind of concentration becomes like Mount Meru, completely unmoved by the winds of conception.

Retreat season 2021

By the way, if this has inspired you to up your concentration game, it’s excellent timing because we are just around the corner from our traditional retreat month (January), and there are umpteen online retreats to choose from in January 2021. Never has it been easier!! I say more about retreat and list some of your options in this article: Doing meditation retreat.

Getting going 

If you are new or kind of new, check out these hopefully practical articles for ways in which to get started in training in concentration using the breath, the clarity of the mind, or turning the mind to wood. And there is a free talk on learning to meditate live-streaming on New Year’s Day. 

Over to you. Any questions? Please share anything you have found helpful in improving your attention span.

Related articles

Control your thoughts or they’ll control you 

Improving our focus 

Digital addiction and a plan for recovery 

Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to be happy

9.5 mins read.

elephant in water.jpegSetting some time aside for a relaxing meditation session every day, even 10 or 15 minutes, is likely the quickest and most effective way to start mastering our minds (aka choosing our thoughts).

Carrying on from this article, Getting started with mindfulness.

And we can think of it more as a mini-vacation than yet another onerous commitment. Effort in meditation is likened to an elephant plunging into a lotus pool to find relief from the heat of the midday sun. In other words, meditation doesn’t have to be another item on an already over-subscribed to-do list — it is more like the space between items. If we take this time, we’ll find our to-do list a lot more manageable because feeling busy is a feeling, a state of mind.

I think pretty much most people can find 10 to 15 minutes in the day for concerted spiritual practice? It is true that we have a lot of stuff on, but I still don’t think we are always too busy to meditate so much as too distracted or attached to doing other things.

Not being here now

Without a skillful meditation practice, our mind will keep on being blown all over the place by our thoughts and whatever else is going on, like a balloon powerlessly buffeted by the wind. We are in danger of remaining totally caught up in fleeting external circumstances to the neglect of enjoying the deep and stable peace we have waiting inside.

Nowadays it seems as though there is even more pointless thinking going on. We can spend our entire day distracting ourselves if we’re not careful (talking to myself here). And this brings me to the main reason I am writing this article today, which is, once we have established some peace in our heart, how can we take advantage of the gaps in our day to keep that going 24/7?

Mini-meditations throughout the day

First off, how do we know there are numerous little gaps in our day? How do we know, all told, that, however busy our lives might feel, we have more time than we realize to relax and feel peaceful if that is what we really want?!

Because those gaps are all those times we get on our phones!

Smartphone-AddictionThe average American looks at their Smartphone for 3.5 hours a day! We might possibly be enlightened by now if we’d been using that 3.5 hours for mini-meditations instead.

And today in Madison Wisconsin, on what might have once been a nice lazy Sunday afternoon, I saw someone in a café with one of those new split-screens – Sudoko on the left, email on the right, and big headphones on her head. And of course the phone plonked right between her and the computer, apparently a perfect sign that she is a Millennial as opposed to a Gen X’er or Baby Boomer (who position their phones slightly off to the side.) In that scenario, there is literally not a spare moment to stare aimlessly into space like I feel we used to do in the old days, much less check in on her mind. I surreptitiously watched her for a while, and it was full-on diversion. It looked exhausting. I wanted to unplug her. No wonder this report found that people don’t even like to be left alone with their own thoughts for more than 6-15 minutes.

A Kadampa teacher emailed me this the other day:

“On a recent meditation retreat, I asked assembled students to share their favorite “evasive maneuvers” from the present moment, the ways we all hide out from having to be here with the direct simplicity of right now. People said all kinds of funny and not so funny things. In a discussion group later in the weekend, one student wondered why nobody had brought up Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Another student joked ‘Our teacher asked us what our individual evasive maneuvers were, not our shared ones. Everyone’s addicted to Facebook.’”

split screen
“more productive” or more distracted?!

I am not a Luddite, by the way. I actually relish the opportunities afforded by modern technology. It is not the technology that’s the problem but our strong attachment or addiction to it. Buddha predicted these degenerate times wherein our uncontrolled diversion-seeking would become stronger and stronger – and aptly called this “the desire realm”.

Why to turn inwards instead of phonewards

We apparently tend to check our phones 80-150 times a day. In an international poll taken by Time magazine, one in four people reported checking their phone “every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 people every 10 minutes.” I read that Apple and Google themselves are now coming up with Apps to stop people from being so addicted to their phones … Apps that switch off after a certain length of time, for example, because we are now seemingly incapable of switching them off ourselves.

This attachment has consequences.

addiction to smartphoneStudies are showing a direct correlation between this addiction and addiction to alcohol, drugs, overeating, and so forth – that it lights up the same areas in the brain. It is leading people to insomnia, the light from the screens ruining our much-needed rest. There is a spike in anxiety, depression, and so forth. Among teenagers, it is causing a spike in suicide.

Let alone our children, and let alone the lost art of looking other human beings in the eyes, we are apparently not even paying attention to our cats and dogs anymore! Our furry friends are suffering neglect and boredom borne by our addiction.

None of this is conducive to deep peace or frankly any peace — instead this addiction is making people feel more inadequate and insecure, making us feel worse about ourselves. Our creativity is diminishing because the silence in which we used to pop with great ideas has been taken over by scrolling and tapping.

In the age of attachment we are worryingly inclined to look for happiness outside of ourselves. This could be our last day – so do we want to spend it scrolling on our phone or do we want to spend it in peace and meaning?

kittenThere’s another downside too. In the old days, when there were a few minutes here and there in the day, we might use them to run errands, and end up with more time to do the things we love. Now the chores pile up till we have to spend a whole day catching up, leaving less free time. People also don’t feel they have the time to volunteer their help so much these days, or to spend time in real-life community; even though these activities are proven to make us feel happier and more connected.

As explained more in this article, Are you busy?, I don’t think people are necessarily much busier than they used to be – we are just distracted all the time, so our minds feel busier, we don’t feel we ever have enough time, we get totally overwhelmed. We don’t have a time deficit so much as a mindfulness and concentration deficit.

We can check for ourselves — as soon as we have a gap or pause in the day, waiting for a meeting or traffic lights or the kettle to boil, or even strolling down the road, what do we do? Something on our to-do list? Stop to smell the roses? Not usually. Instead we get on our smart phone and start scrolling downwards or sideways, searching for happiness. “Well, that’s underwhelming. But maybe it’s on the next screen! Or the next? Or the next?”

Have any of us actually found happiness and freedom yet in our phone?!

Have any of us found joy, love, connection, or meaning?

Surely we need to pause in the pursuit of happiness to just BE happy!

An idea that can help

We are up against weapons of mass distraction, but we can beat this.

WeaponsOfMassDistractions.jpgNext time there is a pause in the day — ie, you’re about to reach for the phone — reach inside yourself instead. See if you are feeling peaceful and, if you are not, do a bit of breathing meditation or reacquainting yourself with your meditation focus for that day. “What is going on in my mind? I will now improve it.” Feel present. Feel the love. Feel the freedom of peace.

Then go back about your busy day, but still using mindfulness, alertness, and concentration as explained in this last article. 

Buddha said:

From concentration comes peace.

This means both immediately, as our mind is virtuous and peaceful, and in the long-term, as we are familiarizing ourselves with positive objects and so creating causes for peace. The result of concentration is peace. It always is. Even if our mini-meditation is not perfect, we are still creating the karmic causes of peace in our mind every time we go in and not out.

With these mini-meditations we can gradually master our thoughts and remain peaceful and happy regardless of what is going on in our day. We can remember that our mind is like an infinite clear sky and we don’t need to be all mixed up in the thunderclouds or fog but instead abide in the peaceful clarity that always lies beyond. This is our refuge or safe haven. We can relax into that space for a minute or two, and in this way it will gradually become the background of our being so that we are not so quick to get upset and agitated.

Happy_HeartBy the way, please don’t be perfectionist whenever you meditate – expectations are pre-meditated resentments. The entire sky doesn’t have to clear before we can relax into a more peaceful space, even a slight parting of the clouds will do. Some days will of course go better than others – we can just recognize that whatever peace we do experience is the tip of the iceburg, or a gap in the clouds, indicating our vast capacity for boundless space and happiness.

Changing our sense of self

Based on this new peaceful experience, however slight or relative, we can identify our sense of self differently, such as by genuinely thinking: “I am an inner being, peaceful, not caught up in all the external appearances that whizz by.”

We can also think, validly, “I am a meditator.” And what do meditators do?!

This inner peace and self-identification will make it easier for us to stay patient and calm. We won’t have so much itchy attachment to the things outside us. We will have room for love and wisdom. We will feel far more alive.

Case study

A young woman, who said I should call her “Case Study Kaitlin,” told me the other day that she grew up with all technology all the time, but then went cold turkey a month ago. As a result, she said “I have never felt more alive, peaceful, or concentrated.” And this is what prompted her to seek out meditation classes. 

54421012_1286016704910489_8453803795372048384_nIf we use our day like this, taking advantage of the gaps to maintain a continuum of mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, I think we will find that we all get results. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we train in meditation systematically eventually we can eradicate all the delusions that are the causes of our sufferings. Day and night and life after life we will experience only peace and happiness.

Meditation enables us to become comfortable with silence, too; though that might have to be the subject of another article. Meantime, Google “benefits of silence” if you want to find out how important it is.

Coffee/tea & meditation first thing in the morning = can’t be beat

And to conclude this article, here is a practical nugget for you …  Some months ago I bought myself a cheap alarm clock and, come bedtime, put my phone in another room. I was woken in the morning by a screech instead of a dulcet ringtone, but I was good with that because, with no phone to reach for, I found I had no addiction tingle in my hand. It came easier then to just get on with my day and my meditation without an urge to check wake up happy“vital” messages first. So I have been doing this by and large ever since; it feels good to have reclaimed that first-thing-in-the-morning space and time. Plus it’s a lot easier to set compass for the rest of the day.

Over to you. Comments on how you sustain inner peace in this technological age are very welcome.

Related articles

Are you busy?

How to feel less busy all the time

How to avoid stress and burn-out at work

The relevance of inner peace

Want quicker results from your meditation? 

 

 

Getting started with mindfulness

5 mins read.

Without mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, our unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts (aka delusions) will keep running the show forever. In other words, we won’t be able to stop our suffering.

crazy elephantCarrying straight on from this article, Improving our focus 

In Essence of the Middle Way it is said that we need to bind our elephant-like mind to the stake of our virtuous object with the strong rope of mindfulness and use the hook of alertness to subdue it. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

A “virtuous object” or an “object of meditation” can be a state of mind, such as love, or an object that is not a mind, such as impermanence or a mantra. (It is not an object of sense awareness such as a tree or a candle). You can read more about objects of meditation in Joyful Path. 

Breathing meditation, such as the simple one explained here, is a good place to start training in mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC). The objects of other meditations, such as love or impermanence, require contemplation to find and to hold; but we are always breathing, so even if we lose our object of meditation, the breath, we can get back to it immediately.

Mindfulness functions both to keep the mind on an object that has not been forgotten, and to bring back to mind an object that has been forgotten. ~ How to Understand the Mind

For example, if our object of meditation is the breath, (1) mindfulness lets us resist the temptation to follow our other thoughts so that we stay with the breath; and, (2) when our attention does drift and can be found wandering to pizza, mindfulness brings it back to the breath.IMG_5353-EFFECTS

I think this is an important point: it doesn’t matter how often our mind wanders — even if that is a hundred times — provided that we notice and bring it back to the next breath, for this is still strengthening our mindfulness. In other words, however busy or distracted your mind feels, you are still meditating and improving.

As mentioned in the last article. the ability to notice that our mind has wandered and has forgotten or is about to forget its object is called “alertness”. Alertness is said to be like a spy or lookout that reports back to the generals of mindfulness and concentration.

If we don’t notice and bring it back, that’s just business as usual, namely our regular uncontrolled thinking! But consciously bringing our attention back to our breath, breath after breath, and focusing clearly on it is training in MAC. And we’ll soon see how much more calm, clear, and peaceful our mind becomes.

Which is what we need, because most of our thoughts are not necessarily that calm or peaceful. Often, they are grumbling or boring or distracted or worried. We don’t want to think them, but we cannot help it.

If we are not in a state of deep peace all day long, or if we lack mental space and clarity, this is a sign that we need more MAC.

colorado mountains 1

It doesn’t take much to get started

It only takes 10-15 minutes a day training like this to make the difference.

You can be confident that it all gets easier and more effortless with practice – you’ll get better at it if you do it, for sure, not of course if you don’t. If you practice breathing meditation consistently — 10 or 15 minutes a day being plenty to start with — there will definitely come a time when you can plop your mind on your breath like plopping down a glass of water, and it’ll stay there till you decide to move it. Blessed relief.

With improved MAC, gradually you’ll be able to set your mind on any object you have learned about and keep it there, including loving-kindness, compassion, or emptiness, so that you are experiencing these peaceful, wise states of mind all the time! At this point, as Geshe Kelsang explains:

If we train in meditation, our mind will gradually become more and more peaceful, and we will experience a purer and purer form of happiness. Eventually we will be able to stay happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.

You’re not a lost cause

Just one more thing, in case you’re wondering …  you’re not a lost cause

lost causeSometimes when people start out meditating they complain that they’ll never be able to settle on their breath, that they’ll never be able to get their crazy minds to meditate, that basically they are a lost cause.

So in case you are one of them, I would like to point out two things:

  • However busy your mind, every time you bring your attention back to your breath, you are improving at meditation, as discussed above.
  • Long before you get really good at single-pointed concentration, and even when your mind is still going a hundred miles a minute, you can also practice mindfulness, alertness, and concentration in your daily life, and this is still the practice of meditation. In fact, as we spend most of our time out of formal meditation sessions, it is arguably the most important part of meditation practice.

Meditation, “gom” in Tibetan, translates as gaining familiarity with positive ways of thinking, and this can be happening throughout our day. So, as an example, if we don’t get mad when someone criticizes us, but see them as suffering and/or kind instead, we are training in meditation.

We are using alertness to be self-aware of what thoughts we’re having, catching inappropriate attention or negative thoughts early so they don’t spiral out of our control. We are using mindfulness to remember a positive state of mind such as patience or love and to forget the inappropriate attention we’re paying to that person’s faults. We are using concentration to focus on that patience or love.

55557087_10219170703363321_5996375554738094080_o

And, eh voila, this is how we take control of our own mind and behavior, and this is how we stay peaceful and happy. It is also the practice of moral discipline, which in turn greatly advances our concentration once we’re back on our meditation seat.

Next part of this topic is here – how to keep mini-meditations going throughout the busy day.

Meanwhile, over to you. I would love to hear your experiences of employing mindfulness, alertness, and concentration both on and off the cushion.

Related articles

How to meditate – a selection of articles on breathing meditation 

Control your thoughts or they’ll control you

Twenty bits of advice for daily living

 

 

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.

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