Meditation is often thought of as a relaxation exercise. That’s great, it is. If that’s all you want, you’re in the right place. Meditate – it’ll make you feel better.
But may I suggest it also has the potential to transform your experience of life in a far more powerful way than just feeling less stressed.
Concentration or Focus?
Meditating on the breath is sometimes categorized as a concentration exercise. I think its should be categorized as a focus exercise. This may seem a tad semantic, but although it is true that this meditation improves concentration I am far more passionate about how it develops focus. Concentration is useful, but focus is everything.
Our focus determines how we experience our lives.
As such, it is this exercise of focus (i.e. meditation) that can transform our experience of life.
By ‘experience’ I’m not referring to the quality or the circumstances of your life and I’m not referring to the things that happen to you. Many of these things are out of your control. Good things happen to most people, bad things happen to most people. I’m not trying to be fatalistic about this as if we have no control – just that focus and meditation have at best a limited roles in what happens to you.
But meditation can completely change how you deal with what happens to you.
Take the current pandemic.
There is so much that is truly awful about what is going on. Millions are sick. Thousands are dying. On one level these are statistics, but each person has had their life story cut short, their friends and families are grieving. Even those of us not yet sick, or lucky enough not to be grieving are still heavily affected. Thousands of small business owners who may have spent their lifetime building successful operations have gone bust in the space of a few weeks. Millions have lost their jobs. Families and friends are separated. The future for all is uncertain.
That is our reality.
It’s not wrong to bear witness to this reality, to pay attention to it, or to stay informed. However, it is also only one perspective of our reality. This focuses on what is wrong. There is a lot wrong, for sure, and there is also a lot with which we can be amazed. There are the heroics of the frontline health professionals. There are the scientists working collaboratively around the globe to find treatments and a vaccine. There is the extraordinary outpouring of generosity from philanthropists as well as normal people doing incredible things to raise money. Companies around the world are innovating to alter production lines to help provide protective equipment. There is the worldwide phenomenon of people expressing gratitude at certain times of day for hospital workers. There is this explosion of creativity as so many create videos, cartoons, photos, and articles that inundate our social media right now to keep our spirits up. There is the diligence of supply chain workers and delivery staff enabling most of us to stay at home.
It isn’t bad to focus on what’s wrong. It would be somewhat ridiculous to only focus on the positives. My point is simply to show that what you focus on, and how you focus on it completely changes your experience of reality. If you are only focused on what’s wrong you’re going to be miserable. If you are only focused on what’s right, you’re delusional. Balance is key.
That is not only true of the pandemic. It is true of everything in your life. What you focus on and how you focus on it determines the experience we have of everything in our lives.
There are extremely fortunate, healthy, wealthy people who are desperately miserable because they focus on what they don’t have, what their good luck has not brought (e.g. happiness), or compare themselves to others who have even more than they have. At the same time there are people facing extraordinary challenges of illness, pain, of caring for sick family members, or dealing with constant financial stress who remain positive, happy and even joyful because they focus on what they do have. Don’t get me wrong, if I have the choice is between health and wealth over sickness and poverty, I’ll take the money. However, make sure you would choose correctly that if your choice is between happiness and misery – take the happiness every time.
The difference here is simply where and how people focus. It determines the experience they have of their reality, regardless of circumstance.
This is all well and good – but it is only relevant information if you have the power to a) notice what you’re focused on and how you’re focused on it, and b) have the ability to change your focus.
Yet for most, what you are focused on and how you are focused on it is largely up to chance. Your genes, culture, upbringing, role models, good luck, bad luck, and other factors have come together to determine the habitual way you tend to look at life. Maybe you are lucky enough to have a positive outlook, or maybe you have ended up (for good reasons no doubt) with a miserable outlook. Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle and some days you feel good and everything seems okay, but on other days you wake up in a bad mood and your entire day is tainted.
I maintain that unless you have trained your mind and your awareness of your focus you basically have no say in how you look at life on a day to day basis. It is what it is.
You can change this though.
I used to work with an optimist named Octavius who was a joy to be around. One day we were traveling back from a client meeting in Edinburgh and I asked him about his fantastic attitude. I assumed his parents must be great optimists because it is often something we inherit from their ‘modeling’. He laughed and told me they were both die-hard pessimists. I asked him how he turned out differently. “Childhood rebellion” he offered.
Having positive parents, or as in his case of rebelling against pessimistic parents are not the only paths to a healthy outlook. The great news is that no matter how miserable your outlook today, you are not stuck with your view of life, nor do you need to be subject to whatever happens to you moment to moment to determine how your viewpoint.
Focus – A Building Block of Meditation
Meditations where you place your focus on something in the present (like your breathing) are sometimes mistaken as being all about the experience of the present moment. They are about that, but that is not all they are about. They are also about training your awareness. What I care about here is how it trains your awareness of where you are focused from moment to moment.
You start by focusing somewhere very specific (your breath, the sensations of your body, some music, a candle flame etc). Then, pretty quickly your mind grabs your focus and redirects it at your problems, your responsibilities, thoughts of the past, concerns of the future, or any of the plethora of other places it goes. Then there is the crucial, life changing moment in your meditation when you notice that you have lost focus. For some this is a source of frustration because they think they ‘should’ be staying focused on the breath. But this is to miss something amazing that happens in this moment. In this moment you are building the skill of awareness of your own mind’s focus. You become a little more sensitive to noticing where your mind is. Then in the next moment you practice something equally important – redirecting your focus – in this case back onto the breath or wherever else you started.
This skill of seeing where your mind is focused is the skill that transforms your experience of life. Whatever is going to happen to you in life is going to happen to you. Some of it you will have a say in, some of it you won’t. But if you train your mind in meditation you will be able to meet anything and everything that happens to you with the skill to choose how you look at it. With time and diligence you build your awareness of what your mind is focusing on, and you are building the ability to redirect it wherever you want. It serves all of us to be aware of what is wrong. It serves us even better to be able to choose where we point our focus and how much of our time we spend focusing in certain ways to keep us balanced.
In every moment of every day your mind is focused somewhere, and in a particular way. It can be focused on what is wrong. It can do so in a way that is self-pitying, or looking for blame. It can also be focused on what is right, on what we have going for us, on what we can be grateful for. Most people don’t have a choice – they go where their mind leads them. If you meditate you can develop this skill of seeing where and how you are focused, and then you can change it if you want to.
It is true that a big part of meditation is settling the mind and experiencing the stillness of present moment awareness. It’s a beautiful, relaxing, empowering, mysterious and delicious experience. But meditation is absolutely about more than that as well. In our distractions and in our awareness of our distractions lies the possibility of developing the skill to choose what we focus on and how we focus on it for the rest of our lives.
This is perhaps a much more important gift to give yourself than just feeling a bit more relaxed because you found some peace in your meditation.