“Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk
Happy New Year! Reflecting on 2020, there’s a lot that could be said. It is actually quite fitting that the January CEC theme is concentration, as one of the most common complaints I’ve heard from folks this year is feeling mentally scattered and finding it impossible to focus. My personal experience is no exception.
When the lockdown first hit, I felt an initial panic and a lot of chatter going through my mind. I was glued to the news, endlessly scrolling facebook reading everyone’s reactions. In response to the collective fear, I saw many people trying to put out a positive message, to illuminate the silver linings. “The lockdown is a perfect time to hunker down and be creative! Pursue the projects you’ve been putting off, learn that skill you’ve always wanted to, write your book or create your masterpiece…”
This sounded like a great idea! But the reality wasn’t so great. I found it painfully difficult to follow through and use my time productively. I bounced around the internet, jumping from Facebook to Reddit to news articles to Tiger King and back to Facebook. As much as I knew there were constructive things I could be working on, I couldn’t focus on any one thing for more than a few minutes.
The skill that was lacking was concentration. We usually think of concentration like any other skill; we get better at it with practice, by applying more effort. While the former is absolutely true, the latter is not always so, and in fact trying harder to concentrate often leads to more inner turmoil. Like a Chinese finger trap, the more I tried to escape my restless, distractible nature, the more stuck in it I became.
With concentration being the backbone of many styles of meditation practice, it makes sense that meditation would be a suitable remedy. But for those of us challenged in our focus, meditation can feel more like torture than an answer to our struggles.
As someone with ADHD, I’ve always been challenged with focusing. Although I was philosophically drawn to meditation, my preliminary years of practice seemed fruitless. It wasn’t until my encounter with vipassana meditation and my experiences with somatic psychotherapy that I began to find my stride. I figured out an approach that didn’t exasperate my restlessness, but instead soothed it.
I learned what works best is not to wrestle with my thoughts, which only creates further frustration, but instead to address the feeling of restlessness in my body: noticing it, opening to it, welcoming it, and allowing it to be there. In doing that this year, I eventually found some degree of productivity and started sharing some tools to help others with similar struggles.
Our body has its own intelligence, its own logic. We avoid discomfort, we contract around the experiences we don’t like, and our mind wanders off, seeking relief in pleasure and comfort. This pattern can become so ingrained that we live most of our lives dissociated, divorced from our feelings, living in a world of distraction, always seeking that next hit of dopamine.
And yet the body continues to cry out to us, telling us something is wrong, and the more we distract ourselves the louder it yells in its attempt to be heard. The remedy here is to attune to our body and validate our feelings. We can close our eyes and drop into the restlessness, and ask our body what it needs. Even a simple hand on the abdomen accompanied by a slow and gentle breath can be remarkably validating and soothing for our system.
Sometimes the body’s message is clear. Our restlessness may be telling us to clean up our space, to pay a bill, to make a call we’ve been putting off. But often the message isn’t so clear, it may be pointing to an issue without a possible resolution. Our body may be reacting to the uncertainty of the world, to the overwhelming demands of life, or to conflicts beyond our control. At those times what’s called for is simply presence. Listening not to understand something, but to listening as a form of embracing our experience, as a practice of presence.
My meditation journey has been a practice of feeling deeper and deeper into my own present experience. Cultivating curiosity about my inner work, noticing the parts I neurotically avoid and giving them permission to simply exist.
The fear that inevitably arises is that if we truly welcome these uncomfortable experiences, then we will be stuck with them. We reject and avoid our restlessness, our sadness, our shame, our anger, our feelings of inadequacy, and our pain. We contract around these feelings in an attempt to suffocate them, hoping they will extinguish fully. But this approach only lodges them deep into our system, making them permanent fixtures.
As long as we avoid our inner experience, we will have difficulty with our concentration. It is the non-judgemental embrace of our experience that liberates us; peeling it back layer by layer like an onion (and like an onion, each layer may make us cry!). In this process we come into a deeper presence with ourselves, and we can begin to truly settle.
So come get settled with CEC this January, and cultivate the concentrated presence needed to face whatever 2021 has in store!
*Jude Star is an integrative counsellor and meditation instructor. He has been developing a Meditation for ADHD course that blends meditation with somatic and depth psychology. Sign up for his newsletter for updates and a free guided practice