Suppose you’re trying to concentrate on your breath or mantra or whatever; have you ever said to yourself, “I sure hope I’ll be distracted this whole time”? That might sound odd, but being merely distracted in meditation is actually a big accomplishment!
Let’s think about what goes into concentration. Concentrating isn’t something exotic (at least not initially) it’s simply the ability to put your attention where you choose to put it and keep it there for some length of time. Yet as anybody who has tried to practice concentration knows, it’s not so easy to tell the mind what to do — it has a mind of its own! In order to succeed we need first of all to be able to remember what it is we are trying to do, namely bringing consistent focus of attention to the breath or some other object. Remembering this continuously over the course of a 20 minute sit isn’t easy! When we start meditating, we tend to forget over and over again what we are doing. This forgetting is worse than simply being distracted from our chosen object. When we are aware of being distracted, that means that some part of our mind is still holding onto our intention to focus elsewhere. If we don’t remember this we can’t even realize that we are distracted and our mind wanders unconsciously from one thing to the next. When we are merely distracted, we can quickly choose to return, and thereby build up our ability to keep attention centred for longer and longer periods of time.
So distraction is a problem for concentration, but it is a problem with a clear and systematic solution: namely re-centring. Forgetting on the other hand is a lot trickier. Think about this for a second. If you can’t even remember your intention to concentrate on your breathing, how on earth can you actually do it? Forgetting means that many minutes can pass in your meditation with the mind running rampant with no direction, without even the idea that there is any possible direction!
So what can you do about forgetting? The key lies in the moment where we spontaneously wake up from a spell of forgetful mind wandering. Let’s say about three minutes into your sit you start thinking about your lunch, without even realizing it, you’ve forgotten all about the breath and your intention to focus your mind there. You are lost in semi-conscious mind wandering. Your thoughts about lunch lead to a chain of mental associations. You vividly imagine the last great meal you ate, it was with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, “maybe I should call him,” “Yes, that’s it I’ll call him when this meditation is over,” and then BAM, you think “Wait, meditation? I’m supposed to be doing something aren’t I, I’m supposed to be concentrating on my breath!” This is the wake-up moment. Your chain of associations led you around in circles until you serendipitously remembered the meditation.
You’ve had the a-ha moment, waking up out of the reverie of mind wandering and now you actually have a choice again about what to do with your attention! Congratulations, but it is what you do next that is absolutely crucial. Most people, even many very experienced meditators would say, “as soon as you wake up and remember, immediately bring your attention back to your breath.” That is what you’ll read in most books, what you’ll hear in most teacher talks, and it’s what I taught my own students until recently. There is nothing wrong with that approach, but I’ve become aware of a subtle tweak that I believe will help to radically speed up the development of stable concentration.
Instead of shifting attention immediately back to the breath, take an extra moment, just a few seconds, to really appreciate and reward yourself in the moment of remembering. I give credit to Culadasa’s amazing new book, The Mind Illuminated, for this innovation. You can even mentally speak some words of congratulations to yourself, “Yes, this is it, I noticed mind wandering, that’s so great! Woo!” It may sound silly or contrived, but guess what, it works. The goal is to condition your sub-conscious mind to generate more a-ha moments like this one. People often do the opposite. When they wake up to realizing their minds have been wandering, they feel frustrated, self-judgemental, and guilty. They tuck their tail between their legs and run back to the breath hoping to sweep the wandering mind under the rug. This sends a clear signal to the sub-conscious, “If my mind is wandering don’t tell me about it!” What we want is not just to stop this unhelpful messaging, but to send the exact opposite message. We want to tell our mind loud and clear that we want to know when we are distracted. We want to wake up to the fact that our mind is wandering. You need to train yourself to love noticing when you are distracted.
It’s amazing how quickly adding this extra moment of appreciation for the a-ha can shift your practice. Instead of spending minutes on end lost in mind wandering, your mind starts pointing out distractions more and more quickly. Eventually, you start automatically noticing distractions before they lead to forgetting about the meditation. At this point you can proudly tell people, “I had a great meditation session today — I was distracted the whole time!”