Monday, August 23, 2010

Meditation stare down

The longer I meditate the more I come to realize that I have the attention span of a gnat. Okay, maybe a fruit fly. I'm pretty hopeless. As far as concentrative meditation is concerned, staying focused for all of ten seconds is an all time record for me. Which is why I prefer awareness meditation. To quote Stephen Batchelor, "My Buddhism is a mixed bag." I practice a Vipassana-style meditation and traditional mindfulness, set against a Zen philosophical background.

What I particularly like about Vipassana, or "soft meditative awareness" as my teacher calls it, is that the emphasis isn't on staying concentrated or following the breath, as much as it is about catching myself when I slip. I'll settle into my breathing, focus my attention on my hara, and off I go in my head to some fantasyland. I'm thinking about mowing the lawn, grading papers, doing the laundry, you name it.

I've come to the conclusion that when you're sitting meditation, anything (and I mean anything, even the most trivial, mundane detail like a hangnail) becomes the center of the universe, an event of cosmic importance. It's like when someone's trying to talk to you while the TV is on. For some reason, whatever program is running suddenly becomes the most fascinating thing in the world. Have you ever noticed that? It could be about the history of paint, and for some reason it's more captivating than anything your friend/spouse is trying to talk about. Why is that?

See, there I go, daydreaming again!

But the more I sit, the shorter those periods of distraction are, and the faster I am to return to the present.

Here's a little technique that I use to keep my mind centered (for a whopping ten seconds): take a deep breath and clear your mind. When you've successfully emptied it of all its contents, concentrate with all of your awareness on the next thought. Pretend that you're a mental ninja about to pounce on the next thought that steps through that door.

Get ready for it.

It's coming any second now.

Keep waiting.

Wait, wait, wait, here, that wasn't it.

What you'll notice is that if you actually wait with enough attention, no thought will arise. It's as if attention is a spotlight and stray thoughts are fugitives (which in a way is exactly what they are).

It's not so much the battle of wills that concentrative meditations can feel like (between you and your thoughts) but you calling your mind's bluff. A staring contest of sorts.

Sure, after a while your attention will drift and you'll find yourself daydreaming, but with enough practice you'll find the periods of open awareness growing larger. This frees the mind to be present in the moment. When a sound arises and your attention is drawn to it, that's fine. But return to the breath and the bare attention. And again wait for those thoughts to arise.

Give it a try. See if any thoughts pop up. Tell me what you think.

Photo borrowed with permission from flickr user R'eyes.

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