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Focus in Meditation and Spiritual Practice

| Nirmala | Meditation

Focus in Meditation and Spiritual Practice

Published on
21 April 2010

Someone sent me the following message on Facebook:

Q: I have to admit that I often find myself  NOT wanting to take responsibility, not wanting to do the practice, not wanting to do the inner work to feel whatever pain may be there. And find myself rather - jumping from place to place and trying to avoid it as much as possible.

Another thing is that I find it so incredibly difficult to focus. And I realize that maybe this seemingly lack of focus could stem also from not wanting to feel whatever needs to be felt or to think deeply about my life and take actions in a responsible way.

And here is my response:

A: As always your questions are good ones.

And I would offer two seemingly opposite, but actually complimentary, suggestions for the arising of resistance or a reluctance to do the work and also for your lack of focus. The first possibility when there is resistance or a lack of focus is to just try harder. You just keep bringing yourself back to the practice or object of your focus whether it is a meditative practice or a form of inquiry or inner work. If a distraction comes up, you notice it and then bring yourself back to the inner process or whatever you need to focus on. This approach requires a lot of effort and it is also bound to fail. But that does not mean it is not worthwhile. In the process of failing, you also strengthen your capacity to concentrate and focus. It is like building an inner spiritual muscle that you can then use to stay with the process longer and longer.

However it helps to know that this approach is doomed to failure, so that you do not have unrealistic expectations. It is kind of like weight lifting where you are supposed to lift the weight until your muscle simply cannot do another repetition. That is how you strengthen the physical muscles, and that is how you strengthen your inner spiritual muscle; by pushing it beyond your current capacity. And just as you can never build your physical muscle to the point where it can continue lifting a heavy weight forever, so you can just know that you will never reach a point where you can focus indefinitely. And just like even a well trained physical muscle can reach its limit fairly quickly, so too you will find that even as you build your ability to focus and persist, that most of the time you will still only be able to focus for a short while. And it will still require a lot of effort to push yourself in this way.

So this is where the other possibility comes in. When you are exhausted or unable to push yourself anymore, then there is another easier way to practice. You can just explore the distractions. If a resistance or reluctance to look within arises, then you can become curious about that. What is it like to not want to do the work? How do you know you don't want to do it? Is there a feeling in your body? Is there something you say to yourself or picture in your mind? If you had to teach me how to resist the process, how would you teach me to do it also?

Similarly, if you cannot focus on something even after you have pushed yourself to focus on it, then you can focus on the experience of not being able to focus. What is that like? Where does your attention go instead? Can you focus on not wanting to focus? Can you focus on the distractions that come up? What is the urge to do something else like? How do you even know if you are focusing or not?

Often, you will find that you can focus easily if you just let yourself focus on whatever is actually arising in this moment. Instead of trying to focus on a meditation or task, just let yourself focus more on your daydreams, feelings, restlessness, discouragement, confusion, desire or whatever is appearing in your awareness right now. And then if you cannot stay focused on that, just let your focus move onto the next experience. You may discover that there always is a focus to your awareness, but it just likes to move around a lot.

This second approach is more like stretching a muscle rather than strengthening it. When stretching a muscle, you just relax and allow the muscle to open and expand. It does not work to push or strain to try and stretch the muscle. And so sometimes it is OK to let your awareness move however it moves. Make it your practice to be very distracted whenever your effort to focus and practice fails.

These two approaches are exactly opposite. In one you push with the maximum amount of effort, and in the other you exert as little effort as possible by simply directing your awareness where it is already going. By using both of these approaches, you will develop the greatest strength, range and flexibility of awareness possible. But even that is not really the goal because your awareness already has limitless strength and flexibility. Ultimately what you discover through all of this effort is that your awareness is already fine just the way it is, and has always been perfectly fine. This is the simple realization that all of your effort is in service to. By using this "muscle" called awareness in every way possible, you eventually realize the perfect nature of awareness itself. It is not what you can do with awareness that matters, what matters is the recognition that awareness is already perfect, and that awareness is what you really are.