Are you curious why concentration seems so difficult?
The British comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus once did a satire of a children’s show that included a seven-second segment on how to play the flute. “You blow here and move your fingers up and down there.”
The instructions for how to concentrate are just as simple and effective. To concentrate, pay attention. If you get distracted, concentrate!
Pedestrian: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Following the instructions above, anyone can play the flute. But learning to play the flute well takes practice.
Meditation gives us practice paying attention.
The traditional instructions for meditation are: count your breaths from one to ten. If you get distracted, start again at one. If you make it to ten, start again at one.
Sounds easy, right? Try it.
What’s Wrong with This Picture?
A common complaint beginning meditators have is that the harder they try to focus on the breath, the more thoughts pop up.
Why am I doing this?
I need to check my phone.
What’s next on my to-do list?
I suck at this.
This is stupid.
A common answer meditation teachers give is: it’s good that you’re becoming aware of these distractions.
This is sometimes followed with the thought: I’d like to punch my teacher in the face.
I’d rather watch TV.
Concentration and TV
Long before the age of Netflix, I gave up watching TV shows when they aired. I waited until an entire season was available on DVD from the library. It’s annoying waiting for a week (or more) between shows. Breaking Bad had especially good cliffhanger endings. I also don’t like commercials because they break my–
Concentrating on Breaking Bad wasn’t hard. It was fun. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.
Seven Wake-Up Factors
Judson Brewer, author of the article “Why is it so hard to pay attention, or is it? Mindfulness, the factors of awakening and reward-based learning,” had trouble counting his breath, too.
He had more success with mindfulness meditation, which simply involves paying non-judgmental attention to any sight, sound, smell, taste, physical sensation, or thought as it happens.
Concentration comes up in the original mindfulness manual as one of the seven factors of awakening (stress-free living). The seven are: mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, calm, CONCENTRATION, and equanimity (even-temperedness even under stressful circumstances).
After failing miserably at counting his breath, Brewer wondered if he could reach concentration by combining mindfulness with investigation (or curiosity).
“Perhaps we start by simply noticing what it feels like when we are fascinated with something, and point that out to ourselves. There is an inherent open, energized, joyful quality.”
He continues, “We can contrast it to moments when we have been stressed or are judging ourselves, others or a situation. Seeing the contrast between these situations is relatively easy to do. Which of these feels more open, energized and joyful?”
If the factors of awakening had a cause and effect relationship, as stated in the manual, then achieving concentration should be as easy as binge-watching Breaking Bad.
Cause and Effect
If I pay non-judgmental interest to what’s happening on Breaking Bad, the cliffhanger ending makes me want to investigate what happens next. Even though I felt tired five minutes ago, the moment that curiosity kicks in, I feel energized. When the next episode starts up, I am enraptured, or at least in rapt attention, despite my guilt for staying up past my bedtime. As the new episode unfolds, that rapture calms down and I can concentrate.
There’s no craving to check social media, email, or messages, no compulsion to make a shopping list or get my clothes out of the dryer and hang them up. I’m not thinking about donuts. To say I’ve reached equanimity is a stretch, but I’m able to remain fairly even-tempered when tense things happen to people on the show. If the electricity went out in the middle of an episode that might be a different story.
The Wrong Object of Concentration
Brewer argues that while non-judgmental interest and curiosity can make concentration as easy as binge-watching TV, there are some problems in meditating on TV.
The momentary happiness, or excitement, of getting what we want (like new episodes of Breaking Bad) is often beyond our control.
The excitement doesn’t last. If watching Breaking Bad a second, third, or twentieth time were as much fun as the first, all we’d have to do is find the show we like and be happy for life, or at least until the side-effects of becoming a couch potato catch up with us.
A more insidious problem, far more difficult to notice, is that getting what we want always leaves us wanting more. Anticipating the next plot twist of Breaking Bad felt good. But soon after watching the series finale I was left wondering what do I watch next? I don’t remember the next show I tried, but it wasn’t as good as Breaking Bad.
The Right Object of Concentration
The capacity to pay non-judgmental attention to any sight, sound, smell, taste, physical sensation, or thought as it happens is always within our control.
It isn’t easy, but unlike counting the breath, it is naturally rewarding.
“We can notice triggers (stress), perform a behavior (become mindful and interested/fascinated with what is causing the stress) and reward ourselves (notice the joy, peace, equanimity, etc.) every moment. And the more we do this, the more we set up a habit pattern.”
Practiced regularly, developing awareness coupled with curiosity allows us to “change our lives without the usual roll-up-your-sleeves, no-pain-no-gain, effortful methodology that seems baked into our Western psyche.”
But, how do non-judgmental attention and curiosity help us concentrate in the real world?
I tested this mindfulness path to concentration during the last days of a six-day concentration meditation retreat. I didn’t feel saved by the bell at the end of a session as I had with breath counting. It felt like I could have gone longer. Much, much longer.
Paying non-judgmental attention and becoming curious about each object (and the feeling of craving or resistance) as it arose made it fade more quickly. During one amusing session, I started laughing as they came and went so quickly that the effect was like a comical fireworks display.
I can think of two ways this practice helps real-world concentration. Practicing awareness helps stimulate curiosity. Following awareness and curiosity through energy, rapture, and calm to concentration makes the process as rewarding and distraction free as binge-watching TV.
Ten Minute Exercise
1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.
3. Pay non-judgmental attention to the inflow and outflow of the breath. Follow each breath from beginning to end noting as much detail as possible.
4. With each breath, extend your non-judgmental attention to your entire body.
5. As attention strays from the breath, follow it with curiosity to its next object: a sight, sound, smell, taste, physical sensation, or thought.
6. Become curious whether there’s any craving to resist or hold on to this object.
8. Maintaining non-judgmental attention, remain curious to see whether there’s a reward (rapture or joy, calm, even-temperedness) when the craving or resistance subsides.
9. Repeat the process with the next object or return to the breath until a new object arises.
Once you’ve had some practice with this technique in a distraction-free environment, try giving it a road test in your distraction-filled world.