Meditation is the training of attention. Attention is the process of selection that governs the allocation of limited mental resources. It controls both what we are aware of and how intensely.
Paying attention is for the mind what contracting muscles is for the body. Muscles are tools that allow the body to perform all kinds of actions. Analogously, attention is a tool that allows the mind to gain knowledge, and to learn and perform skills. Just like using a muscle costs energy, so does paying attention. We can train a muscle in two dimensions: strength and endurance, which translate to attention as concentration and attention span. The muscles we can contract intentionally can also be activated by involuntary reflexes. Attention is the same: We can intentionally direct our attention somewhere, but it can also be “captured” by particularly valent stimuli. When the body prepares for something unknown to happen, the muscles tense in anticipation. The mental equivalent of that is alertness, an unspecific attention that allocates mental resources in preparation for whatever may be experienced next. When there is nothing to do, the body relaxes, and more energy goes into digestion and maintenance. Similarly so, when we stop paying attention, the mind drifts off into (day)dreams and trains of thought, where it extracts information from memories and simulates potential future situations.
This last point is of particular importance because daydreams and trains of thought are narrative experiences (stories). The more resources attention allocates to the generation of stories, the more likely these stories cause identification, which, as discussed in previous chapters, usually results in suffering. As it turns out, narrative experience is the default mode of the mind. Whenever we are not actively paying attention to a non-narrative phenomenon, the mind just generates one story after another. To make matters worse, when we do pay attention to something, more often than not we pay attention to the narrative (e.g. thinking about what we are going to do or who we want to be), further strengthening identification with the protagonist of those stories.
The narrative default mode presents the strongest attractor in the complex dynamic system that is the mind/brain. I like to call it the Big Attractor.1
A central part of our meditation practice is to escape the Big Attractor. We do this by intentionally shifting our attention to a non-narrative phenomenon (the meditation object) as often as possible, and maintaining awareness of the chosen phenomenon for as long as possible.
Intentionally directing one’s attention requires effort. Effort comes in two dimensions: intensity and perseverance. When it comes to intensity, we must find the sweet-spot between a focus so light that we are constantly distracted, and trying so hard that the body becomes tense and the mind anxious. Those prone to laziness may benefit from high intensity practice to wake up their minds, whereas those prone to nervousness and anxiety should be careful not to overdo it, and instead keep a lighter focus.
Be prepared to keep doing the work no matter what. As you will soon discover, you can meditate during almost all daily activities. There is no such thing as “not having time to meditate”. The very moment you think you don’t have the time to meditate is itself an opportunity to practice awareness of the aversive feelings towards meditation. Not feeling good is also no excuse. Even when you can’t drag yourself out of bed during a depressive episode, it is still possible (and actually particularly important) to practice. Just meditate lying in bed, feeling shitty. It’s that simple. Also be prepared for dry spells where there seems to be no progress in your practice, because progress is non-linear. Sometimes you may have really interesting experiences and things may seem to be going great, other times you may barely be able to focus for more than a second. Keep practicing! It’s quite okay in my book to not practice intensely when it doesn’t feel right, but one should always practice, no matter how casually. Perseverance is key.
The result of training attention is known as flow or absorption, also sometimes called “being in the zone”. It works like this: After having learned how to perform a skill, and then having gained considerable practice in performing the skill, one gains mastery over the skill. When performing a mastered skill, the mind may drop into a very concentrated state, completely immersed in the activity, which is now performed effortlessly. The phenomenon of flow is known to occur during all kinds of activities where one has achieved a high degree of proficiency, e.g. while working, playing sports or performing music, and also sometimes in particularly stressful or threatening situations. Regardless of the nature of the situation, flow is experienced as positive, calm and meaningful.
When flow is achieved in meditation, it is experienced as an intense, but calm and effortless awareness of the meditation object. Mental activity has escaped the Big Attractor and now revolves around a smaller attractor. The smaller attractor is all about awareness of present moment experience, so rather than having to put in effort to maintain a non-narrative focus, that is now the new default, and a gentle intention is enough to attend to a chosen phenomenon. Another way this is often described is “concentrating” or “collecting” the mind (referring to the conscious parts of the mind). As you may recall from a previous chapter, the mind can be seen as brain activity. The Big Attractor would be a big circular pattern of activity and escaping it would shift parts of that activity to a smaller circular pattern.2
Flow can be sudden and obvious or gradual and subtle. It’s the same phenomenon, just occurring at different time scales and in different intensities. Some people have a natural affinity for entering highly concentrated states of mental absorption quickly, others require intense meditation practice to achieve the same. To get a taste of freedom, therefore, intense meditation retreats can be useful. However, the experience usually does not last for long. Also, if you are prone to nervousness and anxiety, prolonged intensely effortful practice may result in panic attacks. Eventually, regardless our dispositions, most of us will have to play the long game, integrating meditation into more and more facets of our lives until a gradual and subtle flow emerges as part our everyday experience.
While deep states of flow/absorption are available to advanced meditators, they do not, by themselves, lead to liberation/enlightenment. The mind becomes free from suffering when it no longer identifies with phenomena. De-identification is achieved by observing phenomena that cause identification. The observing self is a phenomenon that exists against the background of that which is observed. If all of this self can be observed, then none of it can be part of the self. When the mind realizes this, the observer and the observed merge, and only awareness of phenomena remains. Then, liberation/enlightenment is attained.
Liberation/Enlightenment comes in degrees. Each time you can observe a phenomenon that you are identifying with, you are freed a little bit. These “kernels of freedom” are available to you even now. Make an experiment to see for yourself just how powerful this practice really is. The next time you notice you are suffering, stop what you are doing, and pay really close attention to where the suffering appears to originate (hint: it’s always an unpleasant feeling). Say, for instance, you are annoyed by something or someone. If the inner voice comments on the experience, it might sound something like, “This is really getting on my nerves”. As you isolate the problematic feeling, the inner voice may comment, “there, this is the feeling of being annoyed”. If you keep paying close attention to the feeling, it usually takes far less than a minute for something awesome to happen: The suffering vanishes. Depending on how much suffering you generally experience, this can be a game changer. Please note that the stronger the suffering, the stronger the concentration (strength of attention) required to overcome identification, so best pick something easy for your first experiments.
As demonstrated by this experiment, you can practice observing phenomena without first achieving flow, just by cultivating general awareness (alertness, presence, unspecific attention) and then observing whatever phenomena may arise. However, once flow is achieved, if you let go of the meditation object, a calm and effortless alertness remains, allowing you to observe even strong feelings without indulgence/identification. This is a dramatic boost in the effectiveness of your practice, which is why many meditation teachers advocate to practice with a simple meditation object until flow is achieved, and then turn to the observation of phenomena as they present themselves. Another issue is that the pull of the Big Attractor is really strong, and when you practice observation of phenomena without first achieving flow, the mind may generate stories about the experience and identify with their protagonist. If you’re not careful, you might end up a psychologist, who has plenty of knowledge about the workings of the mind, and yet may be nowhere near freedom from suffering. Narrative phenomena are best observed from a distance – about the distance flow takes us.
Your First Meditation
Let’s do a mini-meditation right now, just to get a first impression.
- Sit down comfortably.
- Resolve to meditate for the next 10 (or 5 or 20) minutes. You can set a timer or occasionally peek at a clock.
- Choose a persistent aspect of your current experience and designate it your meditation object. For this first meditation, I recommend a timeless classic: the sensations caused by breathing in and out. You can meditate on the subtle skin sensations caused by the flow of air around the tip of the nose, the sensations of the rising and falling of the chest or belly, or the even sound of your breath, whichever suits you best.
- Pay attention to the meditation object.
- Whenever you notice you have been distracted, return your attention to the meditation object.
- Continue until the time is up.
This short taste of meditation is enough to realize that meditation is a form of training. The untrained mind tends to get distracted quickly and may take considerable time to notice the fact that it has been distracted. Distraction means that involuntary control of attention has won over voluntary control. Several strategies can be applied.
Reduction. To make it easier not to be distracted during a meditation session, you can reduce some distractions. Choose a quiet place to meditate in order to reduce distractions caused by noise. Close your eyes in order not to get distracted by sights. If you are living together with other people, ask them not to disturb you (or, better yet, ask them to meditate with you). Mute any electronic devices that might distract you. Assume a posture that remains comfortable for the duration of your meditation in order not to get distracted by pain.
Overwriting. Anything that can be reduced can also be overwritten by purposefully creating a stronger stimulus of the same modality (e.g. visual, auditory etc). Additionally, mental imagery, which is often a part of mental story telling, can be overwritten by intentionally visualizing something else, or by opening the eyes and staring at an object or point in front of you. Likewise, mental verbalizations, which are also often part of mental story telling, can be overwritten with intentional verbalizations, either out loud or quietly in your mind. You could e.g. repeatedly verbalize a mantra. A mantra is a syllable, word or sentence; it can be short or long, meaningful or meaningless. A simple mantra would be e.g. the word “mantra” itself. Alternatively, you can use the inner voice to label your general experience and distractions you notice, thinking e.g., “this is a pleasant feeling, this is a painful feeling, that was that memory again that keeps coming up, this is a nostalgic feeling”. Because of their connection to narrative phenomena, overwriting both mental imagery and mental verbalizations at the same time makes it considerably easier to achieve flow. And although at first glance it may seem a lot to do, it is actually quite easy in practice. For example, you could meditate on the breathing sensations, labeling the parts of the breath cycle “in” and “out”, while staring at an external object, and whenever you notice a distraction, you quickly label that too. You could even throw in a counter without much trouble, e.g. “in, out, one, in, out, two, …”.
Letting go. If the distraction is fleeting or narrative, you can simply return your attention the meditation object.
Inclusion. If the distraction is non-narrative and persistent, you can try to include it as part of the meditation object.
Switching. If a persistent, non-narrative distraction seems too difficult to include or demands special attention, make it your new meditation object for a while. Switching is particularly useful when a distracting phenomenon causes strong identification and suffering.
Growing Your Practice
Over the course of the next chapters, we are going to explore various meditation objects in detail. For maximum efficiency, all of these involve observing non-narrative phenomena that may cause identification. While any meditation object can serve to increase your concentration and attention span, and achieve flow, only observation of sites of identification will also lead to liberation/enlightenment, which is why we use external meditation objects or mantras only to overwrite distractions.
In order to make progress, regular practice is paramount. If today’s practice seemed a little too long, set a shorter duration for tomorrow’s practice. If it seemed a little too short, meditate longer tomorrow. 20 minutes is generally a good duration for beginners, 45-60 minutes something to aim for. As you get to know your mind better, you will find out how long it takes to become concentrated and when it’s time to take a break. The important thing is not so much how long you meditate, but that you meditate every day, at least one session, no matter what. It helps to anchor your meditation(s) in your daily schedule: maybe first thing in the morning, maybe during lunch break, after work, or before going to bed; whatever works best for you.
In time, you will find that you can meditate during many daily activities, and eventually live your whole life in a subtle flow state; anchored in present moment experience, a good distance from the narrative of the mind, and free from suffering.
- Scientists are exploring the neural correlates of this narrative mode of experience, and have isolated a brain network called the Default Mode Network or the Task-Negative Network. Search the Web for the latest research. With respect to this chapter, a particularly impactful study has been conducted by Farb and colleagues, where they differentiated between neural correlates of narrative-focused experience and those of non-narrative experience of the present moment .
- There is evidence that not all of default mode network activity decreases due to meditation, but some actually increases, which would seem consistent with the experience of “concentrating” or “collecting” the conscious mind [2, 3].
- Farb, N.A.S., Segal, Z.V., Mayberg, H., Bean, J., McKeon, D., Fatima, Z., & Anderson, A.K. (2007). Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2(4):313–322.
- Fingelkurts An.A., Fingelkurts Al.A., Kallio-Tamminen T. (2016). Long-term meditation training induced changes in the operational synchrony of default mode network modules during a resting state. Cognitive Processing. 17(1):27-37.
- Fingelkurts An.A., Fingelkurts Al.A., Kallio-Tamminen T. (2016). Trait lasting alteration of the brain default mode network in experienced meditators and the experiential selfhood. Self and Identity. 15(4).