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The knotty issue of focus

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

It comes up again and again in our classes, so I thought it might be worth jotting down a few thoughts about focus.

Doing this a hundred or so times trains our mind like a naughty puppy

When we are mediating should we be focusing on the anchor /meditation support to the exclusion of all else or should we be in some other, looser relationship to it?

This problem comes from the way we first encountered meditation. Very often we were taught or thought we were taught to pick a meditation object – say the breath, or a candle flame, or a mantra – and concentrate our mind on staying with it. When we are distracted from our concentration (by thought for example ) we note this and then return patiently to the one-pointed focus. Doing this a hundred or so times trains our mind like a naughty puppy, to stay put.

I would argue that this is definitely NOT what we are doing in mindfulness training.

This confusion arises from there being more than one kind of practice within the umbrella term, ‘meditation’. Essentially there are three – and I shall give them their technical names:

  1. samadhi – the one-pointed practice that leads to states of blissful consciousness known as the jhanas sati – mindfulness, a open state of attentiveness that leads to states of penetrating insight bhavana – visualization practice which engages the thinking/creative portion of the mind to generate positive mindstates

What most meditators struggle with is the distinction between sati and samadhi.

The practice of fixing our attention and absorbing consciousness at one focus point is a samadhi practice. Very highly prized particularly in the Theravadan schools of Buddhism.

However, mindfulness, which I teach – is a quite different practice. The difference can be illustrated by a diagram:

In samadhi practise, we settle our attention on the present moment using the meditation object and then we absorb all our conscious awareness on this point to the exclusion of other mental phenomena. This, with practice, takes us down into jhana states.

We gain insight into the real ‘stuff’ of our life and how it patterns us

In sati practice, we rest in the present moment, held steady by a connection to an anchor (could be our breathing, the sounds around us) but our awareness is then opened out to take in everything that is flowing around us – the outside world, the physical sensations of our body, the passing phenomena of the mental world.

From this stable but alert position, we gain insight into the real ‘stuff’ of our life and how it patterns us. We also learn to live in a more kindly, creative relationship to this content.

The anchor is just there to keep us tethered to the present moment where this observation takes place. It is not the sole focus of our attention. In essence, we want to be able to move freely from the anchor, so we can see where the currents of the mind habitually take us.

I’d love to know your thoughts about focus. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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