Imagine riding a horse without reins or blinders.
Without the reins, you pretty much have no control over the horse. You go where the horse takes you. Your motion will be highly zig zag as the horse gets distracted by every small thing that it sees. And there is a huge possibility that you will be running around in circles.
The horse in this example is your attention. Without your conscious control, your attention wanders wherever it wants to. It keeps getting pulled in by every thought that the mind generates.
According to some research, nearly 80% of thoughts in our mind are repetitive in nature. This means, your attention gets pulled in by one thought, then by another thought, then again by the previous thought, so on and so forth. Before you know it, your attention is pretty much running around in circles as the horse does.
Wherever your attention goes, energy flows
It is important to understand that your attention is pure energy. Whatever you give your attention to, starts to flourish.
For example, you give your attention to a negative thought, the negative thought starts to grow and generate more related thoughts. Before you know it, the thought turns into a belief and an automated habit or behavioral pattern.
If your mind is the soil, and thoughts are the vegetation, your attention is the sunlight (energy) that helps them flourish. Pay attention and a thought grows, remove your attention and the thought withers away.
So the simple way to become free of negative thought patterns is to first become aware that you are indeed giving them your unconscious attention (which helps them flourish) and then consciously taking away your attention so they start to wither.
In order for you to do this, it is important for you to train your attention. Think of this as equivalent to training your horse. Your put the reigns on the horse and then guide it along the path you want it to go. If it gets distracted by something and goes off path, you realize what is happening (because you are conscious/aware) and use the reins and bring it back on the path. Keep doing this over and over and the horse finally learns to stay on track.
So what is the best way to put reins on the horse?
The best way to put the reins on the horse, or in this case, your attention, is by practicing focused meditation.
There are various forms of meditation that you can practice. Some forms of meditation simply involve sitting and doing nothing. Some forms involve watching your thoughts, feeling your body etc. All of these forms of meditation are useful to train different faculties of the mind.
What we are going to look at right now is ‘focused meditation’ which will train your ‘attention’.
What is focused meditation?
The idea behind focused meditation is to focus most of your attention onto a single object. I say ‘most’ and not ‘all’ because it’s not possible to focus 100% of your attention onto something. Just like when you focus your eyes on a particular object, there is always a peripheral vision (a burly vision of the background), in a similar way, when you focus your attention on your breath there will always be some attention scattered between your thoughts running in the background and that’s perfectly fine.
The best place to focus your attention is the tip of your nose. To help anchor your attention better you can focus your attention on the sensations associated with breathing. This way, you can make sure that your attention does not drift back into an imaginative state where you simply imagine that you are meditating, but are in reality lost in thought.
Focusing on the sensations of cool air hitting your nostrils as you breath in and warm air caressing the insides of your nostrils as you breath out will help you better anchor your attention for prolonged periods of time.
As long as time limits are concerned, there are no time limits to this. You can do this for as long as you feel comfortable.
It is important to mention here that as you do this meditation, your mind will inevitably produce thoughts and your attention will be pulled in by these thoughts. Think of each thought as a little entity wanting your attention to sustain itself.
These thoughts want your attention to survive. But all your attention is focused on the sensations of breathing and hence these thoughts will try to pull your attention in. If in the midst of the process you suddenly realize your attention lost in a thought, don’t be alarmed. Simply acknowledge the fact that your attention was pulled in and then gently bring your attention back to your breath.
There will be many moments during the meditation when your attention will be pulled in by your thoughts. Never let this frustrate you. Instead, be glad you became aware that your attention is lost in a thought and then gently bring the attention back.
If thoughts run in the background, let them run. Do not try to block them. Do not engage with them. Your only job is to keep your attention focused on your breath and nothing else. Everything else will take care of itself.
As you keep bringing your attention back to your breath over and over, your mind will slowly start to settle down.
One important factor to note is your state of relaxation. Make sure that your body is not strained during the practice. Make a conscious effort to keep your body, especially your head completely relaxed.
If there is a negative thought that is too strong and is not allowing you to focus, simply divert your attention to your body and feel the energy behind this thought. In other words, feel the emotions this thought is generating in your body. Doing this for a few seconds will help release the thought from your system as it breaks the thought-emotion cycle.
Steps to do focused meditation to train your attention
So with all that said and done, let’s look at the process in detail:
Step 1: Sit comfortably, and let yourself relax. Take a few minutes to ground yourself by watching the thoughts in your mind and consciously feeling the emotions in your body. Take a few deep breaths and as you do this, feel the air entering and filling up your lungs. Feel yourself being energized by the life energy this air provides.
Step 2: Now start breathing normally and divert your attention to the sensation of cool air hitting the tip of your nostrils as you breath in and the warm air caressing the insides of your nostrils as you breath out. Consciously feel these sensations each time you breath.
Step 3: Keep feeling these sensations without allowing your attention to drift back into thoughts. If you want you can speed up the gap between breaths a little so you can stay focused. Keep focused for as long as possible.
Step 4: Stay alert during this process, because if you don’t, your attention will drift back into an imaginative state where you only imagine that you are meditating but in reality you are lost in your thoughts. The best way to stay alert is to focus on the sensations of cool and warm air as mentioned earlier.
Step 5: You will find that your attention drifts back into your thoughts after a few seconds of doing this. The important thing is to realize that your attention has drifted and then bringing it back to your breath. The time taken for you to realize that your attention has drifted will be longer initially and will shorten as you continue the practice. In other words, you will be able to catch yourself quicker.
Step 6: Keep bringing you attention back to your breath over and over. Thoughts will run in the background and you will be aware of them from time to time. But let them run in the background, do not try to stop them. But at the same time, make sure to keep all your attention focused on your breath.
Step 7: You can take breaks for a few seconds where you simply sit in silence and then start over again.
That’s about it.
Keep doing this practice whenever you get the time. I find the best time to do this is before going to bed. You need not force yourself to do this everyday. If you don’t feel like it, feel free to skip a day or two.
You will reach a stage where you will enjoy doing this as you start to stay aware of your attention and also start to realize all the thought patterns running in your mind.
As you continue to do this practice, your awareness of your attention will increase and so will your control on your attention. You will be able to catch yourself unconsciously engaging in limiting thoughts or low value thoughts and divert your focus to productive thoughts. By doing so, you will weed out thoughts that are causing you harm and provide energy to thoughts that help you grow.
If you did this meditation, let me know in the comments how it went.