The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

How Mindfulness can Help You Focus (6-Step Exercise)

by Arnie Kozak
September 23, 2015
Wed, 09/23/2015 - 10:00 -- Arnie Kozak

Excerpt from Mindfulness A to Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now by Arnie Kozak.

When I was a young child in the mid-1960s, I was a precocious mover. When I was as young as three weeks, my mother reports that I would flip over on my own. When she reported this behavior to the pediatrician he didn’t believe her. Then I did it in his office. I would not sit still as a young child. I learned to walk late because I didn’t have the patience for it. I was happy crawling and, apparently, I was quite skilled at it. I was constantly on the go exploring my environment, opening drawers, lifting things up looking for who knows what. At night, I wouldn’t sleep. My parents resorted to packing me in the car where the hum and motion proved hypnotic. When I was three or four the pediatrician wanted to put me on Ritalin. My parents refused. It’s ironic that I would become a mindfulness meditation yogi. I confront this restless legacy every time I sit to meditate. Often, my body does not want to sit still; all too frequently my mind does not want to sit still either. Practice for me involves a lot of returning to now rather than staying solidly situated in my object of concentration.

Focus, like any psychological faculty, varies from person to person. Some have exceptional focus, some have poor focus, while the great majority of us will be somewhere in the middle. Unless you are one of the relatively rare few who have an exceptional ability to focus, focusing attention is a skill that needs to be developed through practice. Without my practice of meditation, my focus would be far worse than it is. With practice, however, I am able to focus my mind. It’s not natural for me, but it is a skill that I have consciously developed over thirty years of different kinds of meditation practice. I can’t claim to always be perfectly focused, but at times my mind does become completely still and those moments are wonderful.

I find that developing focus requires effort, patience, and consent. It takes effort to retrieve attention from fantasy and return it to reality. Even if we manage to pull ourselves out of our fantasies, we are likely, at first, to slip back into them without really noticing. We have to learn to be patient with ourselves in order to make a practice out of dwelling in the reality of the here and now. Lastly, we may need to give ourselves permission to focus. Allowing ourselves to abandon habitual fantasy opens up the space in which we can sit with an experience long enough to really get to know it—in our pores, our bones, right into the very center of ourselves.

Diffusion of focus keeps us from experiencing life in a deeper way. Spreading our attention out is likely a natural way of keeping track of our superficial environment, thereby keeping ourselves safe. But spreading our attention thinly, keeping it constantly occupied with distraction and entertainment, also keeps us from really getting to know ourselves. If we rest our focus on just one thing, we quickly notice our own growing restlessness, impatience, and boredom. It’s hard to sit still for long: the mind grows impatient and wants fresh stimulation.

Restlessness, impatience, and boredom are obstacles to perfecting our practice, and focus is their antidote. We encounter these obstacles when we focus, but they can be deconstructed one by one. “Restlessness” is the conceptual label that we apply to the physical experience of certain energies in the body. The same is true of impatience and boredom. Just as the mind constructs these experiences around bodily sensations of energy, mindful focus can deconstruct and release them.

Try this experiment at work where, with all of the demands on our attention, diffusion of focus is the norm:

  1. Begin by spending five minutes focusing on your breath as you breathe naturally.
  2. Give yourself permission to focus on a single task for a period of time.
  3. Turn off your instant messaging system, close your email program, and turn off your smartphone for this period.
  4. Give your complete attention to the task at hand. If your mind is restless and wanders, gently return your focus to the task, working in this way until the task is complete.
  5. When you feel restless, impatient, or bored, allow yourself to simply let your attention settle into focusing on the task at hand.
  6. When you have completed a task, turn your attention to the next task, and continue working through your day.

See what it feels like to be fully engaged in each task. You may find that you are more productive. Focusing like this is mindfulness in action. With more mindfulness practice, it will be easier to focus. The flawlessness of practice is not a perfectionist ideal of what should be but an embrace of what is in the moment. It’s an opening to the perfection that is present in this moment—every moment.


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