So many people come to me and tell me that they can’t meditate, because it is simply too hard for them to stay focused on their object of meditation. There are two responses I usually give depending on the person asking me for help.
1. Make note of your distraction, and then just go back to concentrating on your object of meditation. It doesn’t matter how often you get distracted, just be persistent in going back to your focal point. When most people start out, they are going to get distracted a lot. It takes practice to build concentration, so don’t jump right into it expecting to be a zen master. This can often be the recommended course of action when you are doing concentrative meditation, and trying to build your attention.
2. Another thing you can do is just drop your object of meditation, and open your awareness to whatever presents itself in the moment. Just watch and accept whatever sensations, feelings, thoughts, emotions, memories, and imaginations arise into consciousness. Don’t try to cling to any of them, or avoid any of them. Just fully accept. This can often be the recommended course of action when you are doing mindfulness meditation, and trying to gain insight into the transient nature of reality.
However, it is important to keep in mind that mindfulness and concentration are not mutually exclusive. Mindfulness is a crucial component to building concentration, because part of concentration includes becoming aware of aspects of an object that you weren’t aware of previously. There is a super focus on the object of meditation, but also a peripheral awareness of what else may be going on that isn’t immediately brought to attention. So while practitioners often draw a distinction between Concentration and Mindfulness types of meditation, remember that they can be intricately interrelated.
For a good beginner’s exercise in concentration I recommend the 100 Breaths Meditation. However, for this post I want to elaborate more on objectless meditation, which describes a more “open awareness” of the present moment.
Objectless meditation is when we acknowledge whatever rises into consciousness without trying to react to it. Sensations, thoughts, emotions, memories, and imaginations may arise, but we don’t cling to them or avoid them – we just let them be. Objectless meditation is a full acceptance of whatever the present moment has to offer, without any particular directing of attention.
There is no telling where your awareness may bring you, and every meditation is going to be different. At times, your mind will shift to the sensations in your body, perhaps an itch on your nose, a pain in your lower back, or the growling of an empty stomach. Other times, your mind may shift inwards and reflect on passing thoughts, such as “What am I going to eat for dinner?” or “I need to put out the garbage tonight.” Or, perhaps your awareness will shift toward a sound in the room, a smell, or a gust of wind against your skin.
When in this state of “open awareness,” it is likely that some things will enter into consciousness that we may want to ignore or suppress. Perhaps an unpleasant thought, emotion, or memory will arise that we want to avoid. The difficult task, however, is to accept these experiences without putting a judgmental label on them. When we feel anger, depression, grief, or frustration, we should accept those feelings for what they are worth, and experience them in the moment without trying to run away. As Positive Psychologist Tal Ben-Sahar once said, “We must give ourselves permission to experience the full range of human emotions.”
The goal of such a practice is to build equanimity, a deep awareness and acceptance of the present moment, and a conscious realization of reality’s transience. In other words, during objectless meditation we often find that even the most uncomfortable thoughts and feelings eventually change or pass us by. Our consciousness is always taking new forms, as one sensation leaves, a new one arises.
Similarly, we must treat positive experiences with the same sense of equanimity. It is all too easy to cling to pleasurable and blissful feelings. But they too are impermanent, and craving such experiences can lead to a source of displeasure and suffering, especially when those cravings cannot be satisfied.
Without craving positive experiences, or avoiding negative ones, we can cultivate a sense of inner peace that truly satisfies our well-being. Objectless meditation allows us to create this sense of peace from within. All we need to do is sit down and become aware of all that is happening around us, without having to judge whether it is “good” or “bad.” It just is. So enjoy the ride, with all its highs and lows, and everything in between.
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