"The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will."
William James

In living a mindful life and in practicing meditation, we work on our ability to focus attention. The practice of directing our attention enhances our ability to use our consciousness effectively as we interact with the world and as we seek self-knowledge. Effective direction of attention helps us accomplish tasks more efficiently. Whether it is chopping vegetables, typing, making music, playing a game or threading a needle, we perform more effectively if our mind is on the task. In the same way, as we seek knowledge of our inner world, we must be able to direct our attention to what is there. Our conscious attention must illuminate the dimness of our psyche. To live well, to flourish, we must come to know ourselves. We can do that through careful examination of our own minds. In meditation, we have the opportunity to look at what is there. We can observe what distracts us, what pulls us away through craving, what stirs us up with destructive emotions.

Some people who have tried meditating a few times get the impression that they are not good at it. Their mind wanders and they think they are meditating poorly. The truth is that nobody can sustain voluntary attention for more than a few seconds. We focus on something and before very long some sensory or mental event distracts us. The trick is not so much in holding attention as in bringing it back. We focus, and then we lose focus, and we bring it back time after time. With practice, we can improve this refocusing skill so that it becomes natural. As the refocusing becomes habit, it takes less effort. As we gain access to the experience of more sustained attention, the experience itself becomes more rewarding and our desire to attain deeper focus grows. The collecting of our mind becomes a compelling experience in itself. When we have put aside our mental junk, let go of distractions, relabeled them as beside the point, and then dropped the label, we may enter a state of mind with such clarity and light that we can see what is for what it is. We can access wisdom that is just waiting for us to unbury it.

Sit in a comfortable position for meditation. Let your eyes relax so that they are pointed downward at about a 45-degree angle, but not really focused on anything in particular. Turn your attention to the workings of your own mind. The object of your attention is your own mental activity. Sit and observe the movement of your mind as it is affected by sensations, memories, thought associations, and emotions. Be the witness to your mental conditions without getting caught up in the processes you are observing. Be as dispassionate as if you were watching some natural process occur outside yourself. Your motivation is to be alert, aware, and observant, but not to get carried away by the mental activity you are observing. If you find yourself drifting, remember to bring your attention back. Bring it back as many times as it strays.

Reference: Alan Wallace, Focusing on What Matters, Moment By Moment, Spirituality & Health The Soul/Body Connection, Summer 20002.

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© 2003 Tom Barrett