Ram Dass in The Journey of Awakening
"Before all doing and creating, before he ever begins to devote and adjust himself to his task, the artist summons forth this presence of mind and makes sure of it through practice."
Eugene Herrigel in Zen in the Art of Archery
Being in the flow, being nonattached, being in the moment do not mean being a wimpy airhead. Sometimes people on a spiritual path accept an idea that seems to suggest the way to enlightenment is to adopt the personal characteristics of gelatin. We would suggest that this is not the way of the sage.
If you fall into the swift current of the river, it may be wise to go with the flow. This does not mean you let the current take you anywhere and you just tread water. It means you swim with all your might toward safety, skillfully using the current to aid you. Non-attachment (a term we much prefer to "detachment") does not mean you don't grab the flotation device that is thrown to you. It means you use it while it is helpful to do so, but you can let go when the time comes. If your life preserver is caught on a branch and is pulling you under, let go of the life preserver. To push this metaphor for life just a little farther, if you are at risk of drowning, the proper focus of attention is what is happening right now-- your relationship with the water and the shore, your breathing, your energy level, your buoyancy. Things like that, rather than how bad your hair is going to look, or regrets that you never learned to swim.
The threat of immanent danger may automatically focus our attention on the present, but what do we do day to day as we bob along the gentler currents of everyday life? It is so easy to get caught up in routine and to go wherever external forces push us. A better way is to practice skills that will help us cope with the dangers of life that inevitably present themselves.
Concentration is a fundamental skill in work, play, and spiritual development. When we focus our attention, we can direct whatever power we have at our disposal towards the problem or goal. Usually, emotions like fear or desire automatically focus our attention. But how do we develop focus when we also seek freedom from binding emotional states? The answer: Practice.
Most spiritual traditions use some ritual or technique to aid practitioners in developing concentration. Many traditional meditation exercises are practices to enhance the ability to concentrate. The following exercise is one you can use to power up your capacity for concentration.
A very old concentration meditation is to bring your attention to a candle flame. The candle flame is a beautiful point of focus and we encourage you to use it if possible, but if it is not practical in your circumstances you can use something else. If you are going to practice at your computer, perhaps you can turn down the brightness on your screen and focus on the little light that tells you your monitor is on. A thumbtack on your bulletin board or a coffee ring on your desktop could also work.
Sit upright in a comfortable position. The object of your concentration should be not too far away and within your line of sight, so you can see it with slightly downcast eyes. It should be centered in your visual field, so you see it equally with both eyes.
Direct your attention to the one point you have chosen to focus on. Let your eyes focus there. Let your attention focus there too. As random thoughts arise, just let them go by and return your awareness to the point of focus. This is an act of will. Notice how your thoughts distract you from your purpose, which is merely to focus on one thing. Without any negative interpretation of the distraction, continually come back to your focus.
You may hear sounds. You may feel sensations in your body. Thoughts may form out of nowhere. With each interruption, firmly bring your mind back to your point of attention. Do so with patience and kindness towards yourself.
Continue to practice this concentration meditation day by day and you will begin to notice greater awareness of your mental processes. You should find that focusing on the important things in life is easier for you, and you may begin to relax the grip of attachment to what is non-essential.
© 2002 Tom Barrett