week 1 theme
At its most basic level, attention – what we allow ourselves to notice – literally determines how we experience and navigate the world. I’m sure you know the feeling of having your attention fractured by job and family, the enticement of electronic diversions, or the chatter of your mind. Imagine reclaiming all the energy that could be available to us but isn’t because we scatter it, squandering it on endlessly regretting the past and worrying about the future.
Concentration is a steadying and focusing of attention that allows us to let go of distractions. When our attention is stabilized in this way energy is restored to us—and we feel restored to our lives. This week you’re going to learn techniques for deepening concentration through focusing on the breath. You may not be convinced that sitting and breathing can lead to personal transformation. But you’ll soon have the opportunity to test this for yourself; your meditation practice is about to begin.
Take a few moments this week to look back over your week of practice with two guided reflections from Sharon.
Recommended reading for Week One of the Challenge is pages 37 – 47 and pages 64 – 74 in the second edition of the book, “Real Happiness”.
Welcome. I’m looking forward to our month of practice together. This first week is devoted to the deepening of concentration. Inherent in the art of concentration are several skills. The two most prominent of these are cultivating balance, and the ability to let go. Whatever object of awareness we choose to concentrate on, in this case, most often the feeling of the breath, we rest our attention lightly on that object. Some people, for example, think that if they get a death grip on their breath their attention won’t wander. In fact, it will wander more. The Buddha said, “Rest your attention lightly, like a butterfly resting on a flower.”
I have long used the image of someone walking a tightrope to describe meditation practice. As we walk, many things come zipping by our heads …sights, sounds, emotions, realizations. If we reach out to grab them, we fall over. If we recoil from them, we fall over. If we get careless, inattentive, we fall over. If we get too uptight, we lose balance and fall over. In any case, having fallen, we hurtle through the air, only to finally discover that what we land upon is yet another tightrope. We start over.
For virtually all of us, our minds aren’t going to be perfectly still. There will be thoughts, sometimes a lot of them, and sometimes some really nasty thoughts along with lovely ones. Don’t worry about any of this. Our goal is not to block thoughts or annihilate them. Our goal is to develop a more spacious relationship to them, so that we can choose which to act on without being driven by the sheer force of habit. We see we can cultivate balance no matter what is appearing.
For now, this means practicing letting go when you have gotten distracted from the breath, and gently coming back from whatever the distraction has been to the breath. This doesn’t in any way mean that you are a failure, or that you have some big problem meditating. It actually means you’re doing it correctly. The transformative moment is after we’ve gotten lost in thought or spun out in a fantasy or after we’ve fallen asleep. One of my teachers, a Tibetan lama named Tsoknyi Rinpoche, described it as “exercising the letting go muscle.” When we emerge from the distraction is the time we have the chance to gently let go, and without judging ourselves, begin again. A poetic way of saying this is, “The healing is in the return, not in never having wandered to begin with.” Your attention will wander. We expect that. The training is in letting go and shepherding your attention back.
It’s a good period of experimentation, as there will be several techniques offered. You can see which seems right for you to pursue. Then we’re going to build mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of emotions and thoughts on this foundation of greater stability, centeredness and concentration.
Sometimes, even though it is just a few minutes each day, it can be surprisingly hard to find the time to sit. This too is a circumstance where it is important not to dwell in feelings of failure, but instead realize it as another time we can let go and, with kindness towards ourselves, begin again. One of the reasons we are doing this together is that the group can become a community of support, and we can increasingly enjoy this support as we go forward. I’ve seen in past years that ire ally does become a beautiful community, and I hope you take advantage of that.
WORKING WITH THE UNINVITED THOUGHT
When focusing our attention in meditation, we may notice that one or two distracting thoughts keep cycling back into our mind. Let’s investigate one of those now. Did a specific person or scenario resurface this week? Did you habitually make a plan, relive a conversation, or anticipate a future event? Envision that situation. Can you find an emotion that is driving it? Perhaps anxiety, or anticipation, or a concern your needs won’t be met. Rather than circle around the thoughts, we can go deeper to see what’s behind them.
LOOK AT YOURSELF WITH QUIET EYES
Non-judgment can be a valuable teaching tool when incorporated into our favorite activities. Set aside time to garden, bike, hike, read, cook, craft, or do any hobby you genuinely enjoy. Pick a minimum amount of time you’ll do this without multitasking and set a timer to hold yourself to it. Put down your phone, turn off the TV, and be completely present. Notice the sounds, sights, and tactile sensations the activity brings. Do not judge your process or the outcome. If you find your mind wandering, return to the present task. When the timer rings, ponder what felt different when you applied mindfulness to the task.
Journal prompt Transcript
EMBRACING THE DISTRACTIONS
We’re learning that distractions can come from internal thoughts or external surroundings. List distractions you’ve noticed in meditation this week. Now, list anything you identify that habitually pulls focus throughout your day. What was the moment like that you let go of those distractions? Could you do that gently, or did you find yourself being critical or judgmental? Putting your experience on paper might help you remember to be kind to yourself when faced with these distractions in the future.