Attention and focus are hard to come by. Starbucks built a $13 billion business because we need help paying attention. Psychiatrists increasingly diagnose “adult attention deficit disorder” and prescribe Ritalin for grown-ups who can’t focus or pay attention. But is coffee and prescription “speed” the answer to our modern distraction?
Distracted by email, iPhones, the ping of a new text message, bad news on television and the stresses of work, of relationships and family, it is easy to be overwhelmed, stressed and miss the extraordinary gift of being alive. Our bodies’ break down under the onslaught of stress – insomnia, anxiety, depression, and all chronic disease is made worse by unremitting stress.
The Buddha was walking down the road shortly after he was enlightened and a traveler saw his remarkable energy. He asked him if he was an angel, a wizard, a magician, or some kind of god. “No”, the Buddha said, “I am awake”.
What matters most in life is the quality of our experience, the ability to be awake to what is real and true in our lives, for the difficult and the happy times, to be awake to each person we touch, to our own experience, to the moment we are in, to the simple, sweet, and alive gifts of a smile, a touch, a kind deed, the breeze on our skin, or a firefly flickering in the early summer night.
But that is harder than it sounds. Our monkey mind gets in the way. In order to pay attention we need to be quiet, to be practiced at stillness, to know the habits of our mind and be skilled at dancing with them, not to be controlled or dominated by them. To witness the thoughts and feelings we have without having them overwhelm, dominate, and control our lives.
My way into medicine was through Buddhism. I majored in Buddhist studies at Cornell. As a young man in college I was deeply interested in the mind, in the nature of our consciousness, of the ways our thoughts and perceptions control our lives and how we can work with them in a juicy, helpful way that brings more love, kindness, compassion, and insight into every moment, rather than darkness, suffering, struggle and pain.
Pain is inevitable. Loss is inevitable. Death, illness, war, and disaster have always been and will always be part of the human condition. Yet within it, I wondered as a young man, was there a way to understand suffering in a different light, to break the cycle of suffering.
I realized there was a way to be more awake, to see things as they are, to notice life as it is and to savor it, to love it, to wake up with gratitude, lightness, and celebration for the magic of life. It is always there and the trick is simply to notice.
But to notice requires a stillness of the mind. This is something not quite so easy to achieve for most of us. Being awake takes practice. Each of us can find our path to being awake. Ancient traditions provide many avenues.
Belief in any particular religion or philosophy is not necessary, just a desire to show up and pay attention without judgment or criticism. To notice the ebb and flow of our breath and our thoughts without holding on to them, like waves washing over you on a summer day at the beach.
This is harder than it sounds, because it requires us to be patient with ourselves, to love ourselves, even all the ugly, petty, small thoughts. It requires us to create calm within the chaos through non-judgmental awareness. Most of us have no clue how to do this.
When I was 20 years old, I spent 10 days in a silent meditation retreat sleeping, meditating, and eating. That was it. As the turbulent oceans of my young mind settled each day, I began to feel more awake, more alive and happier than I ever had before. The happiness was not connected to any external event or person, but to the simple joy of being able to notice beauty and brilliance in the people and in the nature that surrounded me.
Over my life I have come in and out of practicing stillness, but whenever I return to it, it feels like home. There are a thousand ways to meditate – traditional mindfulness meditation is the simplest and most accessible, but any form can work – yoga, nature, dance, breathing, and prayer.
The point of mediation, of doing nothing, is not an end in itself but a way to calm the mind, to see the true nature of things, and reduce the impact of suffering while increasing love, kindness, wisdom, fearlessness, and sympathy.
From that stillness life becomes richer, your actions more clear, your words more direct and powerful, and your capacity to be fully engaged in life enhanced. It is not a retreat from life, but a way to go fully into it and cultivate your own power and happiness.
The benefits of meditation have been well proven by science. Mediation reduces chronic pain, blood pressure, headaches, anxiety and depression.
It helps you lose weight, lowers cholesterol, increases sports performance, boosts immune function, relieves insomnia, increases serotonin, improves creativity, optimizes brain waves, helps in learning, focuses attention, increases productivity, enhances memory, and more.
But none of those reasons are the reasons I meditate or practice yoga (which for me is meditation in motion). It is to be more awake to life, to myself, to cultivate loving kindness and compassion toward myself, others, and to the sorted human condition we find ourselves in.
The good news is that all you need is a few minutes and a place to sit and be quiet (you can do this anywhere). Here is a simple instruction for mindfulness mediation you can try yourself.
Sit in a comfortable position. Try to sit in the same place each day. Avoid positions that you might fall asleep in.
a. The back is long and supports itself.
b. Shoulders are relaxed downward, the neck is long, and the chin is pointing neither up nor down.
c. The face is relaxed.
Begin to breathe (preferably through the nostrils). Feel the belly rise, the ribs expand, and the slight movement in the collarbones and shoulders as the breath moves upward. Feel the exhalation.
Focus on one aspect of the breath.
a. The movement of air in and out of the nostrils.
b. Or the lifting and falling of the belly.
Watch that one aspect of the breath.
a. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath and the aspect you have chosen to watch.
b. Do this as many times as you need to.
c. There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation. (Good and bad are judgments, events in the mind—just note them and go back to the breathing) .
Start with 5–10 minutes and then increase the time until you can sit for 30 minutes.
To Learn More
If you want to learn more and experience guided meditations I recommend a few wonderful resources and further reading.
Join the Open Heart Project by Susan Piver, a wonderful online resource for guided mediation practice and community.