Secular Meditation: The Paradox of Focus, and Hey, What’s That Shiny Bead Over There?

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So if part of the point of secular meditation is to learn how to focus your awareness and not be distracted by a hundred things… how do you focus long enough to meditate in the first place?

I recently wrote a piece on doing secular meditation and on how — exactly — it’s helping with my depression. One of the things I talked about was how meditating is, literally, practice in shifting my focus — and how useful this is for managing depression in my everyday life. Quote:

So in my everyday life, if my awareness has drifted into something that tends to drop me into a cycle of depression (pessimistic thoughts, worst-case scenarios, terrible memories, etc.), it’s now easier to shift it into something else.

And a couple of people responded to this, saying that this sounded awesome — but how do you get enough focus in the first place to meditate at all?

My friend Susie Bright and I were talking about this on Facebook, and she said:

I like your emphasis on observing distractions gently and w/o judgement… But what do you suggest for relieving distraction going in, those first few minutes? I am overcome by them before I even get a chance to “judge” them!

And on my blog, mistertwo commented:

I’ve read about (and listened to podcasts about) mindfulness meditation and have tried it some. My depression isn’t bad and I’m not on medication for it, but I have a horrible problem with focus. For instance, I’m reading your blog right now instead of getting work done! If I have small things to do at work, I’m good, but anything that’s going to take time is hard to start, and hard to continue working on.

Unfortunately, what I’ve found is that I had a hard time continuing with the mindfulness practice and didn’t keep it up for long. Did you have a hump to get over when you first started? If you have a routine, how do you (or how did you at first) stick with it?

As far as using it at work, what I think I’m supposed to do is notice the distracting thoughts creeping into my head (hey, I could check my newsfeed right now!) and think to myself “that was a distracting thought, but I’m not going to act on it.” That sort-of worked a couple of times, but getting myself to do that all of the time is the problem. I need to practice so that I can use it, but I need more practice so that I can use it, , but I need more practice so that I can use it…

This is a really, really good question. (People who’ve seen me do public speaking know that when I say something is a good question, it means that I don’t have an easy answer.) Yes, this is definitely a paradox/vicious circle/self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of the skills that you acquire from meditating regularly — sitting still for long periods, doing one thing at a time, observing yourself without judgment, focusing your awareness without distraction — are exactly the skills that you need to have to be able to meditate at all.

So I’ll speak for myself here, and talk about how this works for me – how it worked for me when I was first learning meditation about a year ago, and how it works for me now.

The simplest answer is that I did it badly until I got better at it. Except “badly” isn’t the right word: meditation is meditation, and I was taught that if I’m doing it, I’m doing it right. Instead, let’s say “less effectively.” It was harder at first to sit still; I was more judgmental and anxious about doing it right; my awareness drifted from my intended focus much more often and for longer stretches. When I was first learning how to meditate… well, here’s how I described it in an earlier post, Secular Meditation: I Am Who I Am:

“Focus on my right heel. My right heel. Jesus, I can’t believe that idiot commenter on AlterNet. Did I remember to pitch my AlterNet editor with that story idea… hm, I’m noticing that my attention is drifting. I’m gently returning the focus to my right heel. Right heel. Sole of my right foot. Sole of my… I haven’t returned that email from Charlie, I really need to do that. I wonder if Charlie would be interested in a workshop or a discussion group on mindfulness and sexuality? Who else would be interested in that? If I do that, should I do it as an in-person group in San Francisco, or an online group, or… no, this ISN’T what I’m focusing on right now. Crap. Observe that my attention has drifted onto this thought, LET THE THOUGHT GO already, return my focus to the sole of my right foot. Sole of the foot. Ankle. Notice that my ankle is a bit sore and tight… probably from the gym yesterday. Am I going to have time to go to the gym tomorrow? Maybe if I get caught up on my email and the messages in my Facebook inbox. You know, I haven’t done the Atheist Meme of the Day on Facebook in a while, I know people really liked that, but it was such a time-suck… GODDAMN IT, YOU STUPID FUCKING BRAIN, WILL YOU SHUT THE HELL UP AND LET ME FOCUS ON MY RIGHT ANKLE FOR TEN FUCKING SECONDS?!?!?”

Somehow, I don’t think that’s what my meditation teacher meant by “observe without judgment, and gently return.”

But I’ve been meditating for a little over a year now, and this has changed a fair amount. It’s not that I don’t still do this. I do, and I suspect that I always will. It’s just that I do it less. The balance between “focus” and “distraction” is somewhat more on the side of focus.

But yeah. It’s a paradox. The skills you need to help you get there are the very skills you’re trying to get.

But isn’t that true of a lot of things?

Greta and Ingrid waltzing
Riding a bicycle is the classic example. How the hell do you even start to ride a bicycle when you don’t know how to stay up on a bicycle? And when Ingrid and I were first learning ballroom dancing, we had a lot of this kind of frustration. We were learning the Victorian rotary waltz (yes, we’re nerds), and if you don’t know how to do the rotation part of the rotary waltz, it’s difficult-to-impossible to do any waltzing at all. You can’t even begin to do it if you can’t do the rotation — but how do you learn the rotation if you can’t do even a little bit of it?

But we learned. We did it badly, and stumbled a lot… until we began to get the hang of it, and stumbled slightly less… until we got the hang of it more, and got barely competent…

And then the learning curve started to take off. Because that’s the flip side of this paradox. The better you get at something, the easier it is to practice and learn… and the easier it is to practice and learn, the better you get at it. Sucking at something is a self-perpetuating circle — but so is getting good at something.

And when it comes to meditation, there’s a distinct advantage over other activities — which is that there is no such thing as failing. In the Victorian rotary waltz, there is definitely such a thing as failing. Falling over, stepping on your partner’s feet, crashing into other couples, unexpectedly launching into the polka for no good reason — all of this, and more, constitutes failing. To some extent this isn’t quite true, if you’re having fun then you’re doing it right — but crashing into other couples and stepping on each other’s feet isn’t really that much fun.

But with meditation, “failing” is part of the practice. When I meditate, if I get distracted and have to pull my focus back every three seconds, or if my awareness drifts off into spinning thoughts or spacing out for ten minutes at a time… then that’s what happens. I notice it, I observe it without judgment — and I return my awareness to its intended focus. If I have to do this every three seconds, or if I do it twice in a session and spend the rest of the session spinning my wheels and spacing out, then I do. And the next time, I probably won’t do that as much. I’ll get distracted every five seconds instead of three, or I’ll space out for five minutes instead of ten.

That’s how the learning curve works. I have to let it be hard, until it’s less hard. And in this case, “letting it be hard” is, itself, part of the practice.

(As for the discipline to stick with it over time: That’s a different topic, although it’s related. I’ve written a little bit about it before — Secular Meditation: Flexible Discipline, Or, On Creating a Regular Practice in an Irregular Life — but I’ll get into it more in a future post. And yes, it is a tough nut to crack: in fact, it’s currently my own biggest challenge.)

Secular Meditation: The Paradox of Focus, and Hey, What’s That Shiny Bead Over There?

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