The Master Skill

To be everywhere is to be nowhere

 —  Seneca

Perhaps you discovered that maintaining the intended focus was difficult. Novices usually experience frustration by their repeated failures, and many abandon the practice on the grounds that they are not good at meditation. In fact, over-riding the influence of distracting but salient stimuli is a deceptively difficult challenge for everyone. That is why regular exercise is a discipline.

How to get good at aiming your attention

There are payoffs for enhancing the power of your mental faculties, just as there are for enhancing your physical powers. The capability to direct your attention to an intended target despite the pull of distractions is a mental faculty analogous to physical strength; the capability of maintaining that focus is analogous to physical stamina. The experiential invitations below provide some variety and structure to promote the exercise of the faculties you use to control your attention.

Strengthening Your Will By Exercising Your Attention

Your emotional state and the state-dependent phenomena it elicits is determined by what you are attending to at the moment. Normally, your attention will be captured by the most salient stimulus. Once you develop the ability to focus your attention on the target you choose (rather than on the most salient stimulus in your environment), you can exert an intentional influence upon your reaction to the things that happen. The critical act of will is occurs when you purposely aim your attention to stimuli that elicit the intended reaction, despite the pull of more salient stimuli that promote a less advantageous reaction.

Each invitation involves a different target, and hence elicits a different experience. At this point our interest is exercising the mental faculty of aiming your attention, but you may find the phenomena that emerge from these exercises to be useful to you in other ways.

A Progression of Focused Attention Exercises:

  1. Counting natural process (like the first exercise on this page) or the redundancy of a mantra (like the second exercise) are good places to start. These exercises are analagous to working out with weights to develop the body.

  2. Focused attention on physical sensations of your muscles as you ask them to relax [see Progressive relaxation script] can be effective in producing physical relaxation. Working with this method can enhance your mindful control over your level of arousal and stress.

  3. You can learn about yourself and the human condition by focused attention on abstract concepts such as compassion. Use your faculty of imagination to visualize your child self as clearly as you can at the youngest age you can remember. Send feelings of love and compassion to this child. Perhaps imagine yourself hugging this child and telling it what it needs to hear. Next picture yourself as an older child and do the same thing. The goal is to cultivate a compassionate perspective toward yourself until it has become your default. As your compassion and acceptance of yourself strengthens, episodes of harsh, self-critical mind-chatter becomes more obviously creative fictions that you have invented rather than valid depictions of reality.

  4. "Labeling" exercises provide a transition to another major category of meditation: Mindfulness. The goal of labeling exercises is to view thoughts and emotions as subjective phenomena you can dispassionately observe.
    • Exploring Desire: Agree with yourself to notice and label any type of desire thought or image that comes into mind.  Label the thought by silently saying something like: "Ah yes, there's desire again."  There is no need to judge the thought, or analyze it, or try to change it.  Just label it as soon as you've identified it. See if you can define what desire feels like.  Does a part of your body tense?  Does your breathing feel different? What thoughts, sensations, and imagery is associated with desire? Is desire permanent, or does it fade away even if you do not give in to it?

Doing Mode & Being Mode

Each of these Focused Attention exercises have a purpose: You are doing them in order to achieve a particular outcome. Failure is an important part of the process doing things. In this case, we know your mind will wander away. When you notice that, you use exercise the faculty to aim your attention back to the target. You are doing the to strengthen that faculty, and to learn about your subjective universe as well.

To develop the master skill of controlling your attention it is important to persevere and continue to exercise the relevant cognitive faculties. Sadly, individuals who would benefit most from this practice — those vulnerable to negative self-evaluations —  tend to interpret lack of perceived progress in ways that diminish their self-efficacy and thereby increase the likelihood that they will prematurely abandon the practice.

The tendencies to judge oneself negatively and to be driven to escape temporary discomforts is exactly what we are attempting to rise above. An important, and intended, byproduct of the occasional discomforts of the Focused Attention discipline is learning to accept discomforts and judgmental appraisals for what they are: passing phenomena that may or may not be objectively valid. This rising above the influence of passing discomforts and temptations is the goal of mindfulness practice.

In the Cognitive Therapy section you will research the causes of your emotional over-reaction to an event. If you don't already know this you will then: Your emotional reactions result from your interpretation of the events that happen, not the events themselves. These emotional reactions then become causally related to future external events and internal states.

The frustration I experience over being shorter and less attractive than I'd like to be is avoidable to the extent that I accept things as they are. The point of practicing mindfulness is to free oneself from the unnecessary pain caused by failing to accept what you do not control.

In contrast to Focused Attention meditation  —  in which you are vigilant for the mind wandering away so you can redirect it back to the intended target — the mindfulness strategy is give up control, intention, and evaluation, and let the mind go wherever it goes and simply notice whatever happens. This perspective of dispassionately observing the unfolding experience of being a living creature, without trying to evaluate or change anything, is an alternative to the usual pleasure seeking— pain avoidance mindset.

The problem-solving orientation [Doing Mode] is the default. Unless we do something to get out of it, we are constantly and automatically trying to succed and not fail. Naturally, there are benefits to bringing about the outcomes we want. However, there are also benefits to acceptance of what is. Paradoxically, the peace of mind that comes with mindfulness is not available to those who remain asleep at the wheel.


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