Cultivating Concentration and Attention On and Off of the Mat
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the concentration aspect of practice. Is concentration something that one can practice and develop? How is what we are doing the rest of the day affecting our ability to concentrate? How does practicing concentration translate to the rest of our lives?
When I first started practicing the Ashtanga asana sequences I was in grad school. I spent a lot of time in front of my computer analyzing data and writing. It required sustained concentration and there was time pressure to finish my dissertation. For a time, I was working late nights on lab work and waking early for practice. Especially after short sleeps, concentration (or lack thereof) in practice was painful and frustrating.
For the past five years or so I’ve been working with a meditation teacher, John Churchill, who has given me language and context to approach concentration practice. John has worked with me to shift my basis of operation to subtle awareness and to develop a sense of kindness and compassion as I work on these practices. Over time and through practice, I have also come realize and clean up habits that hinder my quality of attention.
Shifting the basis of operation to subtle awareness
When I was first learning the Ashtanga practice, I realize that I was subtly projecting externally derived ideas on how practice should be done onto my practice. These ideas included sustained concentration on the movement linked breath. When I could not perform these techniques to my expectations (like after short sleeps), I became frustrated.
It has helped me to shift my basis of operation from effortful concentration to subtle awareness. Awareness encompasses the self-structure, thoughts, and sensation. It is our very sentience. It has the properties of being lucid, empty, and ungraspable. Awareness is readily experienced here and now and requires no special powers to know. It is so fundamental that I easily overlooked it at first and then realized it’s been there running in background the whole time. After asana practice each day, I sit and recognize awareness. Lately, I’ve been periodically recognizing awareness off the mat while going about my daily activities. Over some years of practice, I’ve noticed that it has required less effort to steer concentration back to the breath with the consistent recognition of the subtle layer of mind.
Developing secure attachments
Visualization of a kind, compassionate, and brilliant mentor is a component of the meditation practices in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that John teaches from. Curiously in the Ashtanga practice, we also recognize the value of the mentor in the opening mantra to Patanjali. It has taken me some time to grasp the meaning and efficacy of the mentor visualization practice. Then, I reflected on how often I have been anxious about not having enough time, not being able to do it right, not being desirable to other humans, etc. With that baggage in mind, it becomes easier to see the value of visualizing or feeling the presence of a being that sees me fully and is infinitely patient and compassionate.
Coincidentally, my inner teacher has become more curious and kind over the years. I bring more of my authentic self to the mat. The one who is distracted, a bit stiff or injured, and didn’t sleep well last night. I apply a process of inquiry of emptiness in the practice. Where are the thoughts coming from and where do they go? Are the thoughts solid and can they be located? Applying this inquiry to the body: where are the edges of sensation? Where is the tightness coming from? Compassion and skillful means arises with the sense of curiosity into the quality of experience.
Removing a major obstacle to concentration off of the mat
I am addicted to my phone and recently have been trying to break the habit. The light and information stimulation interfere with my sleep. The social media feeds and hyperlinks have trained me not to sustain attention. Furthermore, I find myself getting upset about things I have no control over that I see in the news or on social media. This leads to thought spirals in practice. Christine and I have been reading a book called “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” which has been inspirational to me.
To break the addiction, I’ve blocked my vices, the New York Times and Facebook, on my phone altogether and I have limited viewing of these sites to 15 minutes per day on my laptop. I set my screen time app on my phone to put roadblocks to viewing the internet between the hours of 7 PM and 8 AM. This prevents me from looking at my phone before morning practice. It has been a good practice to not pick up my phone until after I am clothed, fed, and ready to work, post-practice. I get out of the door and to the office sooner. I’ve noticed that I am calmer and more free to relate to those around me, read books, or recognize awareness without the constant barrage of information.
Where is quality sustained attention leading?
I recently heard at an organizational leadership training that your most valuable resource is your attention. I couldn’t agree more. Attention is the means by which we perform in our work. Attention brings quality to our relationships. Attention is how we recognize patterns of cause and effect and change the course of our lives. Attention is how we recognize the fundamental nature of consciousness. Improving the quality of our attention is well worth our attention.