One of the most predictable outcomes of any meditation program is that several months afterwards, most people who attended will not be meditating. This may seem a bleak assessment. And although it’s based on personal experience, it is by no means my experience alone. According to Joshua Smythe, a biobehavioral scientist at Pennsylvania State University, only 30 percent of people who attend a standard, eight week meditation course, are “fully adherent” at the end of it.
What is it about meditation that makes it so, damned hard? And is there some insight, some tool available that might help turn the key?
Why meditation is difficult
Over a century ago, American psychologist William James observed that there are two kinds of attention. The first, voluntary or directed attention, is when we choose to focus on something like replying to an email or undertaking an assignment. It uses what neuroscientists call the executive function of our brain. Directed attention is what most people apply when practising mindfulness. We decide on an object of meditation – the breath, a mantra, a visualisation or whatever – and then we firmly focus our mind on it. Or try to.
The thing about directed, or ‘top-down’ attention, is that it’s tiring. It uses up lots of energy. After a while our enthusiasm flags. According to the nine levels of meditative concentration, established over two millennia ago, all beginners to meditation will spend more time in early sessions thinking about objects other than the one they’re trying to focus on. This is normal.
An alternative approach
The other form of attention is involuntary – sometimes known simply as “fascination”. If we hear raised voices, glimpse a beautiful vista, or catch a whiff of the perfume worn by someone we knew and loved a long time ago, our mind fixes on it immediately and without effort. This ‘bottom-up’ attention is triggered by stimuli in the world around us, not by an act of will. Unlike voluntary attention, it doesn’t use up energy – in fact, it gives our executive functioning a break, helping us concentrate better when we do return to directed attention.
When meditation traditions in the East talk about the importance of having a ‘child-like mind’, or a ‘beginner’s mind’ – it is this, involuntary attention to which they are referring.
Nature – the ultimate meditation object
Rachel Kaplan, who with her husband Stephen is a trailblazer in the world of environmental psychology, has shown that nature is an ideal environment in which to experience what she calls “soft fascination.”
“The most restorative landscapes … are the ones that hit the sweet spot of being interesting but not too interesting. They should entice our attention but not demand it. The landscapes should also be compatible with our sense of aesthetics and offer up a little bit of mystery.” (Quote from The Nature Fix by Florence Williams – highly recommended reading!)
Most of us find it a whole lot easier to be in the here and now when we are in nature, compared to sitting in a familiar room. In the room, it’s all too easy to tune into the constant narrative chatter going on in our minds, but outside, there’s always a bird call, the rustling of the wind in the trees, or an unexpected, earthy aroma to entice us back to the present moment. It sometimes strikes me that all the great meditators of the past usually meditated outside – Buddha himself famously attained enlightenment while sitting, not in a house or temple, but under a Bodhi tree. Perhaps we could do worse than follow suit – weather permitting?
During our Mindful Safaris to Africa we have as many sessions as possible outside, and I am struck by how many people tell me, at the end of these sessions, how quickly it seemed to go for them. When we are at one with an object of our concentration, experiencing non-duality between subject and object, time is curiously elastic.
Setting ourselves up for fascination
How does all this translate into an easier way to practice meditation in daily life?
We are going to make the practice a lot easier for ourselves if we move outdoors and choose, as our meditation object, a garden, park or nature reserve. We can sit for fifteen or twenty minutes perhaps allowing ourselves to be fascinated, in sequence, by whatever we hear, feel, smell, see – then all the above combined.
As important as the object, is the kind of attention we bring to our practice. Try letting go of the top-down, directed attention, if this is what you usually do, and instead try simple curiosity. So, what’s going on here today? Even if I have sat in this place many times in the past, what is subtly different about being here right now? It doesn’t have to be anything dramatically different. It’s the same kind of attitude we may have when listening to a favourite music radio station – just tune in, let whatever is happening wash over us, and see what comes up.
In an important way, we are reframing what’s happening from something we are trying to do, striving to achieve, into simply being present. It’s an attitudinal shift which we goal-driven Westerners need to understand. We are giving ourselves permission, for fifteen precious minutes, to be goal-less.
If you need justification for that, you’ve got it: research shows you will return to your goals more focused, creative and effective if you can give your top down, executive functioning a break.
Little by little, as our meditation journey unfolds, instead of identifying with ourselves as being people, and meditation as something that we do, we may increasingly identify with ourselves as what we experience in meditation – and a person as something that we do.
Fascination, or involuntary awareness, holds the key.
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(Photo credit: Featured image by Simon Mijag of www.unsplash.com)
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