Rhythms of Attention

Musings on Meditation IV

This is the fourth in a series of posts on meditation. Read part I, part II and part III.

Disclaimer: The world of meditation is vast and complex, just like you and me and all human beings. Different lineages, schools of thought, religions and traditions have different approaches. Feel free to to form your own opinions, get curious about what I say, disagree with me, and discover your own path. What follows is an expression of my own views, experience and learning.


Over the last three posts, I’ve introduced a lot of material about what meditation is, why you might want to do it, how to meditate and what happens within a meditation period. In this post I want to go a little deeper into this last aspect of meditation: what actually happens in those minutes or moments when you are meditating. We explored this a little in the last post already, but here I want to go a bit further and draw out some of the fundamental qualities of attention. Attention is the essential tool and the magic ingredient of meditation. It is what we liberate and dance with, or what we control and master (depends on your approach).

Obviously, the precise content of your attention varies depending on your choices, your life circumstances and your tradition or lineagebut there are some constants to the nature of attention itself. All or most humans who meditate will recognize at least some of the descriptions that follow, even if I word them in ways that you may not. Tha language of the inner world is tricky, and obviously very unique, so what I’m trying to do is outline the broad strokes and the overall patterns that resonate for all of us, our shared human experience. Why does this matter? Because there are essential insights to be gained from understanding the process of meditation, and the nature of attention, more deeply. As always, more knowledge and better framing gives you more choices and more freedom to make meditation your own.

8. Enjoy your rhythms

Like life, meditation is rhythmic and flowing. It is an ongoing, moving experience like the flow of a river, or the movement of a crowd. In meditation, we are essentially experiencing and cherishing the movement of our attention through a vast array of internal and external phenomena. I’m going to repeat this in different words, because it is likely to be very different from what you’ve heard about meditation before. Meditation is not stillness, it is movement. It is not a static state, but a dynamic, living experience. In meditation, our attention cycles through states, thoughts, emotions, images, feelings, desires, sensations…all of the multitude of impulses that we experience as humans. Sometimes we can cycle through these in a matter of seconds, at other times it takes several minutes or longer. When we meditate, we are setting ourselves free to explore, play and connect all of these impulses.

Your nervous system, brain and body are always trying to process and optimize your responses to life. What you are doing in meditation is giving them the time and free reign to tinker, create, discard and rebuild your internal architecture. This is how meditation serves life. You can think of it as form of spontaneous central processing, where we organize our impressions, sort through memories, clean out our thought-inbox, feel unfelt feelings and sensations, and imagine and refine our responses. The same kind of thing occurs naturally when we sleep and dream, only in meditation we are awake and aware of the process. In the framing I am offering you, the most important thing is to let all of this happen. Do not limit or manage your attention in any way. Let your body and mind flow through these states, like you are going on a journey with yourself into all these different realms. Enjoy the rhythm and dance of your awareness flowing through all kinds of wild and serene inner landscapes. The more you can liberate your attention, the more natural your meditation will feel, and the more easily you will make connections and integrate the various facets of your life experience.

To focus or not to focus? The two paths

Now, what about the so-called object of meditation (what I called your ‘doorway’ in the previous posts)? Isn’t the whole point to focus on the object? What happens if you just let yourself wander everywhere? This is a very interesting point, and worth going into. Many of us have learned that meditation is about focusing attention on one thing to the exclusion of all others. This is the approach favoured by the path of renunciation (sannyas in Sanskrit), based on teachings and instruction given to celibate monks and nuns. Cultivating sustained, focused attention is part of their training and it fits neatly into the hierarchical, goal-oriented and highly organized structure of the renunciate’s spiritual journey. There is a clear case and reason for them doing this type of meditation, because it is the basis for certain states and goals they are aiming at.

However, most of us are not living as monks or nuns, and we don’t necessarily see our lives fitting into the same kind of structure. We probably don’t even have the same frame of reference or goals. The majority of regular people are on a different path: the path of intimacy, or the householder path (grihasta). This is the path of paying bills, holding down a job, learning new things, having responsibilities to others, raising children, managing friendships, and being in intimate relationships. It’s a completely different game, with different rules, different beliefs and organizing principles, and different skills required to survive and thrive.

So what kind of meditation best serves the needs of regular people? While some may still wish to use meditation to enhance focus or concentration (and they are welcome to follow the renunciate’s instructions on things like mindfulness), most of us are ultimately going to be better served by a style of meditation that accommodates and celebrates the dynamism, variety and richness of our lives. A practice that helps us integrate all of our different roles and tasks, that helps us process the feelings and emotions that come with a deep engagement in life, that helps us fine-tune our responses to life, that helps us recover and release stress, that helps us care for ourselves in the midst of all our responsibilities. This kind of approach is likely to be more valuable than one that prioritizes concentration over all else, and usually (unfortunately) does so via suppression. This is why the approach of the path of intimacy is to welcome all impulses.

The beautiful thing that you will find as you try this is that if you have chosen a doorway into meditation that you truly love, your attention will naturally be drawn back to it over and over again, without any exertion of willpower on your part. This is the essential rhythm and the nature of attention: we are drawn to what we love. So there is actually no need to make yourself focus (and if you have to, it may be a sign that you don’t really enjoy what you’re attending to). This is why meditation begins with what we love, our favourite experiences, our spontaneous joys and moments of awe. These are our home, the place our attention always wants to return to, and always will, as long as we let make its own way there.

I will admit that this was hard for me to believe until I tried it myself. Having come from a background of renunciate-style deep focus meditations, it took me a long time to free myself from the need to concentrate and to just let myself be. It was an incremental process of liberation that has culminated in a greater sense of trust and respect for my own attention, and a feeling of effortless delight in each meditation practice. The other surprising result for me was that my overall concentration has not suffered. I can still focus just as well, if not better, now that I spend time every day ‘clearing house’. And in fact, there is a sweet deepening of my attention towards the things I adore: breathing, sunshine, fresh air, the coolness of water.

Dancing between opposites: duality

You may find that your attention flows in cycles of opposites: one moment you are wildly happy, the next moment your heart is aching with sorrow. One moment you feel such a rush of energy, the next moment you’re so relaxed you could fall asleep. This is the beauty of attention: we are capable of stretching across the whole spectrum of experience in the blink of an eye. In fact, attention naturally moves in rhythmic cycles, dancing between dualities. Let yourself revel in the total freedom to think and feel anything and everything, with no limits. The only caveat to this is: don’t act out your meditation in life. If you can keep this boundary clear, then meditation becomes a safe, contained and completely liberated space.

Another way to think about it: meditation is like test driving a car—we need to rev the engine to max, speed up, slow down, turn, and take it out in all kinds of different conditions to make sure everything is in working order. When we meditate, our body and mind are doing the same thing internally, in order to prepare us to meet all kinds of situations in life. Sometimes we need laser-sharp focus, sometimes we need broad, open awareness. Sometimes we need a quick burst of energy, sometimes we need deep rest. Sometimes we need mellow, peaceful emotions, other times we need toughness and grit. You get the idea. In meditation, we flow back and forth between opposites like a pendulum, or a swing. Without any outside interference, the forces of gravity and nature will eventually align so that the weight comes to rest in the center. But it will have all the possibilities of either end of the swing available to it. Just like you, after you meditate. You arrive at centeredness by allowing total freedom of movement on both ends of the spectrum.

Conclusion

I encourage you to keep an open mind and try this out as an experiment, either alongside traditional focus-based meditations, or instead of them. It is up to you what balance you want to strike between the two paths, and how your life and your meditation practice reflect your personality and your values. Some of us are deeply drawn to the simplicity and serenity of a renunciate lifestyle, and may prefer meditations with that flavor. Others of us want to live vibrantly and delight-fully, and we need a meditation practice that supports us to engage with our communities, families and workplaces. Every life and every individual is distinct, and meditation is one way we can honour these idiosyncracies.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, life is rhythmic and flowing. Each of us evolves and goes through different phases in our lives, during which we desire and need different things. This is totally natural, and should absolutely extend to meditation practice. In my own case, I do not believe that my traditional focus-based past approach to meditation was wrong. It was what I was drawn to at the time, and perhaps even what I needed. It was and is a cherished part of my journey. But now, at this point in my life, I know that I want a richer, more fluid and more freeing meditative practice. Something that is natural and woven into the fabric of my everyday, rather than distant and separate from it. Making this transition has felt like a way of honouring myself, while still being able to keep meditation as an important part of my life. Just because I change, does not mean I have to stop meditating entirelyI can allow my meditation to change with me, if that’s what I want. I hope this gives you some hope and inspiration towards your meditation practice. I also hope you are able to play with and enjoy the movement of your attention, whether during meditation or as you go through your daily life. In the next post, I will talk more about how meditation serves life, and how to maintain a healthy relationship between practice and life.

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