When I first learned about meditation, I thought it was simply this: sit legs crossed, keep your back straight, close your eyes, and use concentration to empty your mind.
Concentration was Challenging
I can tell you that it was incredibly hard for me to do this, being someone who practically lives in their head.
I tried focusing on the blackness behind my eyelids and the stillness of my mind but before I knew it, my mind was off imagining what was going on outside, reliving a scene from my past, or experiencing an imaginary scenario that probably would never happen.
Sometimes I would be so far gone that I would forget that I was trying to clear my mind in the first place! I would be off playing with my imagination and finally come into the here and now and think to myself:
“Why was I sitting here?”
“Ugh, I did it again.. I was supposed to be meditating..”
The Problem of an Overactive Mind
Being a dreamy character with his head always in the clouds, it was completely unnatural to me to consciously concentrate on one thing.
My thoughts chain together one after the other, either in words or in images but nonetheless without interruption. Even the smallest of details can spark a series of seemingly unrelated thoughts and memories.
This presents a big problem for me when it comes to meditation. How could I possibly bring myself to focus when my thoughts zip from one to another?
My mind was off on an adventure when I needed to be in the present. It was definitely a disheartening thought and brought about discouragement towards all things spiritual.
Two Types of Attention
Despite these feelings I did a little research and discovered a research paper that talks about two types of attention: top-down and bottom-up. The paper is determining whether or not these two types of attentions originate from the same system but it does give an explanation and examples of both types
Top-down attention is goal oriented in that it refers to voluntary allocation of attention to certain things, be it a thought, word, or object.
“For instance, a subject can decide to attend to a small region of space in the upper-left corner or to all red items [on a board of colored shapes]”
Bottom-up attention is stimulus driven and is not voluntarily directed.
“Or, in the visual domain, someone may be looking for red items, but an unexpected, sudden appearance of a non-red object may inadvertently draw the attention of the subject.”
So if we take this into consideration then we are employing top-down attention when we are meditating. When we are getting distracted while we meditate, it is bottom-up attention.
So given this, we have to find out what it is that distracts us and take measures to prevent these distractions.
Of my own distractions that I’ve observed, I have noticed that most often they tend to be visual or sounds.
Visual distractions are one of the more common types of distractions that arise while I’m meditating. Most often it comes from the sun shining in over my eyelids.
When this happens it leaves a screen of white-gold in front of my eyes rather than the normal black when I close them. This really throws off any meditations that require me to use visualization. It’s quite the challenge to create an image in my head while there’s a bright light shining in my face!
If this is a problem for you, you have to remove this distractions during meditations. That means:
- closing blinds
- turning off lights
- putting on a sleeping mask/sunglasses
This is what I have to do when I meditate during the day. If it is still bothersome, you can switch to meditating after the sun goes down. This removes the sun factor and drastically improves my meditations when it comes to visualization.
Sounds are the other common type of distraction that interrupt my meditations. Just like visual distractions, you have to take measures to prevent unexpected sounds to turn your attention:
- wear earplugs
- put on noise cancelling headphones
- play music
The last suggestions can either help or hinder your concentration, so try it out and see what works best for you. Personally, I like to play soft music through headphones while I’m concentrating. It prevents any outside sounds from drawing my attention.
Distractions tend to be bottom-up attention brought about from external stimuli that break our top-down concentration.
We have to take appropriate measures to prevent these distractions and give ourselves a comfortable environment for concentration and increase the likelihood to achieve success in our meditations.
In the Here and Now
So we’ve minimized the possibility of distractions but we still have an issue concentrating. Now what?
Well I’ve found that doing a short 5-minute ‘pre-meditation’ meditation can help increase the likelihood of a successful meditation.
It is as simple as focusing on the sensation in your nose as you inhale and exhale. That’s it! If your attention sways then just bring it back to your nose.
This helps with meditating because it brings you into the here and now. The reason is because distractions take you away from what you are doing. Whether it is a loud noise or unrelated thoughts, these distractions are external to meditating. So to prevent this, you need to focus your attention to something internal.
The example with focusing on the sensation in your nose is only one way to do this. You can bring yourself into the here and now with any sensation in your body so feel free to get creative with the way you prepare yourself for meditation!
Concentration is Key
Without having the ability to concentrate at will, performing meditations will prove to be challenging.
We already know that there is a lot we can do with meditation, so if you want to move on to more advanced meditations then you need to have good concentration skills in order for you to have success with them.
You concentration ability doesn’t have to be perfect but you can not be getting distracted every few seconds.
If you want to experience a past life, for example, you have to be able to concentrate well enough to relax yourself. This way, you can explore your mind without interruption.
Another situation is when you are doing guided meditation. You have to be able to follow along with the script without veering off into your own visual scenario.
So use the tips I have provided and you will be on your way to improving your concentration skills.