If you study meditation or mindfulness, you will quickly learn that it is all about paying closer attention to the world around you, and inside of you. Directing our attention sounds easy, but it can be hard to do in practice, as many people that start learning meditation or mindfulness quickly find out.
A metaphor that I’ve found really useful is to think of our attention as being like the beam of a flashlight. When we deliberately direct our attention, we are making a conscious decision to turn on that flashlight, focus it, and observe what becomes visible in the resulting pool of light.
It is up to us where we decide to shine the beam of our attention, and how we focus it. Just like a flashlight, the beam of your attention is limited in size, so you cannot shine it everywhere at once. But we can focus is, making it smaller or wider.
It takes practice and effort to direct the beam of your attention to a single thing, such as a thought, memory, body sensation or emotion. We must control both the focus and the direction of our attention beam, and keep it there as long as we choose.
Most people have a rather chaotic beam of attention. If their eyes are open, they struggle to direct their attention to just one sense, such as what they are seeing. Internal thoughts, emotions and mental chatter are constantly intruding on their ability to really focus the beam of their attention on just one thing. Even if they close their eyes and try and direct their attention beam on just their internal world, memories, stories and thoughts are all jostling to get in the way. People with chaotic attention get easily distracted and are easily manipulated. Social media has turned out to be a really effective method to make you feel like you have focused attention, while disguising how little focus you really have.
We can strengthen our attention beam by learning to more carefully differentiate all the different senses in our consciousness, both external (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) and internal (memory, thinking, emotions, imagination, balance), and focus our attention on just one at a time. Once we can successfully do that, we can practice meditation exercises designed to shift our attention beam from one consciousness sense to another in a very controlled, deliberate way. You can practice one of those exercises here.
Not all meditation techniques are good at training your attention. This is made worse by people having learned that meditation is about giving up control, ‘going with the flow’ or ‘letting go’. Meditation can be about going with the flow, and it can be about letting go of thoughts, emotions and many other aspects of consciousness. But the skill required to do both is to train your attention. ‘Letting go’ describes the skill where you simply allow your attention to very smoothly move from one focus to the next, without a deliberate decision-making process. This is a great skill at calming yourself down, but to go into very deep meditation states, you will need to practice being very much more in control of what your attention is on.
Going with the flow versus being in the flow
‘Going with the flow’ and ‘being in the flow’ are also two different things. Going with the flow is when you deliberately don’t direct your attention anywhere in particular, and then observe where your attention goes by default. It can be a very revealing way to find out what on your mind or what you are feeling.
In contrast, being in the flow is a state where control of your attention beam has become so skilled that you can focus it effortlessly on one thing, and have it stay there unwaveringly, with almost no effort. In a sense, you are entirely within the flow of your attention beam. It’s the exact opposite of multi-tasking. Your brain becomes more efficient, so you stay calm, even while staying very focused on the object of your attention. You instinctively suspend other senses that are not being used when you are in the flow. People report not noticing the time, background noises and other distractions, leading to high levels of productivity and creativity.
Athletes often experience being in the flow because they do the same physical action so many times that the physical action becomes embedded in muscle memory. Physical activity also occupies a lot of attention, especially if there is speed and skill involved.
Neuroscientists have verified that repetitive mental practice will increase the density of brain matter in the area of the brain being used. Essentially, the brain works like a muscle, so repeated practice of meditation exercises will strengthen the brain over time and increase your ability to be in the flow. In effect, you are developing brain muscle memory. This is very important when you start to do advanced self-guided meditations or complex self-development or self-hypnosis processes. For these advanced consciousness skills, you need to be able to execute things in your consciousness consistently, every time, with the minimum mental effort possible.
People often struggle with meditation because unlike physical exercise, increasing your attention skills is unfamiliar and the results are often not immediately obvious. The results are internal, not external, so there is no way to physically see or experience the results. They give up on their meditation practice before they develop mental muscle memory.
To go deeper into meditation and learn more advanced meditation skills (such as are used to experience enlightment) you need complete mastery over your attention. That means developing mental muscle memory of many different ways of directing, focusing and shifting your attention on a lot of differentiated senses, both external and internal. You can learn more about your physical senses in Getting Back in Touch with your Senses.
If you’re interested in understanding what is possible with exploring your attention, try reading about how I explored the powers of my own attention in The Reversible Dreamcoat, or read What Does Enlightenment Feel Like.
About the Author
Peter Hill loves to take time to think and feel deeply. Over thirty years, he has studied dozens of meditation, self development techniques and spiritual techniques. Guided by neuroscience rather than mysticism, his mission is to teach people to live better lives by using their brains more effectively.