“What’s the point of meditating anyway? I feel like I know my own mind and how to quiet it. I know how to do my own stress relief.”
I was on a week’s meditation retreat recently and guiding a friend in her practice. She’s an active woman. She loves to hike and kayak, and is equally comfortable with her own company or with friends and colleagues. But she wanted to know what was the end goal of meditation? How would she know if she was getting there?
Stress Relief on the Dock
She then described how, when she wanted to quiet her mind, she would spend hours on her dock at the lake—just her and her dog.
“After a while, I can practically hear the rustle of each different leaf. Everything around me looks so clean and bright. My mind and body go tranquil.”
“That’s true”, I said. “These are natural capacities available to everyone. People all over the planet and at all different times have stumbled upon these natural potentials. Learning how to meditate means you can systematically cultivate these capacities, so you can more readily access them. Not just on weekends sitting on your dock. “
“Your experience of spaciousness, vividness and at one-ness are great. What if you could access more of these kinds of experiences at work? Or when you feel frustrated with a family member? Would that be a worthwhile goal? Would that help you to assess progress? Would you feel more resilience in daily life”?
So together, we developed a personalized mindfulness practice that would suit her temperament and her interests.
Stress Relief Anytime You Want
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. In my upcoming book, Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Can Build Resilience and Reveal Your Extraordinary (May 16, 2017) I present several methods, based on Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness framework.
As a meditation coach, I suggested to my friend that she work with the Focus Out practice. This takes advantage of the fact that, as Young points out, “There is only so much real estate in consciousness.”
Consider your attention like a force, or energy. Normally, this attention is divided, scattered and passive. Some of it is intentionally directed into your daily functioning in life, and some of it is reactive to cues in your external environment. And much of your attention is also absorbed, without your knowing it, by the inner monologues or rumination that are usually occurring in your head.
Let’s say there are 100 units of such attentional energy. Twenty units go into continuous scanning of your environment, forty units go into taking care of daily living, and forty units are absorbed by your inner, subconscious chatter.
In a beautiful environment where you feel at ease, the proportions for where your attention is directed change. Now let’s say 50 units of attention go outward toward your environment, twenty-five units go into daily living and twenty-five are absorbed by your now diminished mental chatter. Your attention— literally you—are absorbed by your surroundings. The result is that your senses feel sharpened, your perceptions heightened; there is literally less of a small-self you inside your head.
The meditation method that I like that replicates this process is called Focus Out. While specific instructions are in the Mind Your Life book, here is an overview.
A core skill required to start this method is concentration – the skill of selectively placing your attention wherever you deem relevant. Sometimes I joke that this is like playing pool. Just as you attempt to direct your ball to a specific pocket, so you attempt to direct your attention to a specific place. With both pool and mindfulness, practice improves your proficiency.
With Focus Out, you direct your attention to some or all of the sights and sounds of the physical world around you, and to your physical body.
- You place your attention at your eyes, looking out at the world. When you find you’ve been distracted from this focus point, you re-direct attention to Seeing Out.
- You place your attention at your ears, hearing the sounds of the world around you. When you find you’ve been distracted from this focus point, you re-direct your attention to Hearing Out.
- You place your attention on some or over all of your physical body. When you find you’ve been distracted from this focus, you re-direct your attention to Feeling Out.
The beauty of Focus Out as a meditation practice is that you can do it while you are also doing any daily activity that is automatic for you. Like walking the dog, exercising, or many sports. You don’t need to pay any conscious attention to walking. So rather than just let the thoughts swim around in your head, or find yourself lost in a daydream, you re-direct some of that attention caught up in rumination and inner self-talk to your external world. You use the time in a super-charged way.
Bringing That Dock Feeling into Everyday Life
For my friend, this practice of Focus Out was like taking the experience of being at the dock into everyday life. She can do Focus Out while walking her dog, for 10 minutes of sitting practice before going to work. For a short micro break at work, she can stare out the window, but now in a whole new way. Not stuck in emotional frustration or mentally lost in thought, but absorbed in the ordinary beauty all around – just waiting to be discovered.
So how does my friend know she is making progress in learning how to meditate? By being more able to re-create that ‘dock feeling’ of spaciousness, calm and acuity in everyday life. By noticing that when she does this, she is better able to connect with colleagues, even in frustrating moments. By having mindfulness methods she can rely on, she does not have to find ease and calm by escaping from life. She can find an even greater ease by facing directly into life, in this case the ever present now of the external world.