Meditation: Captive vs Directed Attention

I wrote previously about meditation, and in a subsequent post I wrote about the meditative qualities I found in writing cursive. As my meditation practice continues, I find myself seeing these experiences differently than I did before.

Mule Deer

Daily Practice Helps

If I miss a day of practice, I notice that my mind wanders more.

It helps me to remember that there’s no “wrong” way to “do” meditation. The mind’s job is to think. In meditation, my goal is not to get “better at it” or to silence my mind. My goal is not to suppress thoughts. It is solely to notice and release thoughts, ideally without getting involved in them.

Noticing that my mind is getting distracted and thinking about things is actually the point of meditation. It’s working. Just release it and return to the breath.

Positive Thinking and Affirmations

I have not found positive thinking or affirmations to work for me. Meditation has helped me see that positive thinking is like trying to put good thoughts into a cup that’s already filled. I must empty my cup before I can fill it again.

In turning to meditation to allow my cup to empty (more through evaporation than pouring out), I discovered that when the cup empties, positive thoughts are not necessary. The underlying state of the mind is already good. Underneath the ripples, I am already the person I thought I wanted to be.

The Hardy Boys

I read a lot of Hardy Boys books when I was young. I remember a scene where Joe Hardy learned to withstand torture by focusing on the pain, leaving no room for fear of the pain.

I had a somewhat painful childhood. I tried my version of the Joe Hardy technique—detaching and taking my mind far away—and it worked. But eventually, like Dr. Jekyll, I became unable to remain present in the moment when I wanted to. Farm work is extremely dangerous and I had some close calls. Living on autopilot is not a good way to stay safe. Meditation helps me practice existing.

In a Trance

Other people have reacted in various ways to my meditation practice. Despite that I write about it publicly on this blog, I don’t really make it a part of my interactions with others. But some of those who noticed that I was meditating offered their opinions to me. One person told me that I was wrong to think that meditation would increase my intelligence. (I didn’t think it would; this was his interpretation).

Another person referred to meditation as a trance. To be fair, when I began meditating I did think of it as a trance-like state. In my previous blog post on cursive writing, I mentioned this in the context of losing awareness of the world. Since then, I have come to see it very differently. When I am practicing skillfully, I am anything but absorbed or oblivious to the world. I’m hyper-alert, relaxed, focused, aware, poised, attentive. I’m directing my attention, and observing what arises in the mind. It’s an incredibly joyful experience, by the way.

In contrast, I now experience being absorbed in a task as very different. When I am in a state of “flow” my observer mind is gone, and my attention is captive, not directed; I have no awareness of myself, my thoughts, the passage of time, etc.

Meditation, for me, is hyper-awareness and focus on the present moment. The familiar trance state of focus is the opposite of this.

Books That Help

I’ve learned meditation by doing it, but I’ve also benefited from reading many books. If I were to start over from scratch, I think I would only read two:

  1. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
  2. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, by Shunryu Suzuki.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you.

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I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.


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