This is my current favorite focusing technique. I invented it, on a whim, for myself, and it's really stuck with me. If you give it a try, I'd love to know what you think.
Perhaps it appeals to me because I am sort of a rebel. I'm a goody-two-shoes in many ways, like in obeying the law, but in other ways I resist automatically
doing what the experts advise without careful consideration. (Maybe because I'm an expert in certain fields and I don't even trust myself there!)
I know this technique is working for me, because I look forward to doing it regularly. Plus I feel more focused during the day. I do other mental exercises, which I will write about in other columns, but this one is my default.
It makes sense that practicing being focused on something––anything!––strengthens the ability to focus. It is bicep curls for the prefrontal cortex; high intensity interval training for the grey matter.
Focusing feels abstract, because we assume that thoughts are abstract. But there are real moving parts in your head causing the thoughts. These parts just happen to be tiny, the size of molecules, and instead of gravity, they are moved around by electrostatic forces. Just because you can't see the moving parts does not mean they are not real or are "virtual". If you deliberately move these tiny parts in certain tiny tracks long enough, grooves will be worn! What kind of grooves do you want worn in your brain?
First let me say––and this is related to my technique, so bear with me––it's hard to have a mindfulness column, when I hesitate using the word "mindfulness". The word is overused, commercialized. As interested as I am in the results of my daily contemplation sessions, I wince at the T-shirts and socks and expensive organic furniture that the "Mcmindfulness" spiritual industrial complex has spawned. Its popularity has outpaced researchers' understanding of its benefits, I think, so perhaps this fervor is only natural, and forgivable.
Given this, you can understand my ambivalence to the admonitions of other meditators about what I ought to focus on. Like I said, I'm a rebel. But it helps to focus on something, assuming you want to strengthen your focus.
Ah, but what to focus on? I want positive grooves in my brain, so obvious choices are concepts like Peace and Joy and Truth and the like. My inner rebel,
however, wants to pick my own favorite words! Can I focus on the word Science? What about DNA? DNA is amazing! What about
Green? I like the color green. What about Cats? I love cats. And Spaceships! You don't find these words in meditation guides.
But these words instantly make me happy, grateful for this amazing world in which these concepts are real! Peace, Truth, and Joy are fine too, but
I want to have a more personal, specific element thrown into the mix. Something I can relate to.
Here's the trick: you get to pick your own favorite words to focus on. I have systemized this for myself.
Have you ever played the game Apples to Apples? You randomly pick adjectives and nouns and then try to pair them together. Often the combinations are funny, ridiculous, or even informative.
I cut up slips of paper, and sorted them into two piles. On one pile, I wrote all the adjectives that I personally love. Playful, Wise, Green, Mysterious, Gentle, Magic, and so on.
On the second pile I wrote all the nouns that I like, like tree, book, cat, child, star, and so on. These are your words, and you don't have to share them with anyone. I keep adding to the pile when I think of more, so my piles keep growing.
I have several dozen of these slips of paper, now. (Tim teases me about adding naughty words, but no, I have not done that, and this isn't that sort of column.)
Then you put them in two different containers and randomly choose one from each pile before you sit with a timer. Often I get weird combos, like Playful and Book. I just go with it, and think Playful! Book! Playful! Book!, trying to stay focused on the combo. Sometimes I will think Playful! for ten breaths, and then Book! for ten breaths, alternating. Since these are positive words for me, I invariably come out of this feeling good.
To set a meditation timer for myself, I use a free online account. There are zillions of free options. After the session (I do 20 minutes but if you
are just starting I'd do 5) I like to write down the two words I used, and rate how it went, on a scale of 1 to 10. It feels more like a real workout
if I record it. Usually I'll rank it between 5 and 8, but some days when I am really distracted I have a 3! It's just like going to the gym, you have
good workouts and bad workouts, but all workouts do something positive. It's the effort that counts. It's not the session itself but the after effects
that I notice, during the day, that keep me doing this.
Now that I have said all this about choosing My Favorite Words, I am going to say I sometimes do just the opposite. Just to push the envelope, and every now and then. Pick a positive concept you are not comfortable with at all, and try to make friends with it for a limited period of time.
I never felt comfortable with the word Justice, for example. I remember picking it randomly from a thesaurus when I was looking for words to focus on.
At first it felt scary and threatening. But after focusing on it for a few sessions, I saw how powerful and good this word was. How nice to make friends
with Justice. I don't like the color magenta either, but I have been working on making friends with it, too.
I even focus on Death from time to time, just because it is inevitable, and I really hate the idea of it. I want to live forever, but I might as well get
used to the idea that I won't. The Death exercise definitely makes it less dreadful, believe it or not, though I still want to live as long as I can,
please. On par with that exercise is to choose a person you are not comfortable with, and wish them well. That may be difficult, but it is often transformative.
Spending time wishing others well is a whole different sort of meditation, however, which deserves a separate post.
What I like about my Two Piles o' Words technique is that there is both an aspect of randomness and an element of choice. A nice balance.
1. Search for words for yourself. What are your favorite colors? Animals? Objects? Think of your favorite stories from childhood. What elements were in them? Use a thesaurus to find a word that really resonates with you. Maybe Peace feels boring but Serenity really means something to you, for example. Symbols are a bridge to the subconscious. What symbols resonate with you?
2. Expect your mind to wander. This is normal and healthy. Don't get angry at it for wandering. It's just trying to protect you. When you notice it wandering, you call it back, and say, nice doggie! You came back with the stick! That's ONE bicep curl for the brain. You will do this over and over.
3. Some days I accidentally pick two adjectives or two nouns since the little slips of paper are sticky. I just go with whatever I pick.
Whatever you pick, you will be surprised how well it works if you just sit with it.
4. Don't expect to be able to mentally cling onto your words for the allotted time period. What I find helpful is to hold the thought "gently". I don't know how to explain it better than that. When I really grasp hard at a concept in great ringing, resounding detail, I have a harder time than when I just sort of let it gently sort of be there.
5. When my mind wanders (as it does repeatedly), I treat my brain like an overworked employee. Instead of criticizing it, I say, good brain! I see you are trying to keep working for me. But I got this, really! Why don't you take a load off?
Let me know what you think!