On Having a Goal
One of my favorite quotes about mindfulness was not penned by a contemplative scientist or accomplished mediator, but rather by the surfer/dad/occasional fitness journalist Daniel Duane: “Vague goals beget vague methods. The unfocused mind is the vulnerable mind, deeply susceptible to bullshit.”
Westerners are motivated to study mindfulness for various reasons, the vast majority of them valid and reasonable. The willingness to sit patiently and quietly while endless and nearly irresistible distractions beckon from every direction is obviously an activity that must be motivated by something. Of course, while engaged in the practice, it is wise to abandon the larger goal (at least explicitly) and focus on the matter at hand – resting persistently in the experience of the breath.
And yet, for all the obvious presence of important motivations, I am regularly startled by the looks of disbelief on my students faces when I tell them that they should expect, within a modest amount of time (weeks or months) to experience moments of exceptionally clear absorption in the object of their focus (the breath, in most cases) with little or no intervening conceptual, linguistic, or abstract content at all.
Please, dear reader, know that this is not only possible, but quite nearly inevitable.
This possibility, of sitting so fully with the object of our attention that our brains simply do not produce distractions, is in fact a very modest example of an outcome of consistent practice.
It is probably worth actually mentioning a spectrum of development within mindfulness practice, and how it relates to our daily lives. Disclaimer: this is not a linear process, and there are cycles within cycles. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that, in general, and allowing for individual differences, progress in mindfulness practice follows a rough trajectory.
There are several models of this progress available, and the following is a rough distillation of those models:
1) Consistent distractions: “Am I doing it right, why am I doing this, how much time is left, what’s for dinner, I wonder if traffic is bad, my nose itches, my foot is numb, why is the air conditioner so loud, I wish my parent/child/spouse/significant other would…” This list is probably endless.
2) Distractions with moments of clear focus: All of the above with occasional (1 – 10 second) periods of clear perception of the physical sensation of the breath.
3) Equal periods of distraction and focus: Just what it sounds like. When you’re distracted, you generally realize it within a few seconds or minutes, and return to rest in the breath.
4) Longer periods of focus, less periods of distraction: Very quickly recognizing distractions and returning to the breath, and keeping some contact with the breath even when distractions arise.
5) More or less stable contact with the object of your attention. Even when distractions arise, you are able to stay at least partially with the breath until they dissipate.
6) Very stable contact with the breath. Distractions rarely develop fully, and are present mainly as slight tremors of the attention.
7) Practically perfect clarity, although some effort is required.
8) Effortless clarity.
There is good news here, and that is that steps 1 through 5 in this sequence are accessible for most practitioners within months of fairly steady practice. Stages 6 through 8 take more time, but the practice is pleasant, and mastering even the early stages has pronounced positive effects in many domains of daily life.
In reality, the manifestations of this learning curve are endless. Simply substitute any object of your choosing for the breath, and you can imagine the shift in stability, sensitivity, and efficacy that becomes available to the even moderately accomplished student of mindfulness.
This skill set translates to internal emotional regulation, relationships, work and fun-oriented information management, physical endeavors, and basically every activity in which we consciously engage. This is probably the reason that this sort of practice is a prerequisite for many other meditation techniques, and is definitely the reason that I am so excited to share this technique with beginners.
If you are interested in contemplative development, stress reduction, increased clarity and focus, and improved relationships, I encourage you to explore mindfulness practice. And, with equal emphasis, I encourage you to expect results. The body and nervous system are wonderfully designed to adapt to challenge, and the challenge of mindfulness is exquisitely designed to produce clear and positive effects.