Do you need powers of concentration to meditate? Below is a transcript of the conversation presented by Brighton Mindfulness Centre, where Jon Wilde and Andy Darling are interviewed by Gerard Evans and discuss the question “Do you need powers of concentration to meditate?”. The full one hour video can be accessed by clicking here for our main Mindfulness FAQ page. Other Mindfulness questions are answered in this and other videos on this site.
(This question is a follow on from the previous discussion about Mindfulness and Body Scans)
Gerard: This reminds me of something somebody said to me which is actually on the list of questions I got. I think it’s quite relevant and it was Michael in London who I was saying to him I think mindfulness would be really helpful for you or might be really helpful for you. And he said that he didn’t have the powers of concentration to meditate. Basically he was saying his brain couldn’t do that. He couldn’t slow down enough to meditate. So how would you respond that.
Andy: In fact people do vary in their ability to focus. Neuroscience is constantly showing us that people ADHD, ADD and so on it can be a lot harder. So I think firstly to normalize that and to get rid of elements of shame and can’t do it because we can all do something. We all have objects of focus and concentration we can help with that. But I think also to help to say that the notion of not having any extraneous thoughts any background going on is a total kind of misconception. It doesn’t happen. But yes you don’t get rid of the shame. Because people will think I can’t do this probably therefore I’m not going to do it at all. I come from a point of view of ADHD myself. So focus and concentration is difficult but it improves.
Jon: It’s interesting, isn’t? How we put these kind of barriers up in our lives. I mean a good example that springs to mind is my relationship with dancing. I don’t mind admitting that I’m quite possibly the world’s worst dancer. When I dance I look like a man trying to put out a fire on his living room carpet. The arms are flapping, the legs all over the shop. All over the shop like a mad woman’s custard as the expression goes. And people bring the same kind of obstacles but sometimes on the rare occasions these days when I have a drink I feel like I’m smoky when I’m on the dance floor. And I’m past the point of caring whether there’s people looking and laughing. As I’m sure they probably are.
Come into meditation we can tell ourselves, I’m never going to master that. Because I think perhaps we have an idea of what meditation is going to involve we might believe that meditation involves stopping our thoughts altogether which by the way it doesn’t that’s very far from the truth.
Gerard: I thought it did.
Andy: I think that’s widely believed.
Jon: So come into meditation somebody once described meditating for the first time a little like this; you’ve been driving down the same motorway every week day of your life of your adult life and you used to kind of just driving along in the car listening to the radio and one day you decide to get out and stop and stand in the middle of the jewel carriageway. And for the first time you are really are aware of the speed of the other cars just zooming at you from all directions left and right.
And meditation when people meditate for the first time sometimes it can feel a little bit like that. They’re astonished by the pinball in nature of their thoughts. Just how frequently thoughts come. And after a while they might realize that actually just in the noticing of that, that there is a slowing down.
Andy: Yeah I think that’s quite an opportune time for people possibly walking meditation. And all the other types of meditation and so the people are particularly neuro-diversity is the expression used these days. Have some sort of attention deficit disorder, tends to be hyperactive and so on. Movement can be hugely helpful though. Mindful walking where there’s movement going on because there’s a comforting aspect to the movement. That can be really helpful. So maybe a combination of walking meditation, sitting meditation might work better for some people.
Gerard: When Michael said this to me. I wanted to say for me it’s not really about concentration. For me it’s a technique to do with the lack of concentration. And to do it in a kind of a loving way to yourself. So every time I get distracted and sometimes when I stop meditating the thoughts are boom, boom, boom they are really are like traffic on a busy road. And I look at that every time I go back to noticing that that’s a distraction that’s my little noticing muscle getting bigger. And so it’s like almost like a gym for the mind and so if I’m distracted thirty times in the first minute, that’s thirty times my little noticing muscle has been activated. So for me it’s not a battle. It’s not a battle to retain concentration. Retain focus. It’s just a constant experience without any kind of need for about.
Jon: Yeah, here is a thing about mindfulness and thoughts. Mindfulness isn’t saying that thoughts are bad. Is not saying that at all. Mindfulness is not saying that we need to stop thinking. Thoughts by themselves are not the problem. The way we relate to thinking and the way we relate to thoughts can for many of us be problematic. Can cause us extreme amount of anxiety, extreme amount of depression. This is not about stopping the thoughts. It’s mostly about simply noticing the thoughts as they arise and an odd thing happens when you do something so simple as that.
And certainly in my experience thoughts become rather less sticky. Once you get used to just simply allowing a thought to arise and realizing that that thought there’s nothing solid about it that’s all. There’s nothing permanent about it.
Gerard: Knowing it’s going to leave.
Jon: It’s a real revelation when you realise that perhaps for the first time that these thoughts are not real in that sense. They are as Jon Kabat-Zinn says you know mere secretions of the mind. When you stop and examine what a thought is, because many of us suffer so much misery because we grant them power that they really don’t have.
Andy: And I think a big part of it is investigating without looking into it too much. But what types of thought of thinking does the mind keep bringing up for me. I think it’s really interesting from evolutionary point of view because our minds have this intention I believe of doing the best for us. To all survive. They want us to survive. But if we are reluctant to mature, we get it a little bit wrong. So what kind of thoughts does my mind keep bring up for me without me wanting it to? And that brings a real sense of oh yeah there it goes, that’s what it does. And then I am no longer rooted and glued into my thoughts. And that is so liberating.
Gerard: And you’re also becoming aware that you’re more than your thoughts.
Andy: Yes absolutely.
Jon: Many thoughts are very useful. The mind can be a great tool if it’s…
Andy: But we are using it now.
Jon: Yes. I promised Tony I was going to meet him at 2 o’clock, make sure you are there at 2 o’clock otherwise Tony is going to be upset. I need to fill out my tax returns probably a good idea to do that, right? Thought are rather less reliable when it comes to emotions because what the mind tends to want to do is control. It wants to know how we’re going to be feeling in five minutes, in five days. If I do this, that’s the way I want to feel about it. The universe tends not to work like that. And so when the mind sets up the assumption that because I’ll do A and going to feel B. What happens when it doesn’t transpire, when it doesn’t come out in the wash that way? We tend to get very frustrated and upset because we want things. The mind is saying I want things to be comfortable all the time.
Andy: Yeah we have a drive towards pleasure and a drive away from none pleasure. And it doesn’t work.
Jon: Yes. And so mindfulness isn’t saying we should passive in the phase of for instance when we are being bullied or when we are in an abusive relationship. Sometimes the most mindful thing we can do is walk and don’t look back. So this is not about being passive. If anything this really is about I would say if I was to sum up the difference that mindfulness has made to my life in the past few years, it’s enabled me to find space around everything. Around situations, around my own feelings, around my own thoughts and that’s not to say that I’ve become distance from them. In fact the very opposite. I feel like I’m much more intimately involved with you know my thoughts my feelings and also empathy for others.
Andy: Yeah that conscious living allows us to be creative rather than just reactive. and I think that’s the big real huge awareness that comes in quite early on meditating is that I have been reactive all this time. Sometimes you’ve got to be reactive, reaction to start from the box.
Jon: If your kitchen is on fire. You don’t want to sit down and meditate about it. Put the fire out or get the hell out the door.
Jon: That’s what you want to be doing.
Andy: Of course I do.