Imagine you’re standing in front of a file cabinet and that you want to move it.
So you bend your legs, grab the cabinet and press forward. You’re straining your muscles but the cabinet doesn’t move, even when you empty the drawers. Because you haven’t developed the “lifting muscles” it takes to move the cabinet.
What about the obstacles in your life that you want to move?
To move the obstacles that limit your life takes a certain kind of “muscle”. Not physical muscles that you can develop through exercise, rather it takes the development of your attention muscle.
What is the attention muscle?
It’s really the capacity to focus awareness—and sustain that focus—when distractions arise.
Without intentional exercise, this attention muscle doesn’t develop. That’s why the mind is so distractable. When the attention muscle isn’t developed the mind is twitchy, agitated, unable to rest, and in a constant state of relative distraction.
Most people don’t realize how weak their attention muscle is until they need to focus and sustain that focus. Because without training, without development, sustained focus isn’t possible.
What distracts the mind?
It’s your emotions. Your emotional reactions to challenging events. In the face of powerful emotions, the untrained mind collapses; it can’t maintain a state of presence—of sustained focus—in the face of an emotional thunderstorm and it gets totally blown away.
And since challenging events are inevitable and emotions are natural, there is a tremendous advantage to developing your attention muscle. Because when the inevitable and natural occur—you will not lose focus. You’ll maintain presence and be able to navigate both your own emotions and the situation with skill.
So, how do you develop this attention muscle?
By cultivating a meditative practice—through the regular practice of meditation, your attention muscle develops in an organic, progressive manner.
There are many possible objects of meditation: the breath, body sensations, an image, or a sacred sound. The key is to pick an object of meditation that appeals to you. Then, focus on it.
In short order you’ll discover the limits of your attention muscle.
As your mind wanders—swept away by external or internal distractions. Noticing this wandering tendency is part of what develops your attention muscle. Before meditation practice, the mind was distracted. But, the distraction was unobserved. It just happened. Now, within the crucible of practice, the distracting tendencies are witnessed, observed.
So, you simply return to the object of meditation.
And you do so, without any extra effort or emotion. It’s a gentle inner gesture of returning, re-focusing, and reconnecting to the object of meditation. The ease and gentleness with which you notice the distracting tendency and make the inner gesture of returning is the key to strengthening your attention muscle.
Cultivating this inner sensitivity to the wandering mind builds your capacity to be present.
At first, you may exert some effort but over time your noticing and re-centering occur in a context of simplicity and acceptance. You simply notice the wandering and bring the mind back. Notice and return.
The paradox of this gentle cultivation is that it develops a profound inner strength.
The more your attentional muscle develops, the less your mind is compelled to reactivity and distraction. It’s not that obstacles don’t arise, or that emotions are wiped out. No, life continues to unfold in all its richness and creative potential.
It’s just that the mind isn’t tossed about when challenges arise and emotions are triggered.
Rather than struggle against these forces, you are able to deploy the inner strength of sustained presence.
You stay focused, grounded, in the awareness of what matters most to you in life, and through sustained focus discover how to move forward—to live with integrity—in the face of challenges.
Even if it’s a file cabinet.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
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