In his Mindfulness meditation program, Jon Kabat-Zinn attempts to keep your mind anchored on your breath. Just experience the act of breathing, he says. In fact, more than a half of a 40-minute sitting meditation is centered on paying attention only to the breath — without manipulating it. This is different from other meditation methods I’ve tried, most of which involve controlling the breath. It’s an oddly pleasing feeling.
At the same time, I find it incredibly difficult to maintain focus on my breath for a prolonged period. Through the 20 minutes of focus on the breath, my mind wanders in several directions. Kabat-Zinn reminds me every few minutes to return my focus to my breath, which certainly helps. But I find that once my mind starts to wander, even his audible suggestion doesn’t make a big difference. My mind will stray a few moments after his voice fades away.
This provides an analogy to focus in everyday life. We’re supposed to focus on something, but our minds wander. All too often we let a distraction obliterate our focus. For me it’s instant messages and Twitter. My constant need to socialize plays an active role in distracting me from important tasks. Even though I become aware of it at some point, I still let the distractions rule.
And then I look up the clock and two hours have passed, with no meaningful work accomplished.
It might be difficult, but we should always have Kabat-Zinn’s voice in our heads, reminding us to return our attention to the tasks in front of us. I’ve even gone so far as to record a quick audio file that I can play when I realize that my mind has wandered. That’s set to a Quicksilver shortcut, so I can play it with just a few keystrokes. It doesn’t expound the dire consequences I’ll meet if I don’t complete my work. It’s just a gentle reminds me that there is meaningful work and that there is noise. Focus on the meaningful and tune out the noise.
Everyone will have a different method for coping with distraction. But since it plays such a large part in our modern lives — from Twitter to Facebook, from Wikipedia to endless google searches — we need active methods of combatting it. Otherwise our focus might be lost forever.