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We do a breathing-meditation exercise in some of the Warrior’s Way courses. The intention of the exercise is to redirect attention. The process includes focusing our attention on the somatic activity of breathing, noticing when attention is distracted toward thinking, and redirecting attention to breathing. We do this for about three minutes. After the exercise, we ask students about their observations, especially how many times they noticed they were thinking and had to redirect attention to breathing. We get a variety of answers, ranging from only one or two times, to over one hundred times. Then, we ask them: What demonstrates having a mind that is mentally focused and aware: few or many redirects of attention?

Students tend to equate having fewer redirections of attention as being more focused and aware. Their minds have played a trick on them by creating an end-result—not having many thoughts—so their egos will feel successful. Their egos equate having few thoughts with having a focused mind. In reality, it’s the opposite. Becoming more aware and mentally focused is a constant process of noticing the many subtle thoughts the mind creates.

The first thing to remember, when observing the mind, is to understand that its job is to think, and it does this continuously. The mind’s tendency to think continuously makes it difficult to maintain attention focused exclusively on a somatic activity, like breathing. Attention becomes easily distracted from breathing, shifting to thinking. If we only notice a few distractions, it indicates that the mind is limiting our awareness, keeping us from noticing more subtle thoughts.

There are different levels of thinking: gross to subtle. With gross awareness, we recognize big distractions. For example, if we’re focused on moving above protection, while climbing something challenging, we notice one gross distraction, like fear of falling. It takes more awareness to notice the many subtle distractions, such as unnecessary tension from over-gripping, rising up on our toes, thoughts of failure, desire for success, etc.

A separation needs to occur between thinking, and our ability to witness the mind, to improve awareness. We need to maintain this separate perspective, between the witness and the mind. Witnessing the mind improves our ability to notice more subtle levels of thought activity. By watching the mind we can become aware of its manic tendency to think. By practicing meditation-type exercises, we improve our ability to notice distractions and can redirect attention more quickly.

The important lesson here is that developing awareness is a constant process, rather than a definitive end result. If we only notice one or two distractions of attention while meditating, then the mind has fooled us into thinking we have attained some Zen-like, no-thought end-result. In reality, the mind thinks continuously. We need to improve our ability to notice subtle thoughts that distract our attention. Doing that is a constant process of becoming more aware.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Kyle

    Beautiful post.

    I hope all capable humans turn their inquiries, energy, focus, whatsoever inwards and get to know themselves.

    Obtaining/working on/creating awareness can also (its a natural byproduct of having/being awareness and detachment) greatly reduce stress, improve memory and reaction time. It will lead you to know yourself “better” and to true, uninterupted happiness.

    As has been: Awesome post Arno. Love it.

  2. james

    Very true. Very, very true.

    This applies to most everything.

    The real trick is to learn to practice in the fray.

  3. Pascal

    Thanks for this interesting post.

    I would just like to share a tought based on my experience. Though I agree that the mind can trick us into believing we have not been distracted while meditating, I believe that it is also possible to experiment a fully conscious meditation with pure awareness without any thoughts. When this happens, I usually have a clear memory of my meditation, whereas the memory is much more vague if I was not fully concentrated, even if I don’t remember having been distracted (in which situation the mind probably did play its trick).

    Well, maybe it’s just the ego speaking too…

  4. Mell

    Thanks, Arno. These posts help refresh the lessons I learned from your class and from your books.

  5. Brant

    Thanks, Arno for this.

    I think one can have a clarity of mind and awareness in meditation, especially after much practice. The key is being in the present moment.

    It is, however, easy in the beginning to mistake being in a daze, or checking out, for that clarity.

    I find if my mind is telling me a story about my meditation, it’s the latter.

    Always interesting….

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