Updated: May 9, 2020
I should’ve listened to Steve Jobs. I don’t know much about his meditation practice (though he did have a Zen Buddhist mentor, Kobun), but he definitely knew a little something about focus.
I heard him, but I didn’t listen, so I had to learn for myself.
When I was a teenager I tried to meditate a handful of times; each time I did, invariably, I gave myself a headache. I had the kind of mind (and mouth) that would never slow down, even if I tried. And I tried so hard! I tried the only way I knew how, the blunt way we approach everything at first: to grip tighter. I think I was trying to physically squeeze my own thoughts out of my head. So, headache.
It was years later that I finally developed a consistent mediation practice. There were no headaches this time, but still not a lot of quiet at first. (Even today, often times not much quiet.) But a few years into the practice, I finally started to realize:
Focus is not about learning to strengthen your grip on your intention.
Focus is about how gently can you release every thought, every impulse that is not your intention. Your focus itself doesn’t get stronger, you get more adept at allowing the extraneous thoughts to dissipate. That is what we practice when we meditate.
Or, as it applies to a company looking to make an insanely great product:
“People think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
In meditation, that “no” is as gentle as possible, because it’s a release. It’s a physical softening of whatever tension was associated with your thought.
The thoughts that come might range from mundane (“What am I going to have for lunch?”) to intensely stressful (“Why did I say that? What does he think of me now?”); what they have in common is some amount of physical tension in the body. That tension varies with the stress of the thought, but any thought is more stress than no thought.
When you’re not sure how to release the thought, the answer is entirely physical. Notice the thought, notice the physical tension in the body, and allow even the tiniest bit of that tension to relax on an exhale. That’s it, that’s how you come back to this moment and enjoy your breath.
That’s how you focus. Give yourself permission to release, as gently as possible, every distraction that arises. The mind is looking for problems to worry about because that’s its job, to fix things (and there’s always something, somewhere, that needs fixing). There’s no need to feel any judgment or frustration at the mind doing what the mind is supposed to do, but as things come up do allow yourself, once you’ve noticed, to set them aside for the moment. Releasing the tension is telling yourself, telling your mind, that those problems aren’t an issue right now.
The mind won’t believe you if you’re tense. It doesn’t listen to words. (“Bitch, I made those words!” - um... that’s my impression of your mind.) The only way to show the mind is to prove it. Release the tension. Exhale.