Less is often more.
When I was first introduced to meditation, many years ago, it was before there was much awareness in our culture about mindfulness. My initial exposure to meditation was in a center where the abbot of the center put a very strong emphasis on effort and concentration. We were urged to put every last ounce of effort into working with the practices we were given. These began with counting the breaths from 1 to 10 and then starting over either when we reached 10, or more likely when our minds wandered. Later, we were given other practices to focus the mind and help break through our everyday habitual thinking. This single-pointed, concentrated effort, we were told, would lead to successive breakthroughs whereby we would realize our own true nature and bring an end to our own suffering.
This is a well-established and ancient approach to meditation, practiced in meditation centers around the world, and it can bear wonderful fruit for those willing and able to put the time and effort into the practice. I intend no criticism of this approach, and learned and developed a lot practicing in this way. However, this method of practice reinforced the strong urge I had to “get it right” and to measure success by how hard I tried and how long I persisted. Many long hours sitting on a cushion often yielded little more than sore knees and an aching back.
In subsequent years I learned about other approaches to meditation and was introduced to the idea and practices of mindfulness. One teacher in particular who taught and embodied the practice of mindfulness in all aspects of daily life was the Vietnamese monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. His emphasis on gentle, loving attention to all the activities of the day including eating, washing the dishes, walking, driving, and speaking resonated with me in a way that the more effortful, concentration-based path did not. This became even clearer as I married, had kids, got an MBA, and began a demanding corporate career. The gentleness of this practice, and its accessibility to everyone, including our children, came as a joy and a relief.
But despite the wisdom, beauty, and simplicity of the mindfulness practices, my early training persisted as an idea that I should be striving to concentrate harder, work harder, and keep an intention at the forefront of having a quiet mind free from unwanted thoughts. Meditation continued to feel like a constant challenge to keep my attention in one place, on my chosen focus, such as the breath, or the feet, or simple quiet sitting. Every time my mind wandered, which was pretty much all the time, it felt like a failure, and I wondered what it would take to be able to maintain my concentration in one place for an extended period. Moments of extended concentration and quietude did occur, but they were certainly less common than extended periods of wandering, self-criticism, and starting over.
Fast forward to the present day. I now have the privilege of presenting introductions to meditation and mindfulness to busy and successful executives who are experiencing a lot of workplace stress. No surprise, those who have any prior experience will report that keeping their attention in one place seems to be nearly impossible. After all, they have arrived at their current positions through managing complex environments and learning to quickly move their attention from one issue to another. After a few attempts to keep their attention in one place or to count to 10 and finding that their minds wander ceaselessly, they have concluded that they are no good at meditation and that mindfulness is not for them. Folks who are used to succeeding at everything they undertake, often feel as though they are failures at meditation. It’s no wonder they don’t experience a benefit and therefore do not persist in their practice.
I am happy to share the good news that you can’t fail at meditation. Our minds will always wander, will always respond to any sensory input, will be led away by thoughts coming from our always-working thought factory. This is a deeply wired response that enabled us to quickly assess potential threats and to take immediate and necessary action to survive. In our busy professional lives, the perceived threat may come from an email or a difficult conversation, or simply something we imagine, but the response is the same, and our attention is pulled away from the task at hand. How can we reduce stress and get recentered in the midst of all these distractions and disruptions?
The good news is that mindfulness is less about staying in one place as it is about learning to notice this pattern of wandering. When we notice it, we can learn to gently return to the present moment, whether as a part of a formal meditation period or during a busy day. No matter how long we’ve been “gone” there is always the opportunity to notice this and come back to the present moment. Anytime we become aware of the workings of the mind is a moment of awareness, of presence, of mindfulness. If the mind wanders away the next moment, then that presents another opportunity to place our attention, voluntarily, where we want it to be. Our work will be more focused, our colleagues will notice that we are more present, we will have to retrace our train of thought less often.
All of this is possible without bearing down, without concentrating, without exerting ourselves. There are many practices for building concentration, focusing attention, and noticing in finer and finer detail the workings of the mind. But for those interested in exploring this for the first time, or for those wanting to give it another chance after earlier experiences that felt unsuccessful, simply set the intention to notice moments when you remember where you are and what you are doing, and enjoying the return back to the present moment. That truly is enough. It is in the accumulation of these small moments of remembering and returning that our ability to remain in the present moment is built.
Understand that any experience of noticing the mind at work and coming back to the present moment is a moment of true mindfulness, no matter how fleeting. You can’t fail at mindfulness practice!
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Jeremy Seligman is a Senior Partner at Brimstone Consulting Group. He is a former corporate executive with extensive background and experience as an organizational development specialist and executive coach. Jeremy is a longtime practitioner of mindfulness and meditation, and is a certified Mindfulness and Meditation Teacher, certified by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Sounds True, and the Awareness Training Institute.