There is a very common mistake people make when they first start training their attention skills. Unfortunately, it’s one that can almost completely counteract the right things they may be doing. In this video, I will first explain what that mistake is, how it occurs, why we make it, and then, of course, how to fix it. I’m Lorenzo Durand from StrongMinder.
Let’s briefly recap the process as we’ve seen it until now.
Our goal is to make our attention more stable while simultaneously reducing or eliminating strain and increasing mental stamina.
In order to achieve this, we learned how to relax our attention into the target, in video 1, and how to reduce the perceived cognitive load by reducing the size of the tasks, in video 2. In video 3, you learned how to “plant your intent” in the unconscious process that monitors your environment for possible objects of interest.
The goal of this practice is to teach the unconscious process to prioritize our intended target over other possible objects: to stretch out the periods of uninterrupted attention and reduce the periods of distraction by alerting us of the drift as soon as possible after we enter it, enabling us to return to the target task.
As a result of this training, distractions start becoming both shorter and less frequent, which is good…but unfortunately not sufficient. Bringing our attention to a high level of stability requires a couple more steps, or rather, in the case of today’s video, avoiding one huge misstep.
When your unconscious process alerts you that you’ve wandered off the target you set a few moments or a few minutes earlier, this manifests in your consciousness as a sudden awareness of your state of distraction.
And this sudden awareness is a decisive moment in your training process.
Perhaps more than anything else, what you do now decides whether your progress will be fast, smooth and rewarding, or slow, inconsistent and frustrating.
Why is that?
Well, in general, the mind is encouraged to repeat actions that bring feelings of success, pleasure and self-esteem, and discouraged from actions that bring feelings of failure, pain, and a loss of status. This is an established scientific fact, as well as common sense.
If you want to encourage the mind to do something, associate it with a reward, and vice-versa. Positive and negative incentives.
So, to encourage our unconscious mind to notify to the conscious part that it has drifted away from the original target, we should give it a cookie when it does so. We should validate, confirm our planted intent with supportive inner dialogue and feelings. Becoming aware needs to be a lever 1 type action, one that results in a reward.
Typically, we do the exact opposite: as soon as we become aware that we wandered off target, we berate ourselves: "no! I lost it! wrong! damn it!" - or even: "why am I so weak and stupid? I'll never make it..." - And that's discomforting, that's painful.
The actual effect of this reaction is to DIScourage our unconscious mind from notifying the conscious part, because when it does, you punish it.
In reacting angrily and berating yourself, you are essentially denying, contradicting, or canceling the intent you planted.
You may wish to scold and punish the mind for drifting, or in general, for failing to adjust to your intent more fully and readily, but really, all you're doing is establishing an association between becoming aware of the drift and self-aggressive, painful feelings.
You are actually discouraging awareness this way. And believe it or not, this can slow your progress down to the the point the results of your training are not worth the effort anymore. If you’ve ever known someone who undertook a meditation practice and then abandoned it in frustration after a few weeks or days even, this right here is one of the most likely reasons. The classic meditation regimen is also much more time consuming than the system I’m proposing here, so there’s that, too, but of course you’re going to stop doing something if you can’t see any benefit coming out of it.
And if you associate greater awareness with self-punishment, yeah, the benefit you derive from this training is going to be little or none.
The flip side is that if you do this correctly, progress can be quite fast.
So, if you're doing this, as you probably are, you need to reverse it completely. Here is what you must do: when you become aware that you drifted, you praise yourself for becoming aware. "Yes! Good! Well done! We're getting somewhere!" Give yourself approval.
Simply put, the message to your mind when you berate yourself is "do this less".
Obviously the message we want to send is "do this more". Make me aware sooner and more often so that I get a greater margin of control.
When your intent planting is successful and you become aware you need to get back on track, you want to be coherent and give yourself self-supportive messages to validate, confirm and reinforce your original intent.
Now, I want to emphasize here, we are not “fooling ourselves” by doing this. This is not "positive thinking", "affirmations" or any such thing. We're not trying to re-shape reality through belief or even insightful changes in our perspective or whatever.
What we’re doing is rectifying an instinctive negative reaction, one that is based on a misinterpretation of data, on a false impression. When you become aware of a drift, the first thing that is evident is that you have in fact lost the target. And since your intention was to stay on the target, you naturally interpret this as a failure. This is what happens to people when they try to strengthen their concentration instinctively, incompetently. And it is a major source of frustration and undue strain. It’s incredibly self-defeating.
You on the other hand have learned a lot here. You are not trying instinctively anymore. You’re training systematically, as a strongminder. You know enough about the workings of attention now to understand that moving away from the target was always inevitable. It’s not a flaw, it’s how the mind works. And the periods of drifting are factored in the training process from the start.
You should understand that getting upset when you become aware of having drifted is like setting out as a beginner weight lifter who presses 80 pounds on the bench, to achieve a 300 pound bench press, and getting upset when after a few months you can just barely squeeze out that 5th rep with 150 pounds on the bar.
Well, how else did you think you were ever going to get from 80 pounds to 300 pounds if not by first reaching 150 pounds, right? In the case of strength training, it’s clearly absurd to see this as a failure rather than as a success.
Unfortunately, the process of training attention is a bit less obvious, and it’s easier to get the wrong impression.
Nevertheless, these sudden flashes of awareness are a definite sign of success. They are a sign that your unconscious process is adjusting to your stated conscious intent of prioritizing the target of your concentration. And you need to know that, and remind it to yourself whenever they happen.
Look: if you start out from a place where your concentration is weak, where you get distracted easily and you drift about for minutes before you remember what you’re supposed to be doing, reducing your drifting periods necessarily implies you will go through a phase where you will become aware of drifting more and more often before the drifts become more sparse. There simply is no other way to get from here to there.
In this phase, you’re looking at a larger number of individual drifts, but it’s not because the drifts, the purple areas, are growing, it’s because the periods of intentional focus, the blue areas are blossoming within the previously solid purple areas and gradually gaining ground on them. Which by necessity means that the number of shifts between one state and the other will increase.
This is why beginner meditators usually go through a period where they feel like their concentration is getting worse, they feel like they get distracted much more often than they did in the beginning. What is really happening is that they are becoming aware of distractions much more often.
They have greater awareness of their mental states and movements.
And just like we immediately recognize becoming stronger as progress in strength training, we should also recognize increased awareness as progress in concentration training. You should appreciate these early advancements and make the most out of them.
At a stage where you still lose the target often, a fast recovery time means you will get that "Oh, I lost it." realization maybe 30 times in 5 minutes instead of just one or two. That is 28 more chances you get to confirm, to reinforce the intent to stay on the target.
Every time you get that chance, you give yourself a mental nod of approval, to remind yourself this is a good sign, and you go back to the target task.
So be patient, and learn to reward your moments of renewed awareness with positive self-talk.
I chose to make an entire video about confirming your intent because this was an important realization in my own training, one that allowed me to improve much faster, once I got it.
More in general, I often explore these subtle aspects of the practice in depth even when the practical steps could be explained in a few sentences, because I believe this will help you understand the practical steps in a deeper way, and execute them more effectively.
But when you get right down to it, the practical steps are usually very simple.
All you need to do in this case is get used to respond positively whenever you become aware of having drifted. That’s it. Remind yourself what this means: the intent you planted is bearing fruit, and thanks to this new awareness you can now move back to the target and expand your focusing power beyond your former limits.
This conscious approval may take as long as 5-10 seconds in the beginning, which is a geological age in this kind of work, but it soon becomes instantaneous and subconscious.
And just like that, you will have overcome one of the biggest and most frequent obstacles to developing strong concentration.
Don't worry if you can't quite combine all these elements into your practice yet, the video after the next one will show you how it all fits together, and how to scale this from the breath to any activity you wish. For now, try these things out, see how it goes, and ask any questions in the comments, either on Youtube or, if you want to have a sure and quicker answer, directly on the post for this video on my blog, which you always find linked in the description. If you liked the video and wish to support this project, please share, like and subscribe, it helps immensely.
One last thing: as you may recall from the previous video, there are two factors we can improve in the process of reducing the drifting periods: one is the delay between distraction and awareness, and the other is the movement that returns your attention to the target.
Remembering you’re supposed to focus on a given task is not very useful unless you actually move back to it!
How to train this return movement is what you will learn in the next video. I will also show you how to move your now improved focus between different targets, so that you’re not restricted to sequences of simple, identical acts such as breathing.
Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you in part 5.