Concentration basics #5: Target switching for focus agility

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This video is part of a series. | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 (summary)
​Get the free manual for the series, the Concentration Basics Quick Start Training Guide (pdf).

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Video summary

Training with a “static”, unvarying target is necessary to develop an awareness of the subtle dynamics of attention in the beginning. 

But If you want your stronger focus to serve you in real-life situations, you need to learn to move freely between changing targets as needed - as opposed to “locking in” your attention to a single unchanging target.

How do we do that?

The method we use to develop a more “agile” kind of focus, as opposed to the “rigid” kind seen in your classic meditation practice, is the same that will help you improve your “return movement”.

If you recall from the previous videos, expanding our periods of stable attention while shrinking the periods of drifting requires us to work on two factors. 

The first is the delay between the moment we drift away from the target and the moment we become aware of it. 

The second is our ability to return to the target.

The return movement starts as a small act of self-discipline

Unlike distractions and the sudden awareness that brings us back from them, returning to the original target doesn’t happen automatically. It’s something we have to do consciously, at least in the beginning.

Which means we can fail to do so.

We can become aware of having lost the target, and still let ourself slide back into the drift, because that’s what feels better at that moment. The reason we got distracted in the first place is that a part of our mind deemed a different object more attractive or important than our target. Therefore, returning to it requires a small act of self-discipline.

The first thing to know is that failing to return will definitely hurt your progress

Planting the intent to focus on the task has borne fruit, the unconscious process has alerted you to the fact you lost your original target. If you now fail to ACT on this information - and fail consistently - the feedback you send to the unconscious process will be "this information is irrelevant, I don't need it". Which will obviously have the effect to once again de-prioritize the message, even if you keep planting the right intent.

The intent must be both planted and confirmed:

  • intend to focus on X
  • start working
  • when you become aware of having moved away from the target, praise yourself for it: planting your intent has worked (first confirmation)
  • return to X (second confirmation) 
  • This is how you reinforce the message to the unconscious and gain momentum.

The "return rule"

Once you made a conscious decision to focus on a given task within a certain time frame, you should always move back to the task until you complete the timebox, or the task itself, or until you make another conscious decision to move to another task, or stop “tasking” altogether and start resting, playing, or let yourself enjoy life spontaneously. 

The return movement can also be seen as a switch between different objects of attention:

 Which brings us back to the subject of focus mobility.

The kind of focus you really need

The method you learned in these videos aims to develop the kind of focus that helps you deal with messy, difficult, ugly situations rather than just be more present to yourself as you sit in your meditation corner.

Real-life tasks are nothing like a series of breaths in a protected environment.

It's a bit of a paradox.

You want your attention to be at the same time stable and mobile. Stable in the sense that it stays on your consciously intended target, and mobile in the sense that you can seamlessly move it from one target to another as needed.

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EXERCISE: Target switching

Goal: this exercise will enable you to move between the many targets encountered in real-life tasks much more freely. It will make your focus “agile”, as well as stable.


  1. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  2. Start micro-tasking the breath as in the previous exercise.
  3. After 4-5 breaths, switch to the subtle sensations in your hand as you open and close it in a fist.
  4. After 4-5 movements, switch back to the breath.
  5. Repeat.

NOTE:

the exercise purposely recreates the conditions that lead to attention splitting in a “friendly” way that allows you to work on it more consciously and specifically.  The “trick” to succeed rapidly with this exercise is to remember the basic lesson of centralization, and think of every switch as a funnel.

Key takeaways

  • 1
    In order to serve us well in real-life situations, our focus must be both stable in the sense that it doesn’t stray from the current intended target, and mobile in the sense that we can seamlessly move it from one target to another as needed.
  • 2
    Returning to the target after “awakening” from a distraction spell is essentially the same movement as switching from one target to another smoothly .
  • 3
    Intentional focus targets generate a momentum just as spontaneous distractions: both must be overcome with a small act of self-discipline.
  • 4
    The fast way to focus mobility is training with two (or more) intermittent targets, and treat every single switch as a funnel as seen in part 1 of this series - Learning to centralize.

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