February 21, 2017
Single pointed focus: the number one tenant of a mediation and yoga practice.
We’ve all heard teachers and practitioners alike speak of it. A simple concept that feels endlessly difficult to achieve and maintain. Have you ever crossed paths with one of “those people” who seemingly drop into meditation as if it were their second home? Their faces soft, eyes smiling, an intimidating fullness to their attention. I often thought that in order to achieve this level of awareness, I must calm my hurricane mind. How wrong I was.
My story of single-pointed focus is not one of graceful coming-of-awareness. I do not duck and weave daily anxieties like a pro. Some days, I barely make it through my meditation before I want to throw my hand-woven ethically-made-for-your-bum cushion through the window. Progress is not linear. This path is not clear. The way to awareness is not moving around the tough times, but sitting through them with still vigilance.
Four years ago, on a steep hillside in Java, Indonesia, I experienced my first full-fledged panic attack. I had signed up for a Vipassana course in attempt to “get to know myself.” I landed in Jakarta and froze before I could make it to the taxi stand. My throat felt as if someone else’s hands were tightening around it. My breath could only move down to the base of my throat before it left again.
Fear had completely stolen everything from me. I could feel my cheeks flush as I started to lose focus on all of my surroundings, and I sat down next to my luggage and placed my head in my hands. My chest was inflating and deflating faster and choppier than any time-lapse video. Losing mental ground, I thought about only one thing: I had agreed to give up all of my communication skills to sit in silence for ten days, to be with only my mind for ten full days. That was more terrifying than anything I had ever done up to that point.
Who am I if I cannot speak?
Make eye contact?
As I let myself spin out of control, I was charting new personal territory – this panic attack thing was brand new to me. I could feel myself losing my grip on reality. The people walking around me faded away until the only thing I felt was an all-consuming fear. I tried to focus on the air moving into my body, as opposed to the vice grip in my throat and chest. I mentally watched it coming in, leaving, coming again, tried to slow the departure time. I focused so hard I could feel my brows uniting on my face. Jaw clenched. Eyes shut. Skin taught.
My first real experience of true single-pointed-focus was an ugly, messy, fraught one.
I tell you this story to fracture the assumptions about those who meditate, or write or speak about meditation. They can seem unreal, surreal, ethereal. Not-of-this-world. We read and hear proclamations of “no-mind” and “clarity” when all we feel is a whirling sandstorm buffeting the inside our skulls. These meditators — these people who have the ability to rise above us in some way — mustn’t be human. I thought so, too, until I sat and did the work.
Now, as an Old Student of the Vipassana tradition (meaning that I made it out alive and in one piece after exploring the depths of my mind and training), I’ve compiled a list of times when it is absolutely perfect to sit down and simply notice:
When your mind is racing, running faster than your physical feet could ever take you.
When you are unsure of your footing, losing ground.
When your inner voices cannot agree.
When life feels too difficult or out of control.
When it feels as though emotions are ruling your life.
When there is sadness, grief, a pulsating throb where you left your soul the last time you saw it.
When you’ve had a sweet yoga practice.
When breath and movement have become inextricably linked.
When nothing could go wrong.
When life is just perfect as is.
When you feel alive, effervescent.
When you think it is the hardest thing you could ever do.
An overactive mind needs to be observed too, as it is just as pertinent as the quiet one.
I tell you this because there is truly not just one perfect time or condition to sit and observe. Every moment is perfect as it is. The practice of observance is not only for the good times, for the times when you feel clear, for when you feel an absence of thoughts. It is for the stuck-in-the-muck mind, the no-good-can-come-from-this mind. We cannot and should not limit ourselves.
In this practice, you must be willing to accept the consequences of who you are.
The first step? Looking at yourself in the mirror of meditative awareness, and not just when you look good.
See you on the front lines,