Attention and focus are hard to come by. Starbucks built a $13 billion business because we need help paying attention. Psychiatrists increasingly diagnose “adult attention deficit disorder” and prescribe Ritalin for grownups who can’t focus or pay attention. But are coffee and prescription speed the answers to our modern distractions?
Our attention is derailed by email, iPhones, the bing of a new text message, by bad news on television and the stresses of work, relationships and family. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and miss the extraordinary gift of being alive. Our bodies break down under the onslaught – insomnia, anxiety, depression, obesity and all chronic diseases are made worse by this unrelenting stress.
The Buddha was walking down the road shortly after he was enlightened, and a traveler saw his remarkable energy. He asked him if he was an angel, a wizard or magician or some kind of god.
“No,” the Buddha said, “I am awake.”
What matters most in life is the quality of our experience, the ability to be awake to what is real and true in our lives, for the difficult and the happy times, to be awake to each person we touch, to our own experience, to this very moment, to the simple sweet and alive gifts of a smile, a kind deed, the breeze on our skin, the firefly flickering the early summer night.
But that’s harder than it sounds. Our monkey mind gets in the way, and in order to pay attention we need to be quiet, to be practiced at stillness, to know the habits of our mind and be skilled at dancing with them, not be controlled or dominated by them. We need to know how to witness the thoughts and feelings we have without having them overwhelm our lives.
My way into medicine was through Buddhism. I majored in Buddhist studies at Cornell. As a young man in college, I was deeply interested in the mind, in nature of our consciousness, of the ways our thoughts and perceptions control our lives and how we can work with them in a juicy, helpful way that brings more love, kindness, compassion and insight into every moment, rather than darkness, suffering, struggle and pain.
Pain is inevitable. Loss is inevitable. Death, illness, war, disaster have always been and will always be part of the human condition. Yet within it, I wondered as a young man, was there a way to understand suffering in a different light, to break the cycle of suffering. I realized there was a way to be more awake, to see things as they are, to notice life as it is and savor it, to love it, to wake up with gratitude and lightness and celebration for the magic of life. It is always there, and the trick is simply to notice.
But to notice requires a stillness of the mind. This is something not quite so easy to achieve for most of us. Being awake takes practice. Each of us can find our path to being awake. Ancient traditions provide many avenues. Belief in any particular religion or philosophy is not necessary, just a desire to show up and pay attention without judgment or criticism. To notice the ebb and flow of our breath and our thoughts without holding on to them, like waves washing over you on a summer day at the beach.
This is harder than it sounds, because it requires us to be patient with ourselves, to love ourselves, even all the ugly, petty, small thoughts. It requires us to create calm within the chaos through non-judgmental awareness. Most of us have no clue how to do this.
When I was 20 years old, I spent 10 days in silent meditation retreat. Sleeping, meditating, eating. That was it. As the turbulent oceans of my young mind settled each day, I began to feel more awake, more alive and happier than I ever had before. The happiness was not connected to any external event or person, but to the simple joy of being able to notice beauty and brilliance in the people and in the nature that surrounded me.
Over the course of my life I’ve come in and out of practicing stillness, but whenever I return to it, it feels like home. There are thousands of ways to meditate – traditional mindfulness meditation is the simplest and most accessible, but any form can work – yoga, nature, dance, breathing and prayer.
The point of meditation, of doing nothing, is not an end in itself but a way to calm the mind, to see the true nature of things, and reduce the impact of suffering – while increasing love, kindness, wisdom, fearlessness and sympathy. From that stillness, your life becomes more rich, your actions more clear, your words more direct and powerful and your capacity to be fully engaged in life enhanced. It is not a retreat from life, but a way to go fully into it and cultivate your own power and happiness.
The many benefits of meditation have been substantiated by science. Meditation reduces chronic pain, blood pressure, headaches, anxiety and depression. It helps you lose weight, lowers cholesterol, increase sports performance, boost immune function, relieves insomnia, increases serotonin, creativity, optimizes brain waves, helps learning, attention, productivity and memory and more.
But none of those reason are the reasons I meditate, nor why I practice yoga (which for me is meditation in motion). It is to be more awake to life, to myself, to cultivate loving kindness and compassion toward myself, toward others, and to the often challenging human condition in which we find ourselves.
The good news is that all you need is a few minutes, and place to sit and be quiet, and you can do this anywhere.