The Secret Behind All Meditation Practices

by Steven Kessler

Maybe you've done various forms of meditation. Maybe you've done several kinds of yoga. Maybe you've had a prayer practice or a gratitude practice. But have you ever asked yourself, What's behind all of these practices? What are they all trying to do? What's the foundation of all of them?

The answer is, they're all attentional practices. They all make you practice holding your attention on one thing. They all instruct you to focus on one object of attention. When your attention moves away, they all tell you to bring it back.

Training Your Attention

Training your attention is the foundation of all these practices. As you do them, you are gaining control over your attention. Learning to voluntarily put it where you want it. Learning to notice when it has wandered and bring it back. You are stabilizing your attention.

And you are strengthening your attention. Attention is like a muscle: exercising it makes it grow stronger. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. So as you do any of those practices, your voluntary control of your attention is getting stronger and your attention itself is getting stronger. You're developing a stronger, more stable attention, though your instructors may never have mentioned that.

You've actually done this same thing in many other areas of your life, whenever you learned a skill and then practiced it. No matter what it was -- whether you were learning piano, a sport, woodworking, mathematics, or cooking -- you were practicing putting your attention on one thing and holding it there. This is also the core of psychotherapy; what's different there it that the object of attention is yourself, rather than something outside of you.

For learning nearly anything in life, the practice is the same: put your attention on one thing and hold it there. So you've been doing attentional practices all you life, but you've been doing them unconsciously because no one told you about this deeper layer. Now that you know about it, you can focus on training your attention consciously, on strengthening it and building your voluntary control over it.

Why Should You Care? 

You should care because training your attention is the most important thing you can do in life. All your other skills depend on the quality of your attention. A weak, flitting attention makes doing anything in life slower and harder. A strong, steady attention makes doing anything easier. It even makes being yourself easier, because it opens the door to knowing yourself. It smooths the path to knowing who you are, what you want, and what to choose in life. It allows you to navigate your life more skillfully. So why not put in the work to develop a strong, steady attention and take the easy path through life?

  • Yes…training our “habits of attention,” as Lynda Caesara puts it, puts us in the driver’s seat of our physical instrument, as well as of our mental and emotional bodies. Crucial!

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