In an earlier post, we saw why focus is essential to a good life. But how do you go about developing a razor like focus?
The first step is to understand that we spend most of our day being distracted. Our smart phones add to this constant level of distraction. We may feel that we are being busy, but most often than not we are caught up doing low level work – responding to messages, arranging times to meet, participating in meaningless meetings, chatting up people we don’t like, aimless internet browsing and so on. These tasks are neither goal oriented nor are they process oriented. They serve only one purpose – to engage the mind in meaningless distraction. The first step in tackling distraction is to recognize its extent. Use your smartphone screen time function to record how much time you are spending on youtube, on music, on social media apps and so on. When I did this, I was surprised to see the amount of time I spend each day on these apps. I noticed I was spending 5 hours each day on the screen.
Having baselined your screen time, understand which apps or websites you visit the most – and why. If this is for productive work, then that’s fine. If it’s only for communicating with other, then we have a problem. Face the fact that we are over invested in social media. Knowing this and accepting this forms the basis for effective action.
The next step is to understand why we gravitate towards certain things like whatsapp or instagram. These distraction provide us with a quick relief for our inherent boredom. It’s the thing we like to do while waiting for a bus or while riding the elevator. Notice that in order to limit the usage, we must understand why we go to these apps. They provide us some relief. How do we know this? The next time you feel the urge to check your phone, resist and watch the feelings that rise up. There is almost always a restlessness, like something is missing. In extreme cases it might lead to annoyance and irritation. Observe this facet of our own minds. The key question that we need to tackle is why do we feel this inherent boredom.
Understand that boredom is merely the emptiness in the mind when external objects cease to excite us. That is, we have become too heavily invested in the external world and have paid far too little attention to the one who perceives. Who am I? What are my core values? What thoughts run in my mind – unasked and unbidden? What emotions well up in my heart, which I carelessly ignore? Boredom and therefore restlessness is an indication of a lack of self awareness. People who are very self aware hardly ever experience boredom. Boredom simply means I am not comfortable with myself and I need external things to quell the sense of emptiness in me.
Go deeper into this vacuous feeling and know who is the perceiver of this emptiness. Find out the screen on which the external images are projected. This equanimous blank screen can only be perceived once we get past all the repressed feelings, desires, thoughts and so on. Therefore we must first develop the courage to look at all that we have ignored for ages. Understand your innermost desires – honor them and welcome them. We do not need to act on them, simply let them visit your inner temple. Watch the repetitive thoughts – worries, passions, anger, hatred or annoyance against someone. Let them be listened to. They are urgently calling out to be heard. Give them a gentle ear. As we become comfortable listening to ourselves without any judgement, a remarkable thing starts to happen. We start feeling a great sense of space in us. And this is a emptiness that is filled with a vibrant peace and joy. This blank slate is filled with joyous, creative life energy. This is the pinnacle experience of being human. This is consciousness itself.
Accessing this dimension in ourselves requires patience and courage, but is the only way out if we want to develop focus and happiness in life. When we begin to dwell in that space, we are comfortable being with very few things, or even no external thing at all. We feel at home on a Friday night, sitting on our armchair. We feel at home when we spend Christmas by ourselves in the forest. We do not need constant external stimulation to keep us engaged. Such a mind, provides the basis for focus. Being comfortable in ourselves leads us to the ability to bring our attention to an external object – willingly and with full presence. The external object doesn’t captivate us. Rather we bring ourselves towards the object. We paint, to bring out our creative ideas, and not to distract ourselves. We play music not to escape boredom, but to consciously express our musical tendencies. Focus comes by abiding in who we are.
Therefore, if we want our minds to focus, first, understand and accept that we lead a distracted life. Second, go to the root of distraction which is the need to escape the present moment by using external objects. Having seen this dysfunction, start becoming self aware. Pay attention to your moods, emotions, thoughts and reactions. Reflect on them constantly. When we realize that we are not these external impressions, we begin to dwell in the consciousness that we are. In this space, we are comfortable with objects or no objects. And from there we bring attention to external activities that demand our attention. That is focus. And self awareness precipitates it.