An executive sits down to meditate. He’s a beginner. He’s trying to use Herbert Benson’s method from his excellent book, Relaxation Revolution. He repeats the word “one” to himself and pays attention to his breath. He knows when his mind wanders, he should say to himself, “oh well” and return his attention to the mantra and his breath. He’s a driven guy, and he’s determined to achieve the many benefits of relaxation.
His internal dialogue runs something like this.
“I’m supposed to pay attention to the mantra. I wonder how well I’m doing since my mind is thinking…One… One… One… There, I guess I’m doing it better… No, I’m not doing it better, because I’m thinking about doing it better… One… One… At 2:30 I have a strategy meeting, and if Ted brings up that same f&%*king idea, I’m going to shove his position paper… One… This isn’t working… One… One… I’d better renew my blood pressure medication…”
You get the idea. This internal fugue gets especially self-defeating if one is trying not to think of something. Fyodor Dostoevsky knew about this only too well. He tells us:
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the accursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
Dostoevsky’s instruction is paradoxical and inherently self-defeating. In order to follow it you have to bring to mind a polar bear.
Oddly enough, you can temporarily turn this phenomenon to your advantage and simulate stable attention. Here are a couple of thought experiments…
Try this task:
Don’t think of stillness.
Or this one:
Make sure your mind is constantly wandering.
Of course, trying to put the reverse whammy on your thinking mind is a trick. Because of its inherent tension and striving, it doesn’t really achieve equanimity. But what’s an alternative path to mental stability and relaxation?
I teach executives what Dr. Lester Fehmi calls his Open Focus technique. It’s a method of very quickly creating synchronized alpha rhythms in the brain. Instead of focusing on a mantra, the practitioner focuses on the awareness of space.
Let me explain. A physicist will tell you that at the subatomic level what we experience as solid matter is made up mostly of space. If you shift your attention to imagine the space inside you and out, resting in that space immerses yourself in a highly relaxing and engaging experience.
The instructions are what Fehmi calls “guiding questions.” They are easy to entertain for the 15 second intervals between them, and thereby train your attention in a very enjoyable way.
Furthermore, the parts of the body that you’ll be asked to bring to mind are highly rich in neural representation in the brain. Without going further into why Fehmi’s method is so good, why don’t you take it for a spin first to see if you like it?
It quiets the mind nicely!
Originally published at StephenJosephs.com.