As is my habit on New Year’s Eve Day (as well as nearly every day of the year), I was making a list of what I wanted to get done today. First, I made a list of all the chores I wanted to finish before the day’s end. Wanting to start the new year off fresh, I wanted the laundry done, the food prepared, the house cleaned, and the groceries and supplies purchased. The empty boxes from moving were stacked in my car ready to go to recycling, and with my list growing by the second, I realized, there was nothing on my list that had to do with enjoying the day, relaxing, or being creative. What would be on the list of things I felt I needed to get done if my priorities included art, personal well being, relaxation, exercise, and enjoying life? That thought brought me to this moment. What happens in our lives and our being when we leave out some of the essential elements of living a well-balanced life? And how do we get so out of balance sometimes?
Mainly, the reason we get out of balance is because we lose track with what we really need. We get caught up in whatever we are focused on and we forget what else is important.Try this experiment. Hold your hand arm’s length out in front of you, and focus entirely on your hand. Study that hand and notice whatever you can about it. Now focus on the background. What’s behind the hand, and again pay attention to what you see. As you focus on the background, the hand becomes less distinct in your vision. We can either focus on the subject closest to the lens or on the background. The same thing holds true of the background when you are focusing on your hand. This gives us a little insight into how our focus, visual as well as mental, works.
Focusing is a key element of how we direct our attention, resources, and energy. For example, if something is disturbing to us, we notice it. We may feel a pain in our foot or back. Perhaps we had not noticed our foot or back until the pain appeared. The foot and your back have always been there…in your unfocused vision, but you haven’t focused in on it until the pain arise. Suddenly that part of our body becomes the focal point of our attention. The disturbance, pain, or sudden awareness of something that needs attending, is a bit like focusing a camera for a shot. A disturbance, pain, or condition that needs attending is like the background in the shot, until it isn’t any longer. When the pain gets intense enough, we notice. Life is a constant interplay of focusing on what’s close at hand and what is not. The point is, we need to be intentional about both.
Meditation helps us become better at focusing our attention. It also helps us gain a clearer picture of our intentions, emotional well being, thoughts, memories, and just about any other process of our being. By taking time to sit quietly focusing our attention on our breath, our body, or the passing thoughts, feelings, and fantasies we have (all the time but we don’t necessarily pay any attention to them), we open ourselves to greater self awareness. Why is self awareness a priority in our lives? If we aren’t aware of who we are, what we think, feel, and perceive, we tend to act out of our unexplored or suppressed subconscious reality. The more we become aware of what we really feel, think, perceive, belief, or desire, the more we will be able to act with greater intention and understanding.
The Shadow side or our being includes all the undeveloped, suppressed, unknown, or unhealed aspects of our being. Whatever we have not yet dealt with, been exposed to, or remembered, may occasionally cause us to act or react out of some unconscious pain, guilt, or anger. We know the shadow parts of others because those are the elements of other people we either avoid, confront, or feel compelled to lash out at in others. We do so often because we are having trouble coming to grips with some element of that pain within ourselves. For example, seeing someone belittling another person may bring up a lot of memories of being in a similar situation. When there has not been any healing of that past pain, it reappears from time to time to remind us that we need to resolve the conflict and make peace with our past. Otherwise we carry it around with us, bringing out the pain to wear as a mask or heavy burden to bear whenever we are confronted with a similar situation.
In meditation, it is possible to focus our attention on some of those unhealed areas of our lives. We can awaken to what current situations or conditions remind us of from the past. We learn through slowing ourselves down enough to focus on our feelings, thoughts, and perceptions as they arise from within. We can focus on determining what kind of feeling or image helps us connect to some disturbance in our mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual body. What is pain in some part of our body, like? Is it like being weighed down in heavy chains and weights? Is it like being stabbed in the back, or beaten senseless? We can usually think of some metaphoric image that helps explain something we experience. We use metaphors and similes all the time in our language. Start by identifying what a physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual condition is like. From there we can tell ourselves the story of the pain, and walk through it to a point of figuring out how to come to a healing.
What would you do, for instance, if you had a heavy weight weighing you down and exhausting you? You’d probably try to find a way to unburden yourself of what is weighing you down. Once you get an image or story to explain what something you experience feels like, ask yourself “What in my life is weighing me down, exhausting me, or causing me some kind of pain?”. Sit with that question and allow whatever comes up to arise. Sometimes this happens within the meditation itself, other times you find answers within the next few hours or days. You have woken up to something that helps you come to understand yourself more deeply. By focusing in on something, you then are able to with greater clarity what in your life (inner and outer) may be aggravating an issue and what in the past may be lingering and making an appearance.
Focus is an important tool for understanding ourselves, others, and the world in which we live. Sometimes simply by focusing on our physical body, our emotions, our spiritual needs, or our psychological struggles we become aware of what we actually are feeling. A lot of us shut down parts of ourselves in our efforts to stay on task, get the job done, or meet some other expectations in our lives. We also get lost in the drama and activity of the life we live in. Some people get caught up in their game-playing life. Deep into different levels of a virtual fantasy. Others have compulsions that cause them to be overly focused on some events in the world, other people’s lives, or some situation that requires a great deal of attention. Holiday times often fill up with not only activities and drama, but also a burden of expectations, our own and those of others. Life is perpetually supplying us with countless ways to focus our attention. So what can we do to find a greater sense of harmony and balance?
Spend some time every day in meditation and prayer or contemplation. Meditation is the going within journey that asks you to quiet your body, mind, spirit, and emotions long enough to become more aware of what is going on within you. What is going on within us is affected by our outer life, and often when a person comes to meditate, they want to relax and leave with no stress. Sometimes that happens. And sometimes it doesn’t. The reason being that when there are disturbances, imbalances, or distractions in our lives (and whose life is without any?), we need to first become aware of what is going on below the surface before we can effectively cope. Harmony is not about eliminating stress, challenges, obstacles, or distractions. Harmony is about living with them and not letting them stop us from breathing, enjoying ife, and functioning effectively. What we don’t acknowledge can turn into pain, frustration, anger, or some other imbalance in our system.
Multiple studies have been done on the effectiveness and benefit of meditation. I was curious about studies done that related to focus and meditation, and was happy to find the facts support my suppositions. One study done (2009) by Moore and Malinowski showed that meditation improved focus which resulted in cognitive flexibility and greater attentiveness functioning. Being able to think with greater fluidity and attention helps us improve our ability to problem solve, create, and cope.
In another study (Lutz et. al, 2009) meditation had a number of benefits including greater self awareness, morality awareness (being more conscious of our behavior and ethical center), as well as fear modulation (being able to cope with our fears, real and imagined). All these benefits relate to the mid-brain prefrontal lobe functions, a area that controls so much of our mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical selves.
Another study (Davidson, 2003) has shown that there are a number of health benefits when meditation and focus are improved. The immune system and its functions are vital to all areas of our health and well being, and to coping with disease and imbalances. meditation and the skill of learning to focus our minds on certain areas of our lives (thereby excluding or lessening the focus on others) has important benefits for improved health and maintaining harmony in our lives.
Coffey and Huntman (2008) did a study showing that meditation and increased use of focusing and mindfulness helped improve psychological functioning as well. Stess and distress are both more easily managed with the use of a regular practice of meditation, mindfulness in daily activities, and developing the ability to focus. Focus helps us tune into whatever is troubling us, and mindfulness coupled with focus helps us wake up to how disturbances are appearing in our daily activities. Meditation helps us take time to explore the different levels of our being to learn more about what is inspiring, supporting, and awakening us. Meditation can also help us become more in tune withour physical bodies, its workings, and the areas that need attention and care. With disease and extreme stress, mediation gives us coping skills for getting through difficult and abnormal situations. Mediation can also give us the gift of time, stillness, and quiet–something missing in many of our lives. And if we are mindfully aware of how we are living and its relationship to what is going on in our lives, maybe we will allow ourselves, even insist that we do more to take time to give ourselves the gift of life.
Life is a gift, meant to be savored and enjoyed. When we get too caught up in the task-driven lists, or when we take care of others, but forget about ourselves, it shows in our health and general well being. Take some time in reflection as we move over the threshold to the new year, to assess what it is you need to bring in more abundance into your life. Spend some quiet time discerning what is working in your life, and what is not. Notice what you could simply stop doing or give up that would bring you more peace. Spend some time meditating and contemplating what priorities you’ve set for yourself. Ask yourself in prayer and meditation, “What do I really believe about life and its purpose for me? How does my life align with what I say I believe?” This ought to be enough to do for more than one meditation session. However you choose to enter into that stillness and center of your being, remember that what you put your mind, heart, soul, body, and focus on is what your are seeding for yourself and what is bearing fruit. Choose wisely, but always choose Life. Happy New Year.