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Meditation Is Attention, Not Concentration

Meditations (Spirituality) - From Martin LeFevre in California

Meditation Is Attention, Not Concentration

An unhappy looking fellow exits his SUV as I approach on foot. Two dogs spill out, and he heads up the dirt path in front of me. Of course he turns off the trail at my favorite sitting spot by the stream, so I walk on to the alternate place.

On the way in, I see that the bench where I usually make a journal entry after a sitting and walk is completely covered in gang graffiti. As I take my seat, I wonder if coming to the park was a good idea today. Just then I look up to see a blue heron standing in the stream about 40 meters away.

The giant bird, standing at least a meter high with its long neck fully elongated, is facing and clearly aware of me. Slowly, carefully, it begins to make its way toward me. Step by step it moves, placing its spindly legs and even more spindly feet with exquisite precision on the stones and in the gently flowing water. Riveted by its size, beauty, and presence, I cannot move.

It has a large, triangular shaped head, and a delicate overlay of decorative white feathers accenting the thick, muted brown feathers of its torso. Satisfied I am no threat after standing behind a tree between us for a few minutes, it picks up its pace to slow walk in the stream. At one point, when it’s directly in front of me less than ten meters away, the water covers its long, stick-like legs.

Every now and then it bends its great neck in an S-curve, and scans and searches the water for some morsel or more. It stabs some insect off the surface in a surprisingly quick motion, especially given its slow-motion transit around me.

It takes the great bird over 20 minutes to pass in front and get the same distance downstream as it was upstream when I first sighted it. The experience stamps me, and stays with me still.

It’s always a surprise to see how undivided observation alone acts on thought to quiet it. No methods or techniques of meditation are needed. Indeed, being the products of thought, methods merely trick the mind into immobility--a very different thing than silence.

The essential distinction to understand, for meditation to occur, is between concentration and attention. They are two completely different movements in the mind. Concentration involves intentionally focusing on a single goal or point. Attention, on the other hand, is an unwilled gathering of energy through passive observation.

Concentration requires a center and an object. Attention, on the other hand, has no center and is inclusive of everything that comes into the field of awareness. Meditation is never the outcome of concentration, only attention.

The confusion is embodied in the acclaim for the world’s best golfer, Tiger Woods, whose capacity for blocking out distractions and concentrating on his next shot is almost unparalleled in sport, and life.

Without doubt, a good part of Tiger’s renown is his quintessential fulfillment of the American dream. Woods is a person of color who rose to the top of a moneyed game of elites through great talent driven by sheer willpower. He’s become the richest person in the perverse business of sports. So it’s no wonder that Tiger is imbued in America with spiritual significance and reverence.

When he won the US Open on a bad knee, which seemed to be giving him serious pain, the science writer Steven Johnson wrote, “I have never in my life seen a wider chasm between the look in someone’s eye and the surrounding environment.” Despite the implication of admiration, that is hardly the mark of a healthy, much less whole person. Indeed, it is a good working definition of the antithesis of spiritual realization.

No one can help but admire the grace, power, and precision of Tiger Woods. But conflating the ‘frozen gaze’ of his mental willpower with inner clarity and strength is an absurd juxtaposition that can probably only occur in America.

Tiger Woods personifies an illusory ideal of seamless flow and harmonious tranquility that conformity to conservative ‘virtues’ absolutely precludes. Indeed, the cultural phenomenon of Tiger Woods epitomizes the idolatry of the mind.

It’s fascinating to observe how desperately the smartest people are trying to fill the emotional and spiritual void that materialism and individualism have produced in this culture with the same qualities that have produced it.

The so-called virtues of success, which define both the fading excellence and social decay now so undeniably evident in America, are based on willpower and control. How long can the underlying dots remain willfully unconnected?

A person who knows how to attend can concentrate when need be, but a person who puts concentration first doesn’t know what attention and meditation are.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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