In this blog, I want to touch upon the vast topic of ‘focus’; a huge subject and a worthy one for consideration, in terms of generating the motivation to develop the practice and in exploring ways of teaching it to children both in school and at home.
In all our literature – and as part of our recent winning submission for the ‘ISA Award for Excellence and Innovation in Pupils’ Mental Health and Wellbeing’ – we mention that we teach focus along with kindness, collaboration and awareness of our bodies, minds and each other.
Focus, or concentration, is the capacity to direct our attention and maintain it on an object or person at will. Easy to say, but in practice, it is not so simple. The old adage, ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ applies here.
As a school, we have a clear aim to teach mindfulness in the context of our Buddhist ethos. Buddhism offers an expanded view of mindfulness which places it in an overall coherent vision of human life (the Dharma).
There are in fact three components to mindful awareness in Buddhism:
- Present moment attention
- Awareness of purpose
- Wise attention
People often hear about the first one, but not the other two. The second one is paying attention or focusing ‘on purpose’. Mindfulness involves a conscious direction of our awareness. For example, knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully. With mindful eating, we are deliberately noticing the sensations of eating and our responses to those sensations. We also notice the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back: We are training and shaping our mind.
Here is a story about the third one, wise attention:
A wise old Chieftain was sitting with his granddaughter at the fire. In the dark, they were enjoying the play of the flames. After a long silence the old man said: “You know how I feel sometimes? It’s as if there were two wolves struggling in my heart. One of them is aggressive, vengeful and cruel. And the other is caring, gentle and affectionate.”
His granddaughter asked him, “Which of them will win the struggle for your heart?”
The Chieftan replied, “The one that I feed more.”
So how do you feed a wolf in your heart? You give it your attention, you give it energy and you let it have its way. How do you starve a wolf? You ignore it, you see through its tricks but you don’t try and fight it (as that gives it energy).
Whichever wolf you feed – that’s who you will eventually become, according to the Buddha. Soren Kierkegaard, existentialist philosopher of the 19th century, echoes this:
‘Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts’.
With wise or wholesome attention the overall effect on the mind is always positive, so you can tell if you are on the right track in terms of what you are focusing on and how you are doing this. Whenever you are upset or angry, it means that improper or unwise attention is involved. And of course, children do not necessarily know what is wise or not and therefore it is important to direct or advise them (and not always necessary to explain why).
It is important to be consistently gentle and appropriate with not only the subject of your attention, but with how you focus. If focus is a lens, skilful means is adjusting the focus from tight to wide, or back again, taking the whole picture of mind and body health into account. For example, trying really, really hard to focus is likely to lead to stress which, again, is counterproductive. If you are tired, stressed, hungry or feeling unwell, it is going to be difficult to focus; you are going to have a fight on your hands, and that, again, is not wise.
It is, however, essential that we do support our children in the development of focus, concentration and mindful awareness. A 2015 study by Microsoft Canada found that our average attention span — ‘the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted’ — was 12 seconds in 2008. Five years later, it was only eight seconds — one second less than that of a goldfish.
This is indeed a worrying trend and one that I return to frequently in these blogs. There are always conditions that we can do nothing about, but setting up habits of expecting fairly instant gratification from media, gaming and other technologies will work against the development of concentration as will a lack of physical activity. As some Buddhist teachers have frequently told me, perhaps experiment with some of these ideas and see what the results are.