3 Simple Ways to Pay Attention

Practicing meditation doesn’t involve a whole new set of tools. It works so well, Sharon Salzberg says, because it enhances life skills we already have.

Illustrations by Adrian Johnson

The most common response I hear these days when I tell someone I teach meditation is “I’m so stressed out. I could really use some of that.” I am also amused to hear fairly often “My friend should really meet you!” I’m happy to see that meditation is known more and more as something that could be directly helpful in our day-to-day lives. Anywhere stress plays a role in our problems, meditation can have a potential role in its relief.

Meditation practice need not be tied to any belief system. The only necessary belief is not a dogmatic one, but one that says each of us has the capacity to understand ourselves more fully, and to care more deeply both for ourselves and for others. Its methods work to free us of habitual reactions that cause us great unhappiness, such as harsh self-judgment, and to develop wisdom and love. Meditation gives anybody who pursues it an opportunity to look within for a sense of abundance, depth, and connection to life.

Meditation’s methods work to free us of habitual reactions that cause us great unhappiness, such as harsh self-judgment, and to develop wisdom and love. Meditation gives anybody who pursues it an opportunity to look within for a sense of abundance, depth, and connection to life.

Rather than an ornate, arcane set of instructions, basic meditation consists of practical tools to help deepen concentration, mindfulness, and compassion.

1. Concentration

illustration of binoculars looking out over beach


Concentration steadies and focuses our attention so that we can let go of unhealthy inner distractions— regrets about the past, worries about the future, addictions—and keep from being seduced by outer ones. Distraction wastes our energy; concentration restores it.

Concentration is the art of gathering all that energy, that stormy, scattered attention, and settling, centering.

We often experience our attention scattering to the four winds. We sit down to think something through or work through a dilemma, and before we know it, we’re gone. We’re lost in thoughts of the past, often about something we now regret: “I should have said that more skillfully.” “I should have been less timid and spoken up.” “I should have been wiser and shut up.” We aren’t thinking things through to find a means to make amends. We’re just lost.

Or our distractedness propels us into anxiety-filled projections about the future. Imagine you are sitting in an airplane at one of the New York City airports. Suddenly you start thinking, “Oh no, I think this plane might leave late. I’m sure it will be late. Now I’m going to miss my connection. What will that mean? That means I’m going to arrive in Portland, Oregon, after midnight. There won’t be any cabs! What’s going to happen to me?” It’s as though Portland were famous for having people vanish if they land after midnight!

Without concentration, our minds spin off into the future in a way that isn’t like skillful planning but more like exhausting rumination. When I see my own mind beginning that arc of anxiety, I have a saying I use to help restore me to balance: “Something will happen.” There will be a bus. I’ll spend the night in the airport. Something will happen. I can’t figure it all out right now.

Concentration is the art of gathering all of that energy, that stormy, scattered attention, and settling, centering. Someone came up to talk to me recently when I was teaching, protesting my use of the word concentration. He said it reminded him of repression, as though he were squeezing his attention onto something, resisting and resenting anything else that came up to pull his attention away. I asked him if steadying or settling would be good replacements, and he happily accepted them. That’s what concentration actually means. It’s not a forced, tense, strained effort. It’s letting things settle on what is at hand.

2. Mindfulness

Mindfulness refines our attention so that we can connect more fully and directly with whatever life brings. So many times our perception of what is happening is distorted by bias, habits, fears, or desires. Mindfulness helps us see through these and be much more aware of what actually is.