No matter what meditation practice you do, you want to make sure your practice is both restorative and strengthening. It’s easy to get caught in a comfortable place, finding your daily half hour of peace but missing the true potential of meditation.
On the other hand, if it’s too dull or frustrating, you won’t make time for it. Your time is precious, and to make the most of meditation, it can be helpful to understand what “spiritual muscles” you’re strengthening as you practice.
Did you know that any good meditation practice develops three basic skills? This often isn’t clearly communicated in the instructions. In fact, many teachers don’t even recognize this fact. But you can. And that will make your time meditating more productive and effective.
Whether you do Mindfulness, Zen, Tibetan, TM, Vipassana, Creative Visualization, Loving Kindness or any practice you can think of, the key to doing it successfully is to make sure the following three skills are being developed as you practice:
1. Concentration power; the ability to focus your attention where you choose.
Each time your attention wanders and you bring it back to whatever you’re focusing on (two common objects of focus are the breath or a mantra) it’s like a mental “rep” at the mind gym. You're strengthening the Concentration Power muscle, which enables you to have choice about what you focus on and how intently. Being "in the zone" can be attributed to Concentration Power. So, developing Concentration Power means you get to spend more of your life "in the zone!"
Concentration Power can also improve your sense of well-being by allowing you to focus on positive aspects of experience instead of getting hooked on habitual, unhappy ways of interpreting your experience. And Concentration Power enhances your productivity and fulfillment by allowing you to be more fully present for the activities you’re engaged in.
2. Sensory Clarity; the ability to track and explore sensory experience in real time.
Let’s take a common practice by way of example: Suppose you're focusing on a mantra. How can you become clear about your moment by moment experience of reciting the mantra, whether aloud or to yourself? If you are saying the mantra to yourself, where do you hear it in your mind.
Does its location move or stay still? Do you notice changes in pitch, volume and rate? Do you notice the gaps between recitations?
Sensory Clarity is the act of becoming fascinated by or discovering your experience at any given time and the process of tracking your experience moment by moment. To sum it up as concisely as possible, Sensory Clarity helps you untangle your experience so you don’t get caught in it. It improves your objectivity, precision and, most importantly, your insight into the true nature of your experience.
3. Equanimity; the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go, without push and pull.
We tend to fight with unpleasant thoughts, emotions and body sensations and cling to pleasant ones. This happens in little ways all the time. Unfortunately, these little resistances snowball, dulling our overall vitality. When you avoid pain and cling to pleasure, that has unfortunate consequences in your ability to be present for all of life.
Of course, I could talk for days about any of these skills. There’s a lot to unpack! But my hope is that just defining them for you will help you optimize your meditation time, whatever practice you choose to do. I want to support anyone who is willing to do the work. Having a clear understanding of the skills you develop as you practice is a great way to make sure your practice stays on track.