Believe it or not, with a few obvious exceptions like winning the lottery or an extreme tragedy, our happiness and life satisfaction generally have very little to do with the specific details of what is going on in our lives. The greatest factor in our level of happiness day to day is the simple choice of where we are putting our attention.
Most of us don't even realize we are making this choice all the time. For many of us our attention is dragged around wherever our minds happen to take us. As a result what we spend our time focussing on and thinking about gets decided unconsciously by the momentum of our mind itself.
To make matters even worse, for many of us our attention has been trained to notice only the negative things we experience -- what's gone wrong, what's missing, what terrible thing might happen, etc. Keeping our attention on this kind of worry train will inevitably lead to a rough experience of the day, and ultimately create a lifestyle that is devoid of beauty, depth, and peace.
Your attention is a precious gift. It literally makes up your life, moment by moment, day by day. Developing your ability to control and direct your attention is the first step toward living a life of your own choosing - and not just blindly repeating the same automatic reactions over and over. Without first gaining control of your attention, you have no chance of becoming fully present in your life.
No one typically told us we have the ability to control where we put our attention - much less given us a method of progressively developing this powerful ability and using it to our advantage. As a result many of us spend most of our time lost in repetitive trains of thought that tend to follow the same old tracks over and over again.
The sad fact is that these semi-conscious trains of thought and unconscious reactions often determine your real life choices - and as a result the course of your career, the quality of your relationships, and the very arc of your life. Developing your ability to take control of your attention allows you to consciously choose a different path.
It is always a surprise to discover how difficult it is to keep your attention focused in the present moment. When you begin your practice it doesn't take long before you are drifting to sleep, daydreaming, getting hungry, or even worrying about a conversation you had weeks ago. In time, the simple practice of bringing your attention back to your anchor point again and again slowly overcomes the momentum of these mental habits.
It is important to realize that the goal of concentration meditation in the beginning is not so much to keep your attention focused on the anchor point of your choosing, but rather to recognize AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE when your attention has wandered. The very act of recognizing that your attention has drifted brings your focus back under control. And from there you can gently return it to the anchor you have chosen. You may need to do this 20 or 200 times in a meditation session, but this simple practice of returning your attention again and again allows you to strengthen the power of your focus and concentration.
This basic concentration practice is the foundational skill of many meditative paths throughout history. It is the basic skill that all of the more advanced and sophisticated meditation techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, require. As a result, even though in some ways this practice can be initially tedious and difficult, it is the important foundation upon which the rest of your meditative journey rests. Much more information about developing your own meditation practice can be found in our Online Mindfulness Course.