Why "One-Pointed Attention" Doesn't Work

Wouldn’t it be amazing to focus like a laser beam, to summon “one-pointed attention” at will? Well, you can’t - at least not for long. Because your mind doesn’t work that way. Fortunately, there’s an even better way to concentrate – and it starts with thinking of focus as a circle rather than a dot.

If you’ve tried to learn how to meditate, or to focus better, you’ve probably come across the idea of one-pointed attention – that you can focus your mind at will, and pinpoint and then “lock in” on whatever is the object of your focus.

A lot of meditation instruction works this way. Focus on your breath. Whenever your mind strays, keep bringing your mind back to the breath. The goal is that, over time, you’ll develop one-pointed attention on your breath and be able to sustain this one-pointed attention for longer and longer periods.

If you’ve tried this, you’ve probably noticed pretty quickly that your mind doesn’t want to focus incessantly on your breath. Your mind wanders – a lot. You focus on your breath for a few seconds, and then you’re suddenly thinking about the fight you had with a friend, or the girl you had a crush on in 7th grade, or what you’re having for dinner. Or just about anything – anything but the breath.

So once you notice you’re no longer focused on the breath, you try to do as you've been instructed - you try not to chastise yourself over your inattention, and try returning to the breath. For a few more seconds, only to start the cycle over again. And again.

I’m not knocking standard meditation practice. It has its place, in fact a very important place. A growing body of research shows profound positive physical and psychological changes that can happen with a consistent meditation practice. Better focus, lower blood pressure, better ability to handle stress, better sleep, even physical changes in the brain itself. A regular meditation practice can do a lot for you.

But you may have noticed that many people find it hard to sustain a consistent meditation practice. And although there are documented short-term benefits, the profound results we see in Tibetan monks and the like can take years or even decades to achieve.

Many of us phase in and out of a regular meditation practice, either bored to tears or unable to make the time or frustrated with our slow progress. Like going to the gym, we make an enthusiastic start of it, but eventually give up.

If you engage in a regular meditation practice, by all means continue. You will unquestionably see many benefits. But for the rest of us who have a hard time keeping it going, or find it boring, or aren’t seeing results, there’s another way. A better way.

Your Attention is Not a Dot. It’s a Circle.

The reason why the standard breath meditation is hard for many of us to sustain is that this isn’t the way our minds work. It’s not our natural way of paying attention. And it’s not how we typically need to pay attention to the world around us.

If you’re reading a book, you aren’t simply focusing on one word for as long as you can, and then returning over and over to that word each time your attention strays. When you attend a class or watch someone give a talk, you don’t simply fixate on one thing they said and stay there.

In fact, to do that would be counterproductive. What you do instead is take in a flow of related ideas, one following the other, and form images and impressions in your mind, making connections between the ideas. That’s the kind of attention that best serves us.

Cultivating one-pointed attention – the dot – can be very useful in building our capacity to pay attention. But paying attention to a broader spectrum of related ideas or images – the circle – is what best serves you in real life and is more consistent with the way your brain actually works.

Skyrocketing Your Attention By Cultivating the Circle

If you want to improve your attention in a natural way that you can use in real life, then cultivate the circle, not the dot. So how do you do this?

The most important part of this practice is to switch among a collection of thoughts, images or ideas that are all connected to one another. In other words, each thought, image or idea is a “dot” that falls within a consistent subject or theme, which is the “circle.” By moving among the various dots within the circle, you will notice each dot more, draw connections among the dots, and most important, pay attention easily as you do this.

This works with anything. Let’s go back to the one-pointed attention model of the breath meditation, but now do it differently by paying attention to the circle. Instead of focusing on the dot of the breath, inevitably losing focus and then returning, try focusing on the breath in different ways and switch among those different ways. Now the breath itself becomes the circle of your attention, and the various ways of perceiving the breath become the dots within that circle.

For example, you could notice your breath moving generally in and out of your body. After a few seconds, notice the space that your lungs occupy and the breath filling and then leaving that space. You can then notice the sound of your breath. Then how slow or fast your breathing is. Then you can notice how the breath feels as you inhale and exhale. Then notice the space surrounding your lungs as the breath fills your lungs.

Then the sensation of the breath as it first enters your nostrils or mouth. Then you can follow the breath as it enters your body, goes through your windpipe and into your lungs, and then back out again. You can then notice the small space that exists between the inhale and the exhale, and then again between the the exhale and the inhale.

Each of these points of attention on the breath is a dot. If you were to focus exclusively on any one of them, you would be back to the same dynamic as standard breath meditation where you would lose focus after a while, then repeatedly return to it.

Instead, by focusing on one dot, then moving to another related dot and then another, you are far more engaged and much less likely to lose focus. You’ll also find it more interesting, and you’ll be practicing the way your brain needs to pay attention in real life. This is more like reading a book or listening to a presentation – a series of related “dots” gradually unfolding within a “circle” that is the story or subject.

But aren’t there activities that require one-pointed attention? Like hitting the bullseye with an arrow or shooting a basketball from the free throw line? Even such seemingly one-pointed activities require focusing on the circle.

The successful archer or free throw shooter doesn’t merely look at the dot of the target or hoop. They are focusing closely on the target or hoop, but are also aware of the space around it, their own bodies, the proximity of their body to the target, etc. They couldn’t reach their target without being aware of the context of the target – the circle.

Note well that becoming aware of all the dots within the circle is not the same as multi-tasking. The dots are within the same circle because, by definition, they all relate to each other. Multi-tasking is connecting dots from different circles that have nothing to do with each other, which your brain is not designed for.

When you text and drive, you are multi-tasking. When you focus on the totality of your driving alone – rapidly switching your attention between your hands on the steering wheel, foot on the gas pedal and brake, the speed you are traveling, what the vehicles near you are doing – then you are not multi-tasking, but focusing on all the dots within the circle called driving.

If you have a meditation practice, or if you want to have one, try this approach of creating a circle for your focus and then switching among the dots within it. You can then use this approach for anything you need or want to pay close attention to.