Q: I have been trying to meditate, but in spite of my best efforts, when I sit down and close my eyes I find myself rehashing the past or making plans for the future instead. Why is it so difficult to turn my attention away from the outside world and focus it inward?
A: Many people find it challenging to withdraw the mind from the external world and turn it inward. Why? Because the external world is familiar. This is what we know. This is where we are born, where we live, and where we will die. Our concept of loss and gain, failure and success is confined to the outer world and defined by it. We are convinced that the material world is complete and solid. Because our belief in the reality of this world is beyond doubt, it is impossible for us to conceive of letting go of it.
A mind that does not have a firm understanding of the unsatisfactory nature of the so-called pleasures of the world tends to go back to its old grooves. So until your practice becomes firm, spend a few minutes every day in contemplation. Study yourself. Examine the nature of pleasure and pain, and determine for yourself how much peace and lasting satisfaction you have found in the external world.
As you think about it, you will realize you have been searching for happiness all your life, yet in spite of your best efforts, your mind has remained scattered and filled with negative thoughts. Remind yourself of all the disappointments you have suffered trying to find lasting peace and happiness using the transitory objects found in the external world. Remember that worldly objects and the thoughts associated with them are in constant flux and that an outwardly oriented mind will fall prey to these short-lived feelings of pleasure and pain. Reminding yourself of these truths every day will strengthen your resolve to turn your mind inward, and will deepen your conviction that this is the only way you will find peace and lasting joy.
This will go a long way to resolving part of the problem you are facing. The other part of the problem, which many people encounter in trying to turn the mind inward, is that the mind is in the habit of constantly running from one object to another. Such a mind cannot concentrate for the prolonged period of time meditation requires. As you have discovered, if you attempt to force your mind to stay still and concentrate, it will make excuses, play tricks, and wander off into the past or make plans for the future. In the end, you reach nowhere.
Meditation is possible only when the mind is focused, organized, and calm. Because a fragmented mind cannot be turned inward, the first step is to collect the fragments by training the mind to concentrate. Concentrating a scattered mind is like attempting to collect droplets of mercury—they slip away when you try to pick them up.
Asking a mind that is used to thinking of 30 things in 10 minutes to think of only one thing for 10 minutes is asking too much. So compromise by creating a situation in which you are neither forcing your mind to focus on one object for a long period of time nor letting it run constantly from one object to another. Provide your mind with a series of objects; focus on one object for a short time, and then allow the mind to move to the next object before it becomes rebellious.
Training the mind to travel from one point in your body to another point according to your plan is the basis of all systematic relaxation exercises. This technique allows the mind to slow down while moving from one place to the next. In the 10 minutes it takes for the mind to move through the body, it becomes concentrated. In this way, a systematic and gentle mental training has begun.
In the course of a daily systematic relaxation practice, the mind gradually begins to realize that turning inward engenders a delightful sense of ease and stillness. It has been running in the external world searching for happiness, but often finding disappointment and frustration instead. But once it turns inward and slows down, it encounters centers of peace and tranquility within—the eyebrow center or the heart center, for example. This causes the mind to become less interested in running after the objects of the world. It is now willing to go back to that restful place voluntarily because it has discovered that the delight it finds within overshadows the charms and temptations of the external world. The natural and almost effortless process of meditation begins from here.