Focusing the Mind

As we begin to practice meditation, many of us experience doubts. One of our biggest questions is, “How can I concentrate? My mind gets distracted so easily!” We may blame the hectic pace of our modern lives, but Buddhist teachers have been talking about the “monkey mind” for two millennia.

In this video clip, a student in Taiwan asks a version of this question. Is focusing the mind an impossible task? Phakchok Rinpoche responds with very practical advice.

Surprisingly, Rinpoche begins by questioning our assumptions about focusing the mind. Can we pay attention to our favorite movie?

Pause and think about this seriously for a moment. What habitual beliefs are being challenged in this question?

Rinpoche notes that we that the question of foucs occurs to us when we start to meditate. Why can’t we focus on the breath when we sit down to practice?


Focusing the Mind: What Does Karma Have to Do with It?

Our minds don’t really listen to what we want or plan to do. Rinpoche warns us that this situation is very dangerous. We see from our experience that our mind flies away from us.

Have you ever heard Buddhist people say that they don’t know where they will be reborn? They might say their karma is so strong they have no control. We may have reservations when we hear such statements. But we do experience some proof of this lack of control when we sit to meditate. We can’t control our minds, can we?

Sometimes we receive teachings about karma, but we don’t really know how to understand them. Yet, when we sit to meditate, we understand that our karma affects everything. If we observe our minds at this time, then we see first-hand how unstable our minds are.

Three Things Preventing Focused Mind

  • Emotions: these are like violent robbers. Negative emotions can be so strong that we are completely overwhelmed and unable to focus.
  • Thoughts: are like a thief. We think we are meditating, but soon we start thinking and we follow the thoughts.
  • Subtle thoughts: are like a very skilled and sneaky thief. We drift slightly away, and we may not even realize we are thinking.

How strong is our karma, the karmic wind? If our minds are constantly thinking, then we can’t stay for even one second.

Focusing Requires Practice

After a little bit of time, however, we realize we can sit for 3 seconds. Slowly, we can build up the amount of time. Then gradually, the robbers and the thieves stop coming. Focusing takes time.

Rinpoche’s main advice is to try to practice every day. We really have only one way to succeed. The only choice is to try.


We can approach meditation practice like we learn to drive. In the beginning, we have to consciously remember so many things and we are very stressed. But over time, driving becomes easy, almost automatic. Similarly, with meditation, we need practice. We use trial and error and that is the only way to improve. Keep trying! That is how we get better.


Tools to Help Focusing

Finally, we can also rely on useful tools. The Buddhist toolbox is full of practices that support our meditation. Many of these ritual practices help a distracted mind because they use our “busyness” and external energy to engage in virtuous activity. As we do that, our mind naturally relaxes and settles. And then we may find it much easier to focus! Making supplications, setting our motivation, accumulating merit through offering butter lamps or water bowls, and confessing all can help our meditation practice.