The flashlight versus the candle: how to calm your mind, quickly and easily

We can use our attention in two ways: either as a flashlight or as a candle.

Flashlight attention is where we have a narrow, focused beam of awareness. We observe one aspect of our experience, and because our focus is narrow, we don’t notice much else. This is how we tend to use our attention during the day. You’re almost certainly using your attention like a flashlight right now as you focus on these words. You’re mostly aware of one word flowing after another, building up a pattern of meaning in your mind. You’re probably not aware (until I mention it) of the feeling of your bottom on your seat, or your shirt touching your back, or the air flowing through your nostrils.

A candle, unlike a flashlight, throws its light in all directions. When we use our attention in this way, we allow ourselves to be aware of everything that’s arising. So we can be aware of the whole body, the breathing, sounds arising from the outside world, and so on. Our perceptions will tend to be less detailed than with the flashlight form of attention, but a candle-like awareness can bring about a sense of calmness very quickly.

This is a form of attention that very few of us have experienced. Mostly in our daily lives we shine the flashlight of our attention on one thing after another, whether we’re in conversation, working on a computer, checking social media on our phones, or eating. To compensate for this narrow field of attention, we move the focus of our awareness rapidly from one thing to another. This can be quite exhausting.

I don’t mean to imply that when we have our attention focused on one thing, that’s strictly all that we experience. But it’s approximately true. We might be thinking about something while driving, and the driving is on automatic pilot. We might we watching TV while eating, and we barely notice our food. We might be reading, and not hear our children or spouse talking to us.

Often people try to meditate using a flashlight-type awareness, so that when we’re being mindful of the breathing, we focus on just a very small part of our experience. When I ask people, during meditation, to indicate what extent of their bodies they are paying attention to, most of them indicate a small area in the center of the chest.

Now the problem is that meditating by paying attention to such a narrow range of sensations isn’t easy. When we notice a thought coming along, the tendency is to switch the flashlight onto the thought. Now all we notice is the thought, and we’re completely caught up in the story that was enfolded within it. Then something jogs the flashlight, and we realize we’ve been distracted, so we move the flashlight beam back to the small part of the breathing that we’d been observing before. We end up doing this over and over.

The candle approach involves, first, softening the eyes. Literally let the muscles around the eyes go soft. Let your gaze rest on one spot without moving them around or focusing on anything in particular, and let yourself become aware of everything in your visual field. Become aware of sounds, smells, and anything other sensory information that’s arising from the world around you. Then begin to notice the body: everything at once, from where your body is touching the floor, right up to the crown of your head.

You can become aware of the breathing, but now instead of noticing just the center of the chest (or whatever else it is you normally focus on) you’ll notice a vast array of sensation, potentially from the whole body.

Your sense of the body won’t be as detailed as it is when you’re shining a flashlight of awareness around, examining one sensation or part of the body after another. Your impressions will be fuzzier and more general. And that’s OK. The important thing is that your experience will be richer and more interesting.

Also significant is that when thoughts arise, you’re now perceiving them as just one part of the vast landscape of sensation that the candle is illuminating. And because your attention isn’t focused on your thoughts, they don’t catch your attention in that way they normally do. You find that you can just let them drift through your sphere of attention like clouds through a blue sky. Thoughts don’t stop: they just stop bothering you.

This candle-like way of paying attention is restful. You can have the sense that you’re simply resting with an awareness of what’s already there, while normally it may seem that you’re having to “work” to be aware of things. In fact the remarkable thing about the candle mode of attention is that it so quickly and easily calms the mind. People who have struggled with their meditation practice for years find that they suddenly have access to calmness. It’s a simple shift in perception, but a profoundly radical one.

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Why “Do you meditate?” is the wrong question

wildmind meditation newsDavid Mochel, Huffington Post: Do you meditate? This question seems to be all the rage in popular media, and it is rapidly becoming a point of prestige among the high earning, high performing, corporate tech crowd. I have nothing against mediation – I do it regularly. However, I still think that “do you meditate?” is not the most helpful question.

One of the modern misconceptions about mindfulness meditation is that it is synonymous with relaxation. The reality is that when you practice paying attention, you may experience a relaxed state and you may not. Just like life. And this is okay. The goal is to …

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Can mindfulness help patients stick to lifestyle changes?

wildmind meditation newsKristin Gourlay, RIPR: Changes to diet and exercise can have a big impact on health. But sticking with a new regimen can be tough. Scientists are wondering whether a practice called mindfulness can help. Now a team of Brown University researchers has won a multi-million dollar federal grant to find out.

Mindfulness uses meditation to improve attention and self-awareness. Its effects have been shown to reduce stress. But Brown University epidemiologist Eric Loucks wants to try it on high blood pressure, or hypertension.

“So far no one has ever customized a mindfulness intervention to a hypertensive patient population,” Loucks said. “So that’s what this …

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Mindfulness very gently moving around the world’s classrooms

Colleen Ricci, The Age: Mindfulness meditation – the practice of quietening the mind to bring awareness and attention to the present moment – is increasingly being used in schools around the world as a tool to improve student wellbeing and enhance academic performance. Although originating in Buddhist religious tradition, it is a secular form of the practice that has become popular in classrooms and workplaces.

One particular program making headway on an international scale is the Britain-based Mindfulness in Schools Project. It provides two main courses designed specifically by teachers for …

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Multitasking? You’re killing yourself for nothing

Noreen Seebacher, CMS Wire: Midway between juxtaposed thoughts about a report I was struggling to complete and a phone call I just missed, I decided to check my email, look at LinkedIn and scan my Facebook feed – all while taking a brisk morning stroll in beautiful Beaufort, S.C., what I have come to consider one of the most pleasant places on the planet.

Then I stumbled on a post by Rohit Bhargava — a marketing author, keynote speaker and “nice guy” — and everything became clear.

This multitasking is

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How to use distractions to help your meditation

wildmind meditation newsMichael Taft, The Huffington Post: When I first started meditating, one of the hardest things was trying to stay focused. There were just so many things to do, people to interact with, noises like music or blaring car horns that shattered and upset my nascent meditative vibe. I felt like I was drowning. How could I focus in a sea of constant distraction?

The funny thing is that, more than 30 years later, the distractions are still the same. Sirens wail, the bladder complains, people demand my attention, life is moving along in just the same intense, chaotic, confusing manner. If anything, decades of …

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Attention: The most basic form of love

ants on a leaf

On my son Narayan’s sixth birthday, I gave him an ant farm. He spent hours watching with fascination as the little creatures magically created their network of tunnels. He even named several, and followed their struggles and progress closely.

After a few weeks, he pointed out the ants’ graveyard, and watched with wonder as several of them dragged the bodies of their dead comrades and deposited them there. The following day, when I picked Narayan up after school, he was visibly distressed: on the playground, the kids had made a game out of stepping on ants. My son couldn’t understand why his classmates were hurting these friends he so admired.

I tried to comfort him by explaining that when we really spend time with any living beings—as he had with the ants—we find out that they are real. They are changing, animated, hungry, social. Like us, their life is fragile and they want to stay alive. His playmates hadn’t had the chance to get to know ants in the way he did, I told him. If they had, they wouldn’t want to injure them either.

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Whenever we wholeheartedly attend to the person we’re with, to the tree in our front yard, or to a squirrel perched on a branch, this living energy becomes an intimate part of who we are.

Krishnamurti wrote that “to pay attention means we care, which means we really love.” Attention is the most basic form of love. By paying attention, we let ourselves be touched by life, and our hearts naturally become more open and engaged.

We care about this awakened heart because, like a flower in full bloom, it is the full realization of our nature. Feeling loved and loving matters to us beyond all else. We feel most “who we are” when we feel connected to each other and the world around us, when our hearts are open, generous, and filled with love. Even when our hearts feel tight or numb, we still care about caring.

In describing his own spiritual unfolding, Ghandi said, “I hold myself to be incapable of hating any being on earth. By a long course of prayerful discipline, I have ceased for over forty years to hate anybody. I know this is a big claim. Nevertheless, I make it in all humility.”

When we look at our own lives and at the history of humanity, we realize that hatred, anger, and all forms of dislike are a pervasive and natural part of being alive. Aversion arises because we are so deeply conditioned to feel separate and different from others. As Ghandi found, only by dedicating ourselves to some form of intentional training can we dissolve this tendency, and embrace all beings with acceptance and love.

For Mother Teresa, serving the poor and dying of Calcutta was a practice of viewing each person as “Christ in his distressing disguise.” By doing so, she was able to see beyond the differences that might have hardened her heart and to serve with unconditional compassion each person she touched.

Through meditation practice, as we train ourselves more and more to pay attention with an engaged and open heart to see past surface appearances, we too begin to recognize a perennial truth: we are all connected to one another; our true nature is timeless, radiant, loving awareness. With this realization we feel our belonging with ants and redwoods, hawks and rivers. By deepening our attention, we are naturally moved to take care of this living world–our inner life and all those we touch.

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Why is it so hard to pay attention? Or is it? Curiosity may be key to concentrating

wildmind meditation newsDr. Judson Brewer, Huffington Post: There is a new medication in early clinical trials that will likely revolutionize our ability to pay attention. Interested in learning more? Yes, we all are. The paradox here is that right now, because of this interest, you’re paying attention. We naturally pay attention when we are interested.

Given what we now know about the science behind how our brains learn best, what if we could tap into our natural interest to train ourselves to pay attention? Do I still have your attention?

Over 100 years ago, Edward Thorndyke described a neural process now known as reward-based learning. Many …

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Meditation improves productivity

wildmind meditation newsBeth Taylor, When we think of meditation, we may think of relaxation, breathing, and emptying the mind of stressful thoughts. It may be surprising to learn that the act of quiet meditation increases mental acuity and makes us more productive at work. Instead of meditation emptying our minds, it actually helps fill them with improved concentration and creativity.

Psychology Today reports on a plethora of benefits from including meditation in your routine. Decreasing stress is one, and improving physical health is another. Some of the benefits, however, are directly related to work productivity.

Improved Attention
A study published in 2007 found that after …

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Key points of awareness – Part II

lakeVisit Part I of this blog post here.


  • Concentration has two central factors: applying attention to an object and sustaining it there, like an ice skater plants her foot (applying) and then glides along (sustaining).
  • When you practice formal concentration, keep returning attention to the object (e.g., breath, sensation, emotion, memory of your mother), fully aware of it, absorbed in it. If other thoughts, concerns, plans, etc. bubble up, let them arise but don’t follow them, and keep giving your full attention to the object.
  • When doing concentration, don’t be tense or hard on yourself, but serious and intent, like a cat watching at a mousehole. Set a bit of your attention to watching how well you are staying concentrated, like a guardian, and to alert you to bringing your attention back if it starts to wander.
  • Let each moment with the object be fresh. For example, notice the qualities of each breath.
  • To help yourself be concentrated, especially in the beginning of practicing, you can experiment with counting breaths (up or down from ten; if you forget where you are, just start over) or with a soft mental note naming the object (e.g., “rising” [belly with the breath], “sadness,” “planning”)
  • Useful objects of concentration: sensations of the breath around the nostrils or heart or belly; the feeling tone of positive/neutral/negative of each experience; good intentions, lovingkindness toward yourself or others (e.g., “May my body be at ease.” “May I feel safe.” “May I have happiness and the causes of happiness.” “May my father be at peace.” “May my daughter be healthy.”
  • When doing concentration meditations, you may experience feelings of bliss, happiness, and one-pointedness; without striving, you can invite these feelings to arise and see what happens.


  • Anchored by background attention to a benign object – often the breath – mindfulness is a spacious, inclusive awareness of whatever is arising. Since that keeps changing, the trick of mindfulness is to stay aware of each part of the passing parade without getting sucked in.
  • Experiment with dividing your awareness between the breath (or perhaps an image or a mantra) and the flow of experience.
  • You could explore the four classic objects of mindfulness: (A) the body in all its sensations (notably, the breath), (B) the feeling tone of experience, (C) all the other psychological phenomena of thoughts, feelings, desires, etc., and (D) consciousness itself (so that you are aware of awareness).
  • And you can explore mindfulness while sitting quietly, walking, talking, or doing other actions.

See the Nature of Experience

  • Focused awareness lets you see into the fundamental nature of all experiences: Constantly changing; the result of endless prior causes; cascading along without need for an “I,” a self; never affecting awareness itself — accepting these facts brings great wisdom and peace of mind.
  • Notice that when we resist our experience . . . or scold ourselves for having it . . . or cling to some part of it . . . or fill it with self . . . . or think it will last . . . —– then we feel bad and suffer.

Know Your Innate Goodness

  • See the facts of your good qualities, like any other objectively true thing.
  • Be aware of any resistance to th at knowing. Let it flow and go.
  • Reflect on your: Good intentions. Kindness toward others. Good character qualities.
  • Sense your own essential being: conscious, interested, benign: a peaceful happy abiding.
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