Focus out: Anchor and merge

In this meditation path, you anchor yourself and merge with external visual impressions, external sound and physical body sensations.

Focusing on the sensory experiences of the outside world creates an experience of being grounded. It calms your mind and gives you more awareness, equanimity and presence in the situation you are in and in life itself.

It is a tangible strategy that pulls you away from the past, future and thoughts and shows you the possibilities of the present moment.

The ultimate goal of Focus out is to experience unity with the outside world.

Daily life opens up opportunities

Focus out is a powerful way to meditate during everyday activity.

In many situations, you do not have to think a lot to do what you do: when you go from one place to another, when you do the dishes, when you stand in line, when you brush your teeth, etc.

By doing Focus out in these acitvities, everyday routines become small opportunities to train your attention.

Another side effect is that you never have to be bored again. Dead time ceases to exist. Gone.

We like to call small meditation sessions during the day micro-practices.

Het Melkmeisje, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1660

Flow state training

Not only do everyday routines become less tedious when doing Focus out, they can also become deeply satisfying.

If you perform actions that require a high degree of concentration, while you experience that you master the task, it will tend to lead you into flow states.

In flow states, we experience deep satisfaction, unity with the outside world and higher cognitive function.

In cognitive science, it has been suggested that flow states are “insight cascades” , which means that one insight follows after another at a rapid pace.

Some activities are specifically designed to cultivate flow states. Martial arts, rock climbing and alpine skiing are perhaps best known for this. But using the framework of Focus out many activities can lead you there. 

Turn your attention towards or away from?

You have two basic places to focus your attention. You can turn your attention towards something, or you can turn it away .

Let’s say you are sitting out in the sun one spring day, and then you hear all the birds singing. Because this is a good opportunity to meditate on something that is pleasant and interesting, you choose to meditate on what you hear, and use the bird song as a Focus out meditation object. You turn your attention towards the singing.

Let’s then imagine that someone starts a chainsaw nearby. Now the sound of a chainsaw becomes what dominates the soundscape. Although you can still barely hear the birds, the sound of a chainsaw cuts through your awareness and attention is drawn to it like a magnet.

Now you have a choice in your meditation: You can turn towards the chainsaw, or choose a more challenging practice: to turn away from the chainsaw and towards the bird chirping. Both practices can be equally good.

Making an effort to direct your attention towards or away from something is an active stance. Focus out is also suitable for a passive stance, where you let the attention’s inherent fascination with impressions take the lead. Just let the attention go from one sensory experience to the other without controlling anything – but stay within the realm of external sound, external sight and non-emotional body sensations.

Focus out as a strategy for stress reduction

Maybe you are in an overwhelming situation or having a high level of stress. Or you are experiencing intense emotions and incessant thoughts. Sometimes it can be useful to work directly with these feelings and thoughts by doing Focus in. But other times it can be more fruitful to turn your attention away, for example by doing Focus out .

(The other meditation paths that are also suitable for diverting attention from something are Focus on restFocus on change and Nurture positive)

On a psychological level, this is similar to a method known in psychology as “diversion”. In a crisis, a therapist can encourage the client to ground themselves by focusing on external visual impressions, in sounds and so on. A similar strategy is used by athletes to take their mind away from exhaustion and boredom.

But there is an important difference between focusing out as a distraction and focusing out as a meditation practice. As a meditation practice, you don’t do this just to cope with the moment in a small or large crisis. What we are talking about here is a systematic apparatus designed to permanently increase the basic levels of concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity.

Focus out in practice

General guidance

  1. Let other things happen in the background just the way they want
    • While you are focusing outward, other things will certainly happen, perhaps quite intensely. That’s okay. Just let it happen in the background of your attention, while the foreground of your attention is busy focusing outward.
    • If you are drawn into one of these distractions, go back to the technique kindly and calmly.
    • Pronouncing labels can be helpful. (Read more about labels below.)
  2. You can still focus on the outside even if there is a lot of unrest
    • Remember that focusing beyond does not require you to be completely free from all discomfort, stress or unrest.
    • You can have a lot of restlessness in your mind and body and still do the technique absolutely perfectly!
  3. You have several options
    • You can pronounce, or mentally note labels, or notice what is happening without using labels, according to what works best for you at a given time.
    • You can zoom in, zoom out, zoom both ways or not intentionally zoom at all, depending on what works best for you at any given time.
    • You can decide to consciously limit what you notice to only one or two areas (eg just HEAR) or you can choose to move freely between them.
    • Want more options? Find more here.

Four basic techniques

Basically, you have four focus options in Focus Out :

  1. Only external visual impressions
  2. External sound only
  3. Only non-emotional body sensations
  4. All at the same time: External vision + external sound + non-emotional body sensations

Focus on just external vision

  1. With your eyes open, let your vision flow freely from one place to another, from object to object, or from place to place on an object.
  2. Every time you look at something new, or repeat focusing on an object, use the label SEE
  3. It does not matter if the shift comes by itself or is conscious.
  4. It also does not matter if the shift is due to a physical movement in the eye or just a movement in the attention.
  5. You can also use AWAY every time you notice that you have switched your gaze to something new.
  6. If at some point you need to rest, you can defocus your eyes. Then the label SEE REST
  7. Focus on the specific experience for a few seconds (3-5) – or until it disappears on its own.
  8. After a few seconds, put a new label – either on the same experience or another.

To make the practice more pleasant and interesting, you can consciously look at pleasant objects or views that you like, for example while hiking in nature.

Focus on external sound only

  1. When you notice sound, or part of a sound (such as an instrument in a piece of music), focus on it.
  2. Use the label HEAR
  3. If all or part of the sound is lost or suddenly loses strength, use the label GONE
  4. If there is no sound in any direction, use HEAR REST
  5. Try to pay attention to this without having any preference for whether there is any sound or not, or whether it is comfortable or not.
  6. Focus on the specific experience for a few seconds (3-5) – or until it disappears on its own.
  7. After a few seconds, put a new label – either on the same experience or another.

The sounds can be those that occur naturally around you or sounds that you like and have chosen to play through a speaker, headphones, etc. All music can be used!

Focus on just non-emotional body sensations

  1. When you notice a physical non-emotional body sensation, use the label FEEL
  2. The location of the physical sensation can be anywhere in or on your body.
  3. If all or part of the feeling disappears or suddenly loses strength, use the label GONE
  4. If you do not feel physical sensation in your body for a while, use the FEEL REST label.
  5. Try to pay attention to this without having any preference for whether it is comfortable or not.
  6. Focus on the specific experience for a few seconds (3-5) – or until it disappears on its own.
  7. After a few seconds, put a new label – either on the same experience or another.

Common examples of non-emotional body sensations include:

Focus on all objective sensory experiences

  1. Let your attention flow between external visual impressions, external sounds and physical body feelings.
  2. If several are available at the same time, just choose one to notice. If the eyes are closed, it will only be the external sounds and the physical body feelings to focus on.
  3. If something you notice that something is missing or suddenly becomes less intense, mark it as GONE.
  4. If for a moment you do not experience any physical sensory impressions at all, use the label ALL REST.
  5. Try to pay attention to this without having any preference for whether there is any activity or not, or whether it is comfortable or not.
  6. Focus on the specific experience for a few seconds (3-5) – or until it disappears on its own.
  7. After a few seconds, put a new label – either on the same experience or another.

Video demonstration

In the video below, Shinzen and Stephanie Nash demonstrates the Focus out technique. They use an earlier version of the labels (sight, sound, touch instead of see, hear, feel) but the technique is the same.

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