When I first learned meditation I was taught an analogy for how to concentrate in meditation that after all these years still holds good in my understanding. It is like holding a bar of soap in the shower; if you hold it too loosely it will slip out of your hand, but if you hold it too tightly then the tension of the grip will cause the soap to ‘ping’ out of your hand. So in order to hold the bar of soap you need to have the right balance of grip strength and gentleness, too much of either and the soap will slip from your grasp.

Concentration in meditation and mindfulness is like this; you need the right balance of relaxation and alert effort. If your concentration is too relaxed then you will keep forgetting and loosing the object of your contemplation. Conversely however, if you try too hard to focus then the tension of your effort itself will cause your concentration to be impeded. So you have to hold this ever delicate balance of relaxation and alertness in order to sustain your focus over time. This balance is one way of interpreting what Buddha meant by ‘the middle way’; we avoid the extremes of over-exertion or laziness by hitting this combined, balanced state of alert-relaxation.

So you could say that meditation and mindfulness are a perpetual dance of relaxation and alertness; you are trying to find a complementary and mutually supportive combination of these two qualities so they are like dance partners that mutually enhance each other’s qualities as opposed to being like two opposing fighters that are continually trying to knock each other down.

Generally this is a skill that we have to learn because for most people relaxation and alert effort are two different habitual modes of our being, either we are relaxing and reducing our level of alertness, or we are expending effortful alertness at the expense of our experience of relaxation.

So when we learn the dance through meditation and mindfulness we can then start taking it into all sorts of practical domains in our life, for example:

  • What might the dance of relaxation and alertness look like when dealing with challenging emotions, avoiding the extremes of crushing and repressing the emotion or allowing it to completely control us?
  • What might the dance of relaxed alertness look like in a business meeting?
  • What might it look like when making love?
  • When trying to get to sleep?
  • When dealing with disappointment or elation?
  • When focused on a sporting activity?

All questions to dance with.

This week if you like you can just spend a few minutes focusing on your breath specifically as a method of getting a feel for the dance of relaxation and alertness. Then in your daily activities keep experimenting with how the dance can help you with your daily activities, choices and challenges, increasing both your happiness and performance.

By Toby Ouvry,, Contributor of //LIVE SIMPLY//