Our attention essentially works in two modes: open/expansive awareness and focused concentration. And our brains go between those modes daily as we think, sense, feel, perform tasks and move around about our day. In the world of creativity and innovation, we’ve actually harnessed these two capacities in respect to our thinking: you may know them as Convergent and Divergent thinking, in order to go wide and deep into the topic at hand.
Meditation works quite the same way, only we’re not working through a topic, we’re sitting with ourselves and our innate capacities to just observe and not think. The practice is basically being able to observe this phenomenon going on and practicing the recovery of not judging or attaching to the thinking. I make it sound easy, it’s not. It’s one of the hardest things to do — and requires years of practice to reach refinement. Especially when adding environmental stressors. It’s one thing to sit at the top of a mountain to empty yourself, and its another thing altogether to do that when someone is yelling at or lunging towards you.
The art of observing requires some stabilization and this is why many concentration practices get you to focus on your posture (or body in space), breath or even a mantra or inquiry. These three tools help stabilize the two modes of awareness so that we can become more conscious of how they operate.