A PhD candidate and teacher at the University of Michigan asked how he could help himself focus on completing his degree.
"I have to prepare for the courses I teach while I am also working on my PhD. I am often preoccupied and have difficulty focusing. I would like to be more in the moment and really aware of what's going on around me. I don't want to be distracted when I am working. The problem is my inability to stay focused 100% on the work I am doing at the time I am doing it. I understand that it is possible to be present and focused using Zen practice. I came here tonight because I want to learn more about this practice."
To a small extent there is such a practice. However, that practice does not solve the underlying problem. For example, if there is a 7 foot wall in front of you and somebody asks you to jump over it. You try 10 times, but fail. Then if someone threatens to shoot you if you don't jump over the wall, you will probably climb over the wall successfully. So the reason why you are not able to focus on your task is that your subconscious is telling you that it's okay if you fail to get your PhD. If you really think deep down in your subconscious that failing to get your PhD means you will lose everything, you will feel a real sense of urgency. Then your focus cannot go anywhere else even if you want it to. Right now your subconscious is telling you that everything will be fine even if you don't get a PhD. So ask yourself, "Is this really important to me?" The contradiction is that you want to get your PhD and keep your job but not have to put in the required effort.
"It sounds like you are saying, buckle down."
I am not saying you should force yourself to make more of an effort, because if it's something you really want to do, you will do it automatically. So it's not a matter of buckling down, but a matter of just doing it.
"I am afraid I don't want to do it, but it's got to be done."
There is no such thing. If you don't want to do it, then you don't have to do it. If you don't want to do it, but, at the same time, it's good for you to do it, then you just have to do it. It's difficult for you to focus right now because you are getting your PhD in order to make a living instead of genuinely wanting to discover something new in your area of study. So what I want to tell you is you don't have to do it if you don't want to. When you have that kind of internal contradiction between wanting your PhD and not wanting to make the necessary effort to get it and you use meditation as a tool to resolve the problem, that's a mirage. Meditation is about gaining direct insight into the contradiction inside yourself and trying to resolve that contradiction within you. Once you gain that insight, if you decide something does not work for you, then you have to let it go. At that point you can use the term, empty your mind.
This is a question that was asked during a live Dharma session at the University of Michigan in October, 2014.