The Stare-Off: An Introduction to Concentration Practices

Posted: July 31, 2014 in Games
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This is a wonderful way to introduce people to concentration practices. On the one hand it is a lot of fun, thus giving people an initial positive association with whatever practice they are learning. More substantially, it also gives them a very real and direct experience with some of the fundamental aspects of developing attentional stability via a meditation object such as the breath, a visual object, a mantra, etc.


  • Everyone gets into pairs and sits facing their partner.
  • Pairs have a “stare-off,” where the goal is to not break eye contact with each other. Blinking is okay, but if eye contact is broken then the person who broke it is knocked out of the game.
  • Each round is a total of three minutes. For the first minute, the stare-off happens in silence. For the last two minutes, participants can attempt to distract their ‘opponent.’  As other pairs finish (someone breaks the focus), they can also come and try to distract people still in astare-off.
  • At the end of three minutes, anyone still staring goes on to the next round.
  • After the first round, participants who were knocked out of the running still play an important role in the game. For one thing they can be assigned to different pairs as judges for the ongoing staring matches. Also, after the first minute of each round, they’ll be part of the distractions (and I’ve seen groups of such participants organize rather elaborate distractions).
  • This continues for as many rounds as you see fit. There need not be an ultimate winner. 
  • Afterwards, have an “unpacking” discussion session, focusing on questions like the following:
    • What tactics worked to help keep your gaze fixed?
    • What were the hardest types of distractions to ignore?
    • What worked for you when it came to ignoring distractions?
  • Having completed this process, you can now use the participants’ experience of the staring contest as a highly effective way to introduce them to whatever concentration practice(s) you may be teaching. For example, you could give the following instructions:

“Have a staring contest with the meditation object, using whatever tactics worked for you during the stare-off.  Notice how distractions will arise in the background. See if you can treat them in the very same way that you treated distractions during the staring contest.”

Instruction Notes:

  • You may want to keep track of the participants the way that names/teams are organized in a tournament (who’s competing with whom, who wins and goes on to the next competition, etc.).
  • When it comes to the distractions, you’ll likely need to set limits depending on the age of the participants. Some basic ones are, “no physical contact” or, “nothing within a one-foot bubble around each participant.” With teenagers up through college age, I’ve seen participants try to use sexual innuendos as a form of distraction, so a brief discussion about appropriateness could be in order.
  • If there are an odd number of people for any round, you can randomly select someone to get a “bye” to the next round.

Application Notes:

  • During the unpacking session, write some of the ideas shared by the participants in a place that you can return to in future classes—e.g. a large piece of paper you can save, a board that won’t get erased, a computer file that can be projected on a smart board, etc. This is especially true when it comes to tactics they found useful in a) staying focused on their opponents’ eyes, and b) ignoring distractions.
  • Having saved these group-generated tactics, you can return to them again and again when going over whatever concentration practices you may be teaching. Participants can select different tactics from the list at different times and try them out for themselves, experimenting with what works for each of their minds.
  • After participants have had some experience trying out a concentration practice and (inevitably) getting acquainted with their common distractions, it can make for an interesting discussion to compare the kinds of distractions that were most effective during the staring contest with the kinds of distractions that are most powerful during meditation.

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