concentration

Seven ways to collect and concentrate your mind and energy

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

I’m old enough to remember a time when people usually answered “good” when you asked them the standard, “How are you?” (often said “harya?”). These days the answer is commonly “busy.”

In the last few months I’ve been very busy myself and starting to feel dispersed: juggling a dozen priorities at any moment, attention skittering from one thing to another, body revved up, feeling stretched thin and spread out like an octopus squished between two sheets of glass.

You know the feeling? Besides being both unpleasant and a spigot of stress hormones, it’s weirdly contagious. Spreading from one person to another and fueled in part by the underlying economics of consumerism, we now have a Western and especially American culture of busyness. If you’re not busy, you must not be important. If you don’t have a lot on your mind, you must be under-performing. If your kids aren’t busy with homework and after school activities, they won’t get ahead. If you don’t look busy, someone will ask you to work harder. Etc.

Enough already. Instead of being scattered to the four winds, collect and concentrate your mind and energy. Besides feeling a lot better, it’s more effective in the long run. For example, what does an Olympic gymnast do before launching into a run or a rocket before heading into space? Come to center.

1. Savor Pleasure
As the brain evolved, pleasure and its underlying endorphins and other natural opioids developed to pull our ancestors out of disturbed fight-flight-freeze bursts of stress and return them and keep them in a sustainable equilibrium of recover-replenish-repair. Let physical or mental pleasure really land; give yourself over to it fully rather than looking for the next thing.

2. Move
Dance, exercise, yoga, walks, lovemaking, play, and athletics reset the body-mind. For me personally, movement at either end of the intensity spectrum – very subtle or very vigorous – has the most impact.

3. Get Wild
We evolved in nature, and multiple studies are showing that natural settings – the beach, wilderness, sitting under a tree in your back yard – are restorative.

4. Enjoy Art
By this I mean making or experiencing anything aesthetic, such as doing crafts, listening to music, watching a play, trying a new recipe, playing your guitar, building a fence, or taking a pottery class.

5. Feel the Core
Most of the inputs into your brain originate within your own body, and most if not all of those signals are like night watchmen calling, “All is well. All is well. All is well . . .” Feeling into your breathing, sensing into your innards, and noticing that you are alright right now are endlessly renewing opportunities to settle into the physical center of your being.

6. Be Now
The center of time is always this moment. A primary difference between humans and other species (with the possible exception of cetaceans) is our capacity for “mental time travel.” But this blessing is also in some ways a curse in that the mind keeps dispersing itself into the past and the future; it proliferates worries, plans, rehashings, and fantasies like manic vines in a speeded-up jungle. Instead, right now be now. And again.

7. Get Disenchanted
This means waking up from the spell, from the enchantments woven by the wanting mind in concert with culture and commerce. We normally pursue hundreds of little goals each day – return this call, organize that event, produce these emails, get across those points – associated with presumed rewards produced by ancient brain centers to motivate our reptilian and mammalian ancestors. Let the truth land that these rewards are rarely as good as promised.

Again and again I’ve had to remind myself to quit chasing the brass ring. While staying engaged with life, return to the reliable rewards of feeling already full – the undoing of the craving, broadly defined, that creates suffering and harm. Try a little practice on first waking or at other times in which you take a few seconds or longer to feel already peaceful, already contented, and already loved. This is the home base of body, brain, and mind.

Come home to center.

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Four cast-iron benefits of mindfulness

Many thousands of studies demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness have now been published, to the point where mindfulness can almost seem like a miracle cure. The problem is that not all of these studies were conducted well enough to be taken seriously.

Daniel Goleman (author of “Emotional Intelligence”) and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson combed through thousands of studies and found that only one percent of them match the current gold standards for medical research. While we could rightly despair at the poor methodology of the 99 percent, we could instead focus on the four strongly confirmed findings that Goleman and Davidson have identified in the studies conducted using the soundest protocols.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review Goleman outlined those four confirmed benefits, which are: stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and kindness. No doubt because he was writing for HBR, Goleman wrote about mindfulness mainly in terms of a tool for creating better workers for corporations — for example parsing kindness as “good corporate citizenship.” So I’d like to take those four benefits and write about them in a less corporate way, looking at how they can benefit us spiritually.

Stronger focus

People who practice mindfulness regularly experience less mind-wandering and distractibility.

Why is this important, and how can it benefit you? Mindfulness improves our filters. It helps us to identify when the mind is wandering in ways that are unhelpful for us, and to bring our attention back to our present-moment experience. Much of the time when the mind is wandering it’s engaged in what the Buddhist meditation tradition calls the “five hindrances” — craving, getting angry, worrying, low energy states of avoidance, and doubting. These hindrances diminish our sense of well-being and cause toxic effects in our interpersonal relationships and in our lives generally.

Reduced mind-wandering goes hand-in-hand with improved executive function, or self-control. Neurologically, what is happening is that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is learning to regulate and damp down activity in the amygdala, which triggers disruptive emotions like anger or anxiety. When we are mindful it’s easier for us to avoid things like addictive activities and needless conflict because we’re able to monitor the mind, spot the early stages of these activities beginning to kick in, and choose other ways of being.

Mindfulness, in other words, gives us greater mental freedom, which in turn brings us greater happiness and more harmony in our lives.

Staying calmer under stress

Since the prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala more effectively when we’re mindful, mindfulness reduces stress.

This tends to make for better decision-making. When the amygdala is firing strongly it suppresses activity in the prefrontal cortex, which means that we don’t think clearly and make bad decisions. We might, for example, feel panicky about opening bills, stash them out of sight, and thereby increase the number of problems we have. Mindfulness helps us to think more clearly.

Mindfulness also improves our inter-personal relationships. When the amygdala is over-active, it’s constantly looking for potential threats, for example by worrying that someone doesn’t like us or is intending to insult us. Rather than waste energy reacting to “threats” that may not even exist we can just get on with building productive, sustaining, and nourishing connections with others.

This in turn leads to us having a better support network, so that we’re better able to deal with other stresses in our lives.

Better memory

Those who practice mindfulness show a stronger short-term memory (or working memory). For example, the graduate school entrance exams of college students who were taught to be more mindful scores showed increases of 16 percent.

The purpose of working memory is to keep relevant information in conscious awareness while it’s needed. The better our working memory, the more information can be stored there without data loss. On a very practical level, with a poor working memory it’s hard to remember a seven digit phone number long enough to dial it — intrusive thoughts or the inability to screen out other information disrupt our ability to keep the number in mind. Things like performing mental arithmetic depend highly on working memory as well, which partly explains the 16 percent boost that mindful students saw on their Graduate Record Exam scores.

But the benefits of better working memory are more profound than that. An improved working memory allows us to keep ethical principles and guidelines in mind as we go about life. Often the problem with being mindful or kind is that we just forget. So we might have an intention to be less reactive with our spouse, children, or colleagues, but find that this intention fades from the mind in the midst of our interactions. This is a failure of memory, and comes about because we’re not able to consciously keep our long-term goals in mind (such as “be more kind”) while attending to short-term ones, such as responding to what someone just said.

When we’re working on becoming better people — kinder, more compassionate, more honest, more courageous — we need to be able to keep those long-term aims in mind. This is what Buddhist psychology calls “sampajañña” — or continuity of purpose. Long-term change is difficult without this quality.

Kindness

Goleman presents this in terms of mindful people making “good corporate citizens,” which is an angle that I find rather jarring — as if the point of mindfulness practice is to fit in so that we can make more money for corporations.

He does also point out that mindfulness practice leads to “more activity in brain circuits for caring, increased generosity, and a greater likelihood of helping someone in need.”

In other words, mindfulness makes us kinder and more compassionate. This has benefits that go well beyond making more money for businesses. It creates more harmonious families and communities, and helps people who are struggling. In short, mindfulness can help us create a better world — something that’s desperately needed in these challenging times.

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How mindfulness can help us appreciate food

wildmind meditation newsDerek Watson, Herald Scotland: When I was a wee girl my daddy used to cajole me and my brother and sisters into finishing our meals by playing a game in which we were to imagine each forkful going to a different part of our bodies. Beef and potato, for instance, would be mashed up and formed into a pie shape, which we took great delight in dividing into wedges. On dad’s instruction we’d scoop up each piece and as we swallowed we’d imagine it going to, say, our left knee or our right pinky toe or a bicep or an eye. We imagine …

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Conscious breathing to regular breathing

Partha Pratim Bose, The Hindu: A 65-year-old alcoholic with irregular heartbeats was subjected to a rehabilitation programme. He was subjected to cognitive behaviour therapy and trained on this breathing technique to control his mind.

Have you observed that when you tickle your own armpits you do not feel ticklish. If another person does the tickling, however, you feel ticklish. Why is this? Recently, it has come to light that when you move your bodies, the cerebellum, related to physical movement, suppresses emotions. We also now know that emotions are suppressed even at times when the results …

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How to use distractions to help your meditation

wildmind meditation newsMichael Taft, The Huffington Post: When I first started meditating, one of the hardest things was trying to stay focused. There were just so many things to do, people to interact with, noises like music or blaring car horns that shattered and upset my nascent meditative vibe. I felt like I was drowning. How could I focus in a sea of constant distraction?

The funny thing is that, more than 30 years later, the distractions are still the same. Sirens wail, the bladder complains, people demand my attention, life is moving along in just the same intense, chaotic, confusing manner. If anything, decades of …

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Mindfulness for kids: Why we should be encouraging young people to find inner peace

wildmind meditation newsBrogan Driscoll, Huffington Post UK: Once upon a time mindfulness was reserved for spiritual types sitting cross-legged on the tops of faraway mountains, but these days the mind-calming practice has well and truly gone mainstream.

Now, everyone is doing it, from comedian and HuffPost UK blogger Ruby Wax to high-flying bankers ditching the city for a life of peace.

But what exactly is it? Mindfulness is a therapeutic technique that involves focusing on the present moment while acknowledging and accepting feelings and thoughts – whether positive or negative.

While the practice is certainly helping adults deal with negative tendencies such stress, self-doubt and anxiety, …

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Does meditation make a person smarter?

wildmind meditation newsKimberly Ruble, Guardian Liberty Voice: In spite of or even in absence of religious views, many individuals have tried meditating at various times throughout their lives but does meditation make a person smarter? A new research study is claiming that meditation appears to stimulate portions of the brain that basic relaxing does not and they are areas of the brain in which intelligence is believed to come from.

People who meditate appear to process more feelings and ideas than when they are only resting and letting their minds roam seems to be more effective than trying to empty the head of any thought …

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Meditation improves productivity

wildmind meditation newsBeth Taylor, PayScale.com: When we think of meditation, we may think of relaxation, breathing, and emptying the mind of stressful thoughts. It may be surprising to learn that the act of quiet meditation increases mental acuity and makes us more productive at work. Instead of meditation emptying our minds, it actually helps fill them with improved concentration and creativity.

Psychology Today reports on a plethora of benefits from including meditation in your routine. Decreasing stress is one, and improving physical health is another. Some of the benefits, however, are directly related to work productivity.

Improved Attention
A study published in 2007 found that after …

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Primary school uses meditation to boost concentration

wildmind meditation newsCotswold Journal: A primary school in the Cotswolds is using a special technique to boost children’s concentration and wellbeing.

Shipston Primary School has introduced Mindfulness, which is increasingly being used in the workplace, the armed forces and most recently, in education.

The meditation practice, which helps children to focus and lower stress levels, was recently shown to improve pupils’ school performance in a study carried out by scientists at the University of Exeter, the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the Mindfulness in Schools Programme.

Since January, 10 and 11-year-olds at the school have been taking part in a nine-week Mindfulness programme …

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Four tips for meditating in public

I love meditating in public places. I’ve meditated on park benches, and on trains and buses and airplanes. I’ve done walking meditation on country lanes and on busy city streets.

One benefit of meditating in public places is being able to squeeze a bit more meditation into your day. If you regard meditation as something you can only do in a special room, relatively free from audible distractions, then you’re limiting the amount of time that you can spend meditating. If you regard these other times I’ve mentioned as being fair game, then you have many more opportunities for practice.

There are just a few things I’d suggest you bear in mind if you’re going to meditate in public.

  1. If you have the expectation that you’re going to become very narrowly focused on internal sensations, like the breathing, as might happen in a quiet meditation room, then you’re probably going to be very frustrated. What we need to do is to practice a more open form of awareness where the sounds around us are part of the meditation practice. I’ll usually start by being aware of the space, and light, and sound around me. I accept the presence of whatever sounds are arising. It doesn’t matter if the sounds are ones you might conventionally think of as unpleasant, like the sounds of construction or of music that you don’t normally like — just accept that they’re present. Think of allowing them to pass, uninhibited, through the space of your mind. Sounds in fact cease to be distractions, and become what you are mindfully paying attention to. It may be that once you’ve acknowledged the sounds, you can become more narrowly focused, but it’s fine if you end up breathing while also being mindful of any sounds that are arising.
  2. You might be interrupted. Even if you’re sitting with your eyes closed it’s possible that someone might come up and talk to you. Again, if you have an expectation that meditation is a self-evident “do not disturb” activity, as it generally is when you’re meditating in a dedicated meditation room, then you might be jarred or even angered by someone coming up and talking to you. So you have to accept that people around you are not going to know what you’re doing, and are unlikely to regard it as being special, in the way they might if they saw you sitting on a zafu in front of a Buddhist altar. So accept any disturbances with as much grace as possible.
  3. You can do any form of meditation outdoors. I’ve mentioned that you can do walking meditation. You can do mindfulness of breathing, although as I’ve suggested it may not be as deeply focused as when you meditate in a quiet, still place. Lovingkindness practice is perfect; cultivating lovingkindness can feel much more grounded and less abstract when there are actual people around. You might find that you don’t do the usual stages (self, friend, neutral person, etc.) and go straight to the final stage of wishing all beings well.
  4. Finally, I’d suggest avoiding meditation postures where the hands are held in special “mudras” on the knees or, even worse, held out to the sides. If you want to give the impression that meditation is some weird hippy-trippy activity, then that’s a great way to do it. But it’s not a traditional posture for Buddhist meditation, where the hands most often rest in the lap, although you can rest them on the knees as well. Generally a regular seated posture (hands on the lap) is fine for meditating on a train, bus, or park. It works, and it’s unpretentious.

It’s worth considering that the Buddha probably did the majority of his meditating outdoors, in places that we might consider public. He probably didn’t meditate in city streets, except for when he was walking or begging mindfully, but he had a reputation of meditating much closer to towns than was considered normal in those days; most meditators would withdraw to very secluded places deep in the jungle or up in the mountains. And this makes me think that the Buddha meditating in that way, in those relatively accessible places, might have had the effect of “normalizing” the practice of meditation by making it visible. Perhaps we too can have the effect of normalizing meditation, making people curious about what it is that all those people sitting peacefully with closed eyes on the bus, or train, or plane, of park bench are doing. Perhaps meditating in public could be a bodhisattva activity, subtly transforming our culture.

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