meditation & focus

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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Don’t believe the multi-tasking hype: train your brain to focus better

Daniel Goleman, The Big Think: By now, everyone knows that mindfulness meditation is good for you—but what’s still surprising scientists is just how quickly it works. Ten minutes of meditation won’t make you a better mutlitasker—there’s no such thing, as psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman explains—but it will make you more adept at switching tasks and returning to a deep level of concentration more quickly after a distraction.

Every time you practice meditation, you’re strengthening the neural circuitry for focus and training your brain away from mind-wandering. Beyond the need …

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What science says about meditation: it improves your focus and emotional control

wildmind meditation newsJoseph Stromberg, Vox: “Mindfulness meditation has been shown to cause distinct changes in brain structure and brain function,” says Yi-Yuan Tang, a Texas Tech neuroscientist who studies meditation and recently reviewed the state of the research for the journal Nature. In experiments, he and others have found that regular meditation seems to improve people’s focus and emotional control, in particular.

There are plenty of caveats to this research. It’s early on, and some of the studies include relatively few people. Many are controlled trials(which track how a period of regular meditation affects people, compared with a comparison group that doesn’t meditate), but others involve …

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Mindfulness training program may help olympic athletes reach peak performance

wildmind meditation newsChristina Johnson, Imperial Valley News: Research suggests that meditation may help U.S. military personnel cope with the stresses of combat more effectively. Now, UC San Diego researchers are looking at whether strengthening the mental muscle of Olympic athletes could confer a competitive edge in the world of sports, too.

The early results, though not definitive, are promising: The first group of athletes to complete a mindfulness training program developed at UC San Diego won first, second and third place at the 2014 USA Cycling Elite BMX National Championships.

Though the podium sweep is not being directly attributed to the mind-focusing benefits of meditation, the …

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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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Open mind: focused mind

pier near the seaOne of my online students asked a really excellent question in relation to mindful eating, and in fact in relation to mindful activity more generally:

Should I focus on one specific sensation? But if I do so, isn’t it restrictive, replacing mindfulness of the whole experience of eating by concentration on only one of its aspects? In fact, I already faced similar questions when trying walking meditation. Walking involves so many movements, so many sensations… How to be mindful of all of them?

There are really two different modes of mindful attention, one of which is more narrowly focused, while the other is more open. Each is valuable in its own way.

Mindful, Focused Awareness
A narrow focus involves, as I’m sure is obvious, paying attention to (more or less) one thing at a time. So as you’re paying attention to the texture of what you’re eating, the flavor moves into the background (and vice versa), and you probably aren’t even noticing things like your breathing or the sensation of your feet on the floor.

The fact that you’re focusing on one thing to the exclusion of others doesn’t mean that you’re being unmindful.

  • Your attention to the focal point of your experience is deliberate.
  • You’re aware of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
  • You’re probably aware of significant connections between the focal point and other aspects of your experience — like how you’re feeling.

These are the hallmarks of mindful attention. So we can be mindful and also have the mind focused.

Buddhist meditation techniques that lead to jhāna/dhyāna (what could be called “flow” states in meditation) employ this approach of focusing our attention predominantly on one thing. Jhāna meditation leads to a progressive narrowing of our field of attention, so that the mind becomes very one-pointed and still.

Which “one thing” we’re paying attention to in our meditation or in any other mindful activity may change. In a body scan, or walking meditation, or mindfulness of breathing, or in mindful eating, our attention will tend to pick out different experiences as they become more prominent, or simply as we seek them out. But this is all done mindfully.

It is of course possible to focus on one thing in a very unmindful way, and in fact that’s what we do much of the time. We’re not consciously aware that we’re focused on one thing, we haven’t made a conscious choice to do so, and we’re probably not aware of the connections between what we’re focusing on and other aspects of our experience — for example we may be focusing on a particular thought, and that thought is making us stressed, and we’re not particularly aware that we’re doing this to ourselves. And again the thing we’re focusing on may change. We’ll jump from one thought to another to another without even realizing that we’re doing this. This is what people call “monkey mind.”

Mindful, Open Awareness
Then there’s mindful attention that’s more open. Here we have a very relaxed attention, and your physical gaze may well be more unfocused as well. And you’ll not be making any particular effort to focus on anything, although there may be a lightly held focal point within a broad field of awareness. (This is like sitting with your eyes lightly resting on a focal point, but you’re simply being aware of everything that’s within your visual field.)

In open awareness we’re open to all and any sensations that arise within consciousness. It can happen in walking meditation or sitting meditation, and in my own experience it’s most likely to arise after a period of body scanning, or once I’ve settled into the practice. You’ve checked out your experience and now you’re content not to focus on anything in particular.

It’s not that your focused attention is running around, collecting up all the different sensations that are arising and collecting them into a sense of a whole. The way I think of it is this: every sensation that’s arising within your being is constantly being presented to the brain. Even if you’re not paying attention at all to the sensation of your clothing on your body, the nerves on your skin are constantly sending sensations up the brain. But these sensations are being screened out in favor of focusing on one thing at a time, so that we don’t notice them unless, perhaps, something changes.

In open awareness, what we’re doing is letting go of any effort to focus. And in doing so, we become aware of all the different sensations that are arriving in the brain but which haven’t been entering your conscious awareness because they’ve been screened out. We don’t make open awareness happen. We relax into it.

This isn’t to say that focused attention is willful, as opposed to being relaxed. We certainly can have a narrow and willful focus, but the point of jhāna meditation is to allow the mind to be effortlessly absorbed into a narrower focus. Jhāna is often called “absorption” for this reason.

Alternating our mode of attention
Even within a state of open awareness, though, you’ll find that from time to time some experience arises that requires your attention. So there may be a physical ache, or an emotional feeling, or a particular sound that you’re hearing, and you may want or need to mindfully focus on that. And when you do so, you’re back to meditating in a more narrow and focused way. Then once you’ve paid attention to whatever has arisen that’s demanding your attention, and you feel it’s time to let go of that, you can return to a more open awareness again.

So there can be this oscillation between open awareness and focused awareness.

With something like mindful eating, the nature of the exercise is that you’re paying attention to a particular experience, so it’s more likely that you’ll be in a state of relatively focused attention, with your mind tuning in to various experiences connected with the sensations involved.

With something like walking meditation or mindful breathing, though, you may find that after some initial “body scanning,” where you focused attention has explored the various sensations that are arising, the mind can relax into a more expansive state.

It’s certainly an interesting exercise to sit and take one sensation from the breathing and allow yourself to pay close attention to it, and then to relax back into a more open and expansive state. And then after a while you can go back to a narrower focus, and then back to expansive awareness again. It’s kind of like a gentle “workout”!

Anyway, the main point I want to make is that we can have a mindful attention that’s either focused or open, and both have value. Neither is really “better” than the other, and in fact they complement each other and we need to practice both modes of attention.

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Mindfulness: When focus means single-tasking

Daniel Goleman: Alexander Graham Bell, noting how the sun’s rays ignite paper only when focused in one place, advised, “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand.” Yet ordinarily our attention wanders, a sitting duck for whatever distraction comes our way – especially when our email inbox alone offers constant distractions that seem urgent, but are just not that important.

Then there’s multitasking, which really means switching from one narrow focus to another – the mind cannot hold more than one at a time in what’s called “working memory.” So interrupting one task with another can mean taking many minutes to get your original focus…

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The lesson that transformed my meditation practice

Sophia Dembling, PsychCentral: Whew. This morning’s meditation session was a hard-fought grudge match between peace of mind and monkey mind.

I’ve been trying to establish a regular meditation practice, 20 minutes a day, with the same approach I bring to exercising: Suit up and show up. Every morning, I sit on my pillow, queue up a favorite guided meditation app, and do my best. Sometimes my mind cooperates; sometimes the monkey runs the show.

There have been times when my monkey has been so persistent, I’ve found myself leaping up and running from the effort before even realizing what I was doing. One minute…

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Drop the load

Are you doing too much?

You may have seen the old Mickey Mouse movie in which he is working at a conveyor belt in a factory. More and more widgets come at him that he has to handle, and he gets increasingly frazzled as he struggles to keep up.

Do you ever feel the same way? Think about all the dishes, emails, meetings, reports, drives, calls returned, laundry folded, children tucked into bed, friends comforted, errands run, etc. etc. Most of a person’s tasks, even all of them, could be individually rewarding and done for a good purpose, but taken as a whole they’re often too much. It’s certainly gotten this way for me.

Doing crowds out being, the urgent crowds out the important, and you go to bed after working hard all day feeling frustrated and maybe self-critical that you didn’t get more done. Meanwhile, the stress chemistry of your body has gotten jacked up since hurrying, multi-tasking, and feeling pressured trigger essentially the same hormonal and neural mechanisms that helped our ancestors run away from charging lions. At the heart of it all there’s an unfreedom: you can feel chained to obligatory tasks.

What to do?

How?

Take on Fewer Tasks
Of course it’s good to make an effort, to hold up your end of the log. You honor your previous commitments. And sometimes new things come your way – some wonderful, some not – that do require a lot of work, like having children, finishing college, starting a business, or getting through an unexpected and serious illness.

But when you can – and this has become very important for me lately – be careful about adding new, discretionary items into the commitments hopper. Give yourself time to think. Be really really clear about all the little things that will come with this additional obligation, including new things you’ll have to think about or take time doing. Are the rewards of the new commitment really worth these costs?

Don’t be hypnotized by the rewards of the new thing. Wisdom is choosing a greater happiness over a lesser one. Sometimes you have to give up the lesser rewards of the new thing for the greater rewards of allowing some new space to clear in your life.

Put a Fence around Doing
As a young man I worked briefly in a factory loading cases of soft drinks onto pallets for trucks. It was hard physical labor, but at the end of the shift when we clocked out it was definitively over – what a relief. Similarly, set a time each day when you are truly done: no more emails, no more housework, no more projects. You made an effort today, you did what you could, and now you’re clocked out.

A related way to approach this is in terms of the saying, “first put the big rocks in your bucket.” In other words, make time commitments to what you value more that will push what you value less to the margins. If you value exercise, commit to a class at the gym or reschedule dinner to give you time for a run when you get home from work. If you value meditation or prayer in the morning, get to bed half an hour sooner so you can get up half an hour earlier to do your practice. Imagine looking back on your life: will you care that you got all those To Do’s done or care that you did the things that mattered most to you?

Shift Your Relationship to Tasks
Getting stuff done sometimes seems like the secular religion of the developed world, especially in America, where we routinely make sacrifices at the altar of doingness. I’m this way myself: my main compulsion/addiction is crossing off items on my To Do list. Instead, try to see task-doing in a freer and more disenchanted way.

Watch your mind and its sense of “must” when it comes to tasks. Keep returning to the feeling that you are choosing to do the task, not driven to it. Remind yourself – when it’s true – that you actually don’t have to do a particular task. Try to calm down any sense of drivenness or urgency. Slow down a little. Try to do tasks from the “green zone” in which you experience that your fundamental needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection are already basically being met.

See the ways that your attention narrows down on the next thing to do and the one after that. Try to stay aware of the big picture, that things as a whole are fine, that this particular task in front of you is just a tiny tile in a huge mosaic. It’s not worth getting tense or intense about.

When you do finish a task, take a moment to register it. Let an appropriate sense of completion and satisfaction land before rushing on to the next thing. Keep in mind the ways that a mundane task is linked to larger things. Changing a diaper is linked to loving and protecting a child; driving to work is linked to providing for oneself and others.

Recognize That Tasks Are “Empty”
And, if it’s meaningful to you, you can try something I’ve been exploring lately. Be aware of the experience of doing a task – the sights and sounds and emotions while washing dishes, say – and then notice how the experience is made up of many parts that constantly change and blend into each other. While the plate in your hand is substantial – you can hold onto it – your experience of the plate is not: the sensations and images of the plate are insubstantial; you can’t hold onto them. Your experience of the plate – and everything else, too – is “empty” of independent substantiality.

When you look at task-doing this way – not so much as things happening “out there” but as experiences happening “in here” – and you can see the multi-part, fleeting, insubstantial, and “empty” nature of these experiences, something shifts. You feel freer inside, less bound to tasks, and more relaxed and open. When seen as empty – not meaningless and not nonexistent, but insubstantial and ephemeral – the anticipated pleasures of getting stuff done aren’t as compelling and the anticipated pains of not doing aren’t as worrisome. You still get a lot done, but in a more peaceful way.

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