The Most Practical Benefit Of Mindfulness Meditation
Recently I have been reflecting on the importance of self-care in becoming the best version of yourself. One of the easiest and most holistic ways to take care of yourself on a regular basis is meditation. Today’s post is specifically about Mindfulness Meditation as not only a self-care technique, but also a very practical tool to enhance your focus.
Our mind wanders most of the time. It brings us to unbelievable places of feeling high or feeling down; it reminisces the past and it plans the future for us. Sometimes it replays the same thoughts over and over again – as if we were supposed to relive certain memories a specific number of times before we can move on to something else. Other times it seems that we need to repeatedly rehearse a future event in our head before we are prepared to act it out in real life.
Of course, none of this is true. We don’t have to get hang up on any of those thoughts – especially if we know they don’t serve us. In most cases it doesn’t help us at all to toss and turn past or future events in our heads. What is past doesn’t exist anymore. What is “supposed to” happen in the future – doesn’t exist yet.
It is beneficial to have the ability to focus on the present moment. At the same time, our mind seems to be very fond of dragging us to non-existent places in time. And to be fair, this is not a bad thing – it is often while daydreaming that we get an unexpected boost of creativity or are suddenly capable of looking at a problem from a brand new angle. But in many life situations it is important to be able to discipline the mind, so that we can concentrate whenever we need to and postpone daydreaming to a later, more convenient date.
Many of us want to achieve higher levels of focus in both private and professional life. By “focus” I mean the ability to pay attention to whatever we choose. This is the alternative to occupying ourselves with something that our wandering unconscious mind picked for us. It is about us directing the mind, and not the other way around.
I believe that wielding our attention intentionally is one of the most important skills in life. It lets us invest our mental energy in tasks that matter to us, instead of wasting it on unproductive thoughts about the past or future. It allows us to figure out how to constructively solve a difficult situation instead of engaging in worrying. Above all, it enables us to rest consciously – which means we are able to recognize our needs in the present moment and fulfil those needs.
This high quality focus which enables you to live your life intentionally can be effectively practised through Mindfulness Meditation.
What is Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness Meditation allows you to exercise your attention to remain focused on what you are experiencing in the present moment – without trying to change it. Those experiences include internal factors (e.g. breath, bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions), as well as external stimulants (e.g. sounds, smells, views, temperature, textures).
Everything that is a part of your experience in any given moment can be used as a subject to meditate on. Breath and bodily sensations are most common to start with, because they are relatively easy for us to register while they are happening. Your only task as you meditate on your breath and body is to continuously notice what is happening. The key in Mindfulness Meditation is not trying to manipulate your experience.
This is where an attitude of kindness is of tremendous help. You might have a preconceived idea of how you “should” be breathing and how you “should” be feeling in any given moment. The point of Mindfulness Meditation is to let those ideas go and gradually learn to not only observe what is happening inside of you, but also accept it as valid.
It is the ability to gift yourself with a big portion of kindness and simply say: “It is ok to feel/breathe/think/be this way.”
Narrow and broad focus
“The shepherd doesn’t know from which direction a predator may be sneaking up to take one of her sheep. So she sits relaxing on a rock, her gaze soft and open, taking in the whole scene at once. Her mind doesn’t wander, but neither is it focused on a tiny spot—instead it is broadly spread over a wide vista.” – Deconstructing Yourself
Can you see the difference between narrow and broad focus? They were first described by Robert Nideffer in his theories in the field of sports psychology. The distinction is easy to understand when we look at team sports, such as football.
When a football player charges up a busy field, he has to recognize the position of his team mates as well as opponents, he takes into account his own speed and distance from other players – so that he can make the best decision on what his next move is going to be. He is in the broad focus mode, because he needs to calculate many variables into his equation. But when the moment comes for him to shoot the ball, his focus narrows down to only a few elements which are essential for scoring a goal. He has a very specific task to accomplish and in those seconds it doesn’t matter much to him what is happening in other parts of the field.
These two types of focus are something we all need to juggle in our daily life – at work, raising our kids, throwing a party, preparing for a trip, you name it. And it is ideal if we are able to maintain broad scope of attention while focusing on a detailed task.
A great thing about Mindfulness Meditation is that it allows you to practice both narrow and broad focus.
Practicing focus in Mindfulness Meditation
When you begin practicing meditation, it is most common to start by exercising narrow focus. Pick one aspect of your experience to follow with your awareness – I find that breath is the easiest and most obvious. However, no advice is universal and I know that some people get annoyed with becoming aware of their breath in the beginning. If you prefer to focus on something else, like your bodily sensations, thoughts, external noises – go for it.
And so you learn how to pay attention to this one thing – initially for 1 minute and then, as you practice, you gradually extend this time. You don’t need to do anything about the breath – or whatever it is that you chose to focus on. Your only task is to observe it and keep your attention as close to it as possible.
Don’t expect that you will be able to focus without any distraction for a long period of time. You don’t need this kind of “goals” – they only create pressure to “achieve”. If I know anything about meditation, it is that this work can only progress in your own individual pace. For me, after two years of meditating daily, the longest focus span I am able to maintain without distraction is 2, maybe 3 minutes. And it doesn’t happen often.
It has been said so many times before, but I feel like I need to stress this, too: meditation is not about perfect focus at all. Even if your main goal is to practice focus. Instead, it is about the best quality of attention you can attain in this very moment. Ultimately, it is about coming back. Coming back to your breath and your body, after you were carried away by your thoughts. Then your mind wanders off again, and you patiently bring it back to whatever you chose to focus on.
This is all you need to do. There is no “succeeding” or “failing”. This is just an exercise.
As you practice Mindfulness Meditation, you will gradually be able to extend your scope of attention to practice the broad focus. This means being aware of various aspects of your experience at the same time. Then it is not just about your breath, or external sounds anymore. You learn how to become fully present, acknowledging all that is happening inside, as well as outside of you.
All those elements – your breath, thoughts, feelings, presence of other people, sounds coming in from the street and much more – have been comprising the whole picture of your experience all the time. But the huge difference is that you can now learn how to become aware of all of them. And this is where Mindfulness Meditation touches the practical realm. You can apply its techniques whenever you are called to act and influence the reality.
Merging broad and narrow focus
Being able to act from a point of broadened awareness and at the same time maintain your focus narrowed down on one specific task, interaction or idea – this is what makes your life excellent, full and joyful. We all enter this state from time to time – maybe without even acknowledging what is going on. These are the moments when we feel on top of the world, productive, knowledgeable and certain of what solution will work best.
This is because we remain focused on what we are doing and how we are doing it, without losing the big picture from sight: without forgetting our why.
This state of mind can happen spontaneously, but it can also be successfully practiced. By consistently attending to Mindfulness Meditation we are invited to go through the following steps:
- We learn how to maintain focus on a chosen area of our experience – for example, the breath or feelings within the body.
- Gradually, we also discover how to persistently bring our attention back, regardless of how many times it floats away.
- We then practice keeping attention on other sensations and stimulants; if we initially started with the breath, later on we learn how to observe our thoughts, feelings and surroundings – one by one.
- Finally, we try to extend our awareness to perceive all those experiences at the same time.
And so we can become the shepherd. We know how to sit on a rock and overlook the valley, staying relaxed but alert to all the signals coming from within our body and from the world. We remain observant and ready for any coming task – be it protecting our sheep from a predator, going to a job interview or cooking dinner. Then, no matter what we are narrowing our focus down to, a part of our awareness always remains present with the big picture of the whole valley.