— By Philippe Vergnet —
One of our readers (who didn’t want to be named) wrote to us to ask whether he can use meditation to regain focus. He noticed that he feels that his mind lacks focus on things. When doing an activity, he loses focus and his mind starts “dreaming” or thinking about other things, at a point where he doesn’t know what his original task was.
Can meditation really help training one’s mind to be able to focus?
Here is what our specialist Philippe Vergnet things about the subject.
What is meditation?
There are many types of meditation. What they have in common is that it is about spending some time in “the present”.
This is meant as opposed to thinking about experiences in the past, or picturing a possible situation in the future.
These main techniques are (see http://liveanddare.com/types-of-meditation/ for more details):
- Observing one’s respiration
- Focusing on an object, like a candle-light or even a point in the wall
- Focusing on a sound or phrase one repeat (“mantra”)
- Closing one’s eyes and listening to all surrounding noises.
Other types of Meditation
- Thinking about liked people, and then enemies, and wish them well (a.k.a. Loving Kindness Meditation)
- Focusing on limbs and feeling how heavy and then warm they are (autogenic training)
- Focusing on the savors of food while eating
- Observing the landscape while walking
- Guided meditation (f.e. listening to a tape)
Watching a movie or reading could match this definition but is not meditation as focusing on the story doesn’t require any internal will-power (provided the story is good, anyway).
A good definition might be: “Forcing oneself to focus on the present environment“.
One caveat to this is that is that guided meditation often asks you to imagine yourself in a nice place like the beach or a sunny day river.
Therefore the final definition proposed is: “Forcing oneself to focus on a pre-chosen setting (real or imaginary), and prevent one’s mind wandering to random thoughts”.
A movie would suit this as you’re not forcing yourself and as the story path is unpredictable and yet to be discovered.
Should you try one of these techniques and you would quickly notice that your mind would drift away, thinking about a bad/good experience, what you need to buy at the grocery store, or even imaging situations. In other words, your mind would drift back to the normal random thoughts process.
This is perfectly normal and should not be frown upon. The only requirement is to draw your focus back to the target and try again.
As a beginner, you would probably have dozens of such drift in a 10 minutes meditation session and you would find the process stressful or annoying. But with practice, this would become easier and one could target a 100% focus over the 10 mns.
Like any training, the ideal is consistent (daily) practice for as long as possible. Some studies showed that a few minutes per day could already yield benefits.
What are the benefits?
Short Term Benefits:
- The immediate benefit, should you succeed to prevent mind wandering most of the time, is that you avoid drilling on negative thoughts for at least some time during the meditation.
You do not think about depressing experience or imagine a bad situation that could happen.
- A less immediate result is that you might keep avoiding bad thoughts for a while following the meditation. You usually feel calmer for a while.
Of course, this second result is not guaranteed and depends on many factors (how stressful your life is, the length of session and length of practice…)
- Another session linked benefit is that you have a tool you can use on demand whenever you feel stressed.
Long Term Benefits:
But the other benefits appear after a few months of practice and are linked to physiologic changes induced by meditation!
Scientific studied showed that regular practice of Mindful Meditation change the composition of your brain (some areas get denser and others get lighter).
You can check for example this Harvard study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/
Though the research is not conclusive yet, there is data suggesting that “some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.”
For example, Autogenic Training is believed to restores the balance between the activity of the sympathetic (flight or fight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) branches of the autonomic nervous system (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autogenic_training)
The consequences of those physiologic changes are varied and extremely interesting:
(see http://liveanddare.com/benefits-of-meditation/, which contain links to the scientific sources for each claim)
Improved Emotional Well-being:
Lessens anxiety, stress, fear…
Improves optimism, relaxation, mood and emotional intelligence…
Increases focus, memory, decision-making, problem-solving…
Improves immune system, heart rate, and potentially reduces cells degeneration…
Reduces blood pressure and brain problems…
Some of the main drawbacks are that meditation requires time and doesn’t seem enjoyable.
Let’s address the second point first. It is true that the first sessions might be frustrating.
However, most people who keep at it end up experiencing more joy from the relaxation state the session induce than pain from what might seem as a boring exercise.
Another solution might be to start with guided meditation.
The first point is perfectly valid. For example, in the Harvard study, participants were required to practice at least 45 mns daily for 8 weeks and 20 to 40 mns per day is often a time that is recommended in various websites about the topic.
A legit question would then be: are the benefits worth this investment in time?
For example, if mediation seems to reduce blood pressure, is it by 1 point or 20?
Couldn’t one achieve the same or even greater result with alternative behaviours?
For example by simply not doing detrimental things (like smoking or drinking)?
Or by investing the same time into physical activities (swimming etc.)?
Or eating better?
The possible added feature of meditation compared to the other options described above would be the effect on emotional and mind well-being.
Also, one could use the commute time to practice, instead of playing games on a phone (f.e. closing your eyes and listening to the noises in the tube)
In my view, the best is to combine all those positive behaviours and include them in a lifestyle.
My personal experience
As far as I’m concerned I’ve already managed to change my lifestyle over the last ten years in such a way that I regularly exercise and eat relatively healthy.
But I’m still experiencing some episodes of stress (overwhelmed by stuff to do, speaking in public etc.). I also noticed I was often critical or negative towards many things and probably could benefit from a more positive attitude.
To help with all of that I decided to start meditating 3 weeks ago.
In my morning commute, I close my eyes and listen to the tube noise for 30/40 mns. This is really difficult and I often catch myself in some trance (half sleeping). I probably only manage to focus for 10 or 20% of the entire time.
At night, I often listen to a 23 mns long audio recording. I usually fall asleep before the end, which I don’t see as a failure but rather as a blessing. I now have at my disposal a natural tool to help go to sleep.
My track record might not be close to the target, but I’m still glad with the results. I start my working day in a better state of mind than before, and I feel calmer overall. I would even go as far as saying that I feel like managing potentially stressful situations far better.
Of course, I cannot accurately measure those improvements, nor can I discard a placebo effect.
What is sure is that I will continue as I see benefits and the investment is not costly at all for me, as:
* I strangely look forward to the meditation times. I kind of enjoy those “me” times, times in my life when I actually have the most control over…
* I never really made the most of my commute time anyway.
* The nightly meditation helps me sleep faster and thus be more rested.
I also discovered a further aspect, which is the disconnection between body sensation and mind.
During my session, I almost don’t move. If my forehead is itchy, I acknowledge the sensation but don’t give-in to the physical relief. I focus my attention back to the noises, still feeling the itchy sensation. But I see it as a sensation, kind of external to me. It Is not anymore: “my forehead is itchy, I need to scratch”, but “my body is experiencing an itchy sensation, interesting…”. And it usually goes away.
More generally, I discussed the topic of meditation with someone who had years of meditation (including hours long retreats) and she had the following to add:
“-It helps you to recognize patterns in your thinking… e.g. you observe the story your thoughts are telling you when your mind drifts away from the meditation and the resulting emotions or bodily sensations that come from those thoughts. e.g. I wonder whether I’ve turned off the iron…. Then I think that if I haven’t it might start a fire. Now I’m starting to feel anxious, my stomach gets tight, the anxious feeling creates more anxious thoughts and it goes round and round.
– Conversely, sometimes a strong emotion will arise during meditation and then you’ll start having thoughts about it. I feel anxious, therefore there must be something wrong… maybe I left the iron on, if I did it could start a fire, my stomach gets tighter then I feel more anxious because I’ve started an anxious line of thought etc. etc. etc.
I think that meditation helps you recognize the pattern between thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the body. If you recognize the pattern then there’s an opportunity to break it and bring your attention back to the meditation/task at hand.[Pictures credit: pixabay]