The Most Practical Benefit of Mindfulness Meditation
I believe that self-care is one of the most important things to take into consideration, if you want to become the best possible version of yourself.
One of the easiest and most holistic ways to take care of yourself on a regular basis is meditation. This article is specifically about Mindfulness Meditation as not only a self-care technique, but also a very practical tool to enhance your focus.
The mind wanders most of the time. It has the power to make us feel high or feel down in a matter of minutes. It presents us with memories of the past or encourages to make elaborate plans for the future. Sometimes it replays the same thoughts over and over again — as if we were supposed to relive certain moments a specific number of times before we can move on to something else. Or it makes us rehearse a future event in our heads endlessly, before it decides we are finally prepared to act it out in real life.
Of course, we don’t need to get hung up on these kinds of thoughts — especially if we know they don’t serve us. In most cases it doesn’t help to toss and turn past or future events in our mind. What is past doesn’t exist anymore. What is ‘supposed to’ happen in the future — doesn’t exist yet.
More often than not, the best we can do is focus on the present moment. But our minds are very fond of dragging us to non-existent places in time. And to be fair, this is not always 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 situations it is important to discipline the mind, so that we are able to concentrate on what we need to do at the moment. Daydreaming has to be postoponed to a later, more convenient date.
Most of us could benefit from attaining a higher level of focus in both private and professional life. By focus I mean the ability to pay attention to whatever we choose. This is the only alternative to occupying ourselves with something that the wandering mind unconsciously picks for you.
It is about you directing the mind, and not the other way around.
I believe that being able to wield one’s attention intentionally is one of the most important skills in life. It lets you invest your energy in tasks that matter to you, instead of wasting it on unproductive thoughts about the past or future. It allows you to figure out how to effectively solve problems — instead of engaging in worry.
When comes to self-care, intentional attention enables you to rest consciously, recognize your needs in the present moment and, consequently, 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 all about?
Mindfulness Meditation allows you to exercise your attention in order to remain focused on what you are experiencing in the present moment — without trying to change it.
The experiences I am talking about include internal sensations coming from within yourself (e.g. breath, bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions), as well as external sensations (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 to notice while they are happening. Your only task as you meditate on your breath and body is to continuously observe what is happening.
The key part of this observation is not trying to manipulate your experience.
This is where 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.
What you are looking for is the ability to gift yourself with a big portion of kindness and 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 of sports psychology. The distinction is easy to understand when you 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.
However, 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 during these few seconds it doesn’t matter to him what is happening in other parts of the field.
These two types of focus are what we all need to juggle in our daily life: at work, raising kids, throwing a party, preparing for a trip — you name it. And it is ideal if you 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, and in the end — merge them together.
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 my 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 or external noises — go for it.
With practice, you discover how to pay attention to this one thing — initially for one minute, but gradually this time extends. You don’t need to do anything about the breath, or whatever else it is that you are focusing on. Your only task is to observe the chosen aspect of your experience, 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 specific period of time. You don’t need this kind of ‘goals’, because they only create the pressure to ‘achieve’ something as fast as possible. And if I am sure of anything about meditation, it is that this work can only progress at your own, individual pace. There’s no benchmark here.
As for myself: after over two years of meditating daily, the longest focus span I am able to maintain without distraction is two, maybe three minutes. And it doesn’t happen all too 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. It is a workout in which you are simply doing your best — however, your best may vary dramatically from day to day, or even from hour to hour.
Ultimately, Mindfulness Meditation is about coming back. Coming back to your breath and your body after you get carried away by your thoughts. And then, when your mind wanders off again, you patiently bring it back to whatever you chose to focus on. Again, and again, and again.
This is all you need to do. There is no ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’ here. These two words do not have any real meaning in the context of meditation.
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 either 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, simultaneously.
All those elements — your breath, thoughts, feelings, presence of other people, sounds coming in from the street and much, much more — have been comprising the whole picture of your experience all the time. But the major 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 this technique whenever you are called to act and influence the reality around you.
Merging broad and narrow focus
Being able to act from the point of broadened awareness and at the same time maintain your focus narrowed down to 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 exactly is going on. These are the moments when we feel on top of the world, productive, clever and confident about what to do next.
That’s 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 the area of our experience chosen by us — for example, our breath or bodily sensations.
- Gradually, we also discover how to persistently bring our attention back, regardless of how many times it wanders away.
- We then practice keeping attention on other, more complex aspects of our moment-to-moment experience. If we initially started with the breath, later on we learn how to observe our thoughts, feelings and surroundings — one by one.
- Finally, we stretch our awareness so it can encompass numerous aspects of our experience all at the same time.
And this is how we become like the shepherd. We learn how to sit on the rock overlooking the valley, staying relaxed but alert to all the signals coming from within ourselves and from the world. We remain observant and ready for any coming action — be it protecting our sheep from a predator, going to a job interview or cooking dinner.
And 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.