Updated: Apr 8, 2022
Meditation, amongst other things, is a training of the mind. A training of attention, of patience, awareness, non-judgement and compassion. And the benefits go beyond ourselves to those around us and our overall environment too.
We set our intention to focus on the breath – in, out, in, out…and very quickly the mind gets pulled into the email that we forgot to the kids’ imminent doctor’s appointment – we wake up in a stream of thought and bring the attention back to the breath.
Each time you get distracted and bring the attention back you are “strengthening the neural circuitry for focus” as Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence’ sums up in this short BigThink video on Meditation & Attention - Train Your Brain.
Being able to exercise focused attention simply means being able to direct your attention, becoming aware if your mind has wandered, and then being able to redirect your focus.
Being able to exercise focused attention simply means being able to direct your attention, becoming aware if your mind has wandered, and then being able to redirect your focus. A practice of mindfulness is a practice of calming and focusing the mind – this ability to stabilise and direct the mind is especially important in times of distress or distraction.
There are a number of studies that back this up, clinical data which demonstrates that a sustained practice of paying attention during mindfulness meditation practice improve our focus, attention, memory, decision making and overall cognitive function. This article on Fast Company, nicely titled From Om to OMG: Science your Brain and the Productive Powers of Meditation brings together a number of them.
Meditation Practice is Practice for Our Daily Life.
Often the people I speak to about meditation share in their belief that meditation is an escape from daily life, and I understand why – closing the door to the world and shutting the eyes is still a radical act and goes against everything we’ve learnt – after all we’ve all got problems to solve, people relying on us and things to get on with. Meditation (or mindfulness) is pointing the camera back on yourself and with this perspective we can observe our inclinations, distractions and preoccupations. This is exactly why I believe meditation is like a training, for what can be the chaotic nature of daily life…
During formal meditation, we meet physical and mental challenges – exactly as you would during physical exercise (think about the resistance faced when going that extra mile on your run or 1 more rep when lifting weight). Let’s say the intention is to sit and practice for 10 mins. During this time, I notice that the body wants to move, I’ve an itch on the nose or some discomfort – the immediate reaction is to get rid of the discomfort to be comfortable again.
"Training attention through meditation opens our eyes"
- Sharon Salzburg
The practice is to notice this tendency to immediately react and notice the thoughts which suggest I should do something, and then develop the capacity to be able to be with these sensations, explore them and their physical nature. Allowing my thoughts of judgement of the sensation – annoying, frustrating etc. to pass. This for me was a good insight into how I react to stressors in daily life – automatic and mindless reaction vs. a pause, breath and mindful response.
The parallels to daily life seem clear: how I relate to the stressors during a meditation practice gave me some understanding of how I relate to triggers in my daily life, and through practice developed a new relationship to the stressors that arise daily. Do they all require my immediate reaction? No. Do I have a choice in how I respond? Yes. It’s not a quick fix, and there are no shortcuts to mindfulness – it certainly takes time and training, patience and practice to nurture the habit of meditating or reflecting. I found that the more I practiced, the more insight I gained about the way my mind worked, eventually leading to a greater amount of time to choose a response in the face of a trigger – the decisions not always perfect but creating more opportunity to be able to decide is certainly helpful.