It feels like the act of concentrating is becoming more difficult by the moment. With beeps and dings interrupting your every move, it’s hard to tackle tasks efficiently that require focused attention.
Here’s the surprising fact: the mind is always focused on something. It’s the mind’s nature to want to latch onto something. When we give the mind something to focus on, it’ll accept.
When you don’t give it directions, it’ll do what it wants. If you find your mind everywhere at once, just tell it where to go. The mind will follow with a “WhoooooSh” as it minimizes the background happenings, and heads directly to the central point of focus where you’ve invited it. But this requires practice …
Learning How to Focus
When you practice focusing on one thing at a time in meditation, you become more adept at focusing on one thing at a time in all areas of your life. With practice, you’ll notice that small distractions won’t have an easy time stealing your focus from projects that require 100 percent of your brainpower. It’s a matter of re-wiring the mind to not pay attention to things that don’t deserve your attention.
Here are four things to direct your focus on during meditation. These can be used in daily ritual, or if you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on something important, try one of these techniques for a few minutes, and then move into your important task.
First find a quiet place, sit up tall, close your eyes, and bring stillness and comfort to your body. Then begin one of these practices to focus the mind.
Begin to bring all of your attention to your breath and slow it down. Match the length of your inhale with the length of your exhale. Feel your breath rise from the base of your spine, up the length of your torso all the way to your collarbone, and then feel it release as it winds back down the spine. Notice the sensations of your belly and lungs as they fill up, and then release. Observe the breath, feel the cool air come in through your nostrils and warm air release as you breath. If you feel the mind wander to another place (and it likely will), just invite it back to focus on your breath. Allow your breath to lead and your mind to follow.
A mantra is a word or phrase to place your mind’s eye. It can be a positive affirmation, such as “Happiness,” “Pure Bliss,” “Unconditional Love,” or “Give and Receive Love.” Or it can be a sound or word in another language that may have little meaning to you, but offers value in giving your mind a place to focus. One example of this is using a Sanskrit word or phrase to focus on for the entire duration of a meditation. “So Hum” is one example of a Sanskrit mantra. When you inhale, silently say to yourself “So” and when you exhale, silently say the word “Hum.”
Body Part or Sensation
Bringing your awareness to one part of your body at a time can help to not only fine-tune your ability to focus, but also to identify areas of your body that hold onto stress and tension. You can start at your head, or at your toes. If you’re starting at your head, work your way—one body part at a time—down one side of the body all the way to the toes, and then back up the other side of the body, coming back to the head. If you only have a few minutes, you can choose one body part to focus on for the duration of your available time.
The body scan is a core part of the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program, and used widely around the world to help alleviate stress and tension, and promote mindfulness. Get step-by-step instructions on how to do a body scan.
An intention is a guiding principle for how you want to be, live, and show up in the world, whether that means how you show up on your meditation cushion, or in any area of your life. Ask yourself, what matters most to you? Your answer could form a powerful intention, for which you can align your thoughts for your meditation. Setting an intention is a way to bring your heart and mind into alignment. Read more about the power of intentions and how to set intentions for your meditation in a recent post.
During your meditation, expect the mind to wander in many directions unless you tell it where to go. Even when you focus it on one thing during meditation, it will wander and stray. That’s just what the human mind does. But if you invite it back, it’ll return. Again, and again, and again…
Susan Piver, a Buddhist teacher and New York Times bestselling author, summed it up well. She said:
“Your mind already knows how to meditate. It is always resting on something—most often, however on thoughts based in hope or fear, the past or the future. When you begin to notice your thinking, you’ll see that it is rarely focused on the present. Even if you try to stay in the present, you find that you keep slipping into some kind of worry or expectation or judgment. The mind is always commenting on something. In meditation, you practice consciously placing your attention on an object of your choosing instead of allowing it to gallop all over creation. It is not an easy practice necessarily, but it is a very simple one.”