Sunday, March 24, 2013

Focused Attention

I write about, and teach, mindfulness meditation as an adjunct therapy for mental illness.  Many in the mindfulness community extol the practice’s benefits of increasing non-judgment, compassion, and acceptance.  These, of course, are wonderful things.  But I most want to help people manage their lives in a way that makes them self-reliant, productive, and true to their ideas of how they can be most successful.  So of all of the components of mindfulness, the one that helps achieve these goals most immediately is focused attention.

Meditation allows me to be present and to diminish the influence of internal chatter, especially when this chatter is self-defeating or unreasonably self-critical.  In mindful, conscious moments I can define the person I want to be.  Then, during meditation, I can let go of the thoughts that keep me from becoming that person.  As one with bipolar disorder, I spend an awful lot of time telling myself I’m not good enough (or that I’m too good).  But during meditation I can focus on the present, on the sensory experience within and around me, and simply let those thoughts go.

Focused attention, on the breath, or an object, or a sound or mantra, makes one recognize all of the thoughts that race through the mind and hijack our attention.  Thoughts that not only take us away from the object of our meditation, but distracting, meaningless thoughts that cheat us of every experience we have.  During a deliberate exercise in focused attention, we can let go of the thoughts that intrude by noticing them but not chasing after them.  If you don’t try to add reason to or argue with each of your passing thoughts, they will burst like bubbles and disappear.  One after another.  The focused attention exercise I use is meditation, but I imagine you could also accomplish this playing scales on a musical instrument, shooting free throws, rock climbing, or chopping vegetables.  I need the anchor of the breath and the time dedicated to just sitting.  Your method may be different.  The point is to spend a fixed period of time in deep focus, letting distractions pass.

Practiced over time, focused attention will positively change your brain.  It helps with self-regulation, stress management, and, of course, attention.  Many will propound that seated meditation is the most direct route to focused attention.  Much science and tradition backs this up.  But any exercise that causes you to stop multi-tasking, quiet all of the noise around and inside of you, and stay present for a time will show benefits.  So put focused attention to work.  To better achieve the life you want, get your mind off of it for a bit and focus on something that does not demand too much conscious processing.  When you get back to the challenges you face, you’ll be better able to deal with them.

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