The following is adapted from Do Breathe: Calm your mind. Find focus. Get stuff done. by Michael Townsend Williams.
Often we think of focus as the ability to keep our attention on one thing. The real power of focus though comes when that one thing is aligned with a greater sense of direction and purpose. How do you get there? Informed focus.
You could say that informed focus is an intentional focus as opposed to an obsessional and narrow one. This negative side to focus – when we become obsessed with a video game, for example – is called hyper-focus. Let’s take a look at how you can develop more clarity in your mental health and overall wellbeing.
What do you care about?
Nowadays, we are offered so many ‘tools’ to help us with everyday tasks and habits, even when it comes to our health and wellbeing – for example maybe you downloaded a writing app that plays new age music while you stare at a blank page in full-screen mode to help you find clarity and focus. These ‘tools’ have limits to benefitting your situation.
If you find it hard to concentrate, get frequently distracted, can’t focus, or have memory loss, maybe there’s a good reason. Maybe you’re not doing what you really want – so before you focus on anything or try to train yourself to boost your concentration levels ask yourself, “Do I even care about this?” Modern tech can never teach you anything about how to care. That’s all on you – and one way of finding out how much you do care is to focus more on the fact that you need to unfocus and let other things go.
Benefits of meditation on focus, concentration and memory
You’ve probably heard it all before – from chats with friends to reading celebrity news – that meditating regularly can have a strong, positive impact on your everyday life and wellbeing. And when it comes to the matters of the mind, clarity and focus, world-renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson, whose research and numerous studies revolve around the benefits of meditation (1), says there are two key scientific points to regular practice:
1. It strengthens the brain’s ability to move from one focus of attention to another.
2. It improves the brain’s ability to resist distractions.
If you’re still afraid that you ‘can’t do it’ or that meditation ‘doesn’t work for you’, remind yourself of this quote by Steve Jobs: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes things worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things. That’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline, you have to practice it.”
There are other everyday life hacks that can help you slow down and not feel so chaotic or stressed. Personally I found a symbiotic relationship between being more organised and focused in my everyday life and my meditation practice. As I meditated more my life became more organised, which in turn helped my meditation.
How to use yoga and meditation to improve focus
The word yoga refers to both the goal (self-realisation) and the means of getting there (the practices). According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which is one of the key ancient texts, the goal of yoga is ‘the stilling of the mind’, or Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. On the way there he refers to the five states of the mind. Thousands of years later, I think we can still relate to them and how yoga helps the mind:
1. Scattered (Kshipta)
You feel disturbed, restless and troubled. Your mind wanders constantly. This is the most uncomfortable state to be in.
2. Dull (Mudha)
You feel dull, heavy, depressed and forgetful. You want to do nothing and feel really lazy.
3. Distracted (Vikshipta)
You can only concentrate for short periods of time. This is the monkey mind or noisy mind. This is where we spend the most time.
4. Focused (Ekagrata)
Your mind is one-pointed, focused, concentrated. When the mind is in this state, internal and external activities are simply no longer a distraction. The mind is fully present in the moment.
5. Mastered (Nirodhah)
You have mastered your mind and found inner stillness.
Breathing exercise for beginners
Many people find it hard to start meditating – they think they have to have a completely clear mind and when that doesn’t happen, they get disheartened. This simple memory meditation and breathing exercise can help bring you into a calm state more easily. Even if you find it difficult at first, just remember that you are trying to train your brain in order to improve your focus, clarity and memory, so if you lose count just guess where you last were and keep going. See if you can get closer to completing the exercise each time until you master it.
Find a nice quiet spot and settle in for fifteen minutes with your back straight and eyes closed.
• Step 1: In your mind, count your exhales and inhales down from 50 – 50 as you exhale, 49 as you inhale, 48 as you exhale, 47 as you inhale, and so on all the way down to 20.
• Step 2: Continue to count silently but only count the exhalations and then observe the inhalations without counting – 20 as you exhale, observe as you inhale, 19 as you exhale, observe as you inhale, and so on all the way to 0.
• Step 3 : Sit still and follow your in and out breaths for a few minutes mindfully.
• Step 4: Sit with your breath without any conscious effort. Just be.
This, is meditation.
Find out more about mindful productivity with Michael Townsend Williams atDoBreathe.com