ThinkingYour meditation is difficult? It’s still doing you good

Your meditation is difficult? It’s still doing you good

Frustrated with your meditation practice?

Ever tried a regular regime of meditation and given up in frustration?

You know mindfulness meditation is good for you. You know that it helps fight procrastination as well as makes you less reactive to stress, helps with self control more broadly, and increases your focus. You made a promise to yourself to try ten minutes of mindfulness meditation every day: but that commitment lasted a week at the most. Why? Because it’s so hard… and you’re convinced it’s not working. Every time you try to meditate, focusing on your breath, or whatever else you’ve chosen to pay attention to, you find your mind wandering. As soon as you bring it back, it starts to wander again. The Zen masters are right – “monkey mind” indeed.

Some good news – it’s not about emptying your mind

Well here’s some good news. When meditation feels the hardest, when you feel like you’ve spent the whole session just bringing your wandering mind back to your breath over and over again, that’s actually when meditation is doing its best work.

Kelly McGonigal, a psychology academic at Stanford, contends that the point of meditation isn’t to empty your mind (as popularly understood) – rather, it’s to pay attention to something. In her book, The Willpower Instinct, she tells the story of one of her students, Andrew, a 51 year old engineer, who “was convinced that the goal of meditation was to get rid of all thoughts and empty the mind”. As a result, he was frustrated with his meditation practice, because he kept feeling distracted during his sessions. (McGonigal had her students doing a basic breath meditation – where you need to keep just noticing your breath, bringing your attention back to your breathing as you inhale and exhale if your mind wanders. You can read about the basic breath meditation on p 26 of her book). Andrew was frustrated at the number of times his mind would wander, and how frustrating it was to notice this, and keep bringing his attention back to his breath.

Reframe meditation – it’s about paying attention

But McGonigal reframed everything for Andrew: the actual practice of bringing your attention back to your breath is what meditation is all about. Because this act of returning your attention again and again is like weight training for your pre-frontal cortex (the seat of your focus and self-control). The act of bringing your attention back to your breathing is what gets the blood flowing to your pre-frontal cortex – and that blood flow is going to cause an increase in grey matter – helping you to develop better focus and self control. As McGonigal says “the brain appears to adapt to exercise in the same way that muscles do”.

So, rather than being frustrated at the number of times Andrew kept having to bring his focus back to his breath in a session, he learnt to see such a distracted session as actually a great workout for his pre-frontal cortex. McGonigal adds “He also realised that what he was doing in meditation was exactly what he needed to do in real life: catch himself moving away from a goal and then point himself back at the goal (in this case, focusing on the breath).”

Last week’s post on procrastination

Thanks for your responses and suggestions about “procrastination hacks” following last week’s post. I had comments on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and my website, as well as replies to the email. Some of the ideas included:

  • Anne with a reminder that “done is better than good” – don’t let a desire to do something perfectly mean you don’t do anything.
  • And Margaret observing that promising herself a small reward for a period of focused work actually really helps.

Over to you

Have you found mindfulness meditation to be helpful for you in building your focus and self control? What approaches have worked best for you to make it a regular discipline?

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