Meditation and Training the Brain
Can you really train the brain just as you do any other muscle? We now have substantial scientific evidence that says we can. Wellness habits, such as meditation, promote our brain to change and rewire itself through a lifelong process termed neuroplasticity.
Essentially what this means is that we are not stuck with the brain that we have. Research in neuroplasticity shows that how we think and act shapes and changes our brain over time. This is why training the mind is equally as important as exercising the body.
A consistent meditation practice will lead to small improvements in our ability to focus, resulting in significant adaptations of the mind.
Arguably one of the most rewarding parts of meditation is its ability to improve our attention. When we spend more time cultivating attention towards the present moment we are able to see life with more clarity, which allows us to recover from negative emotions and situations more quickly. Spending less time stressing leaves us feeling more energized and improves concentration, in turn leading to increased productivity and efficiency.
Upon starting a meditation practice, you will notice right away that the mind is often completely distracted by the past or future. Awareness is the first step in developing a more focused attention span. In meditation we are essentially taking one step backwards and observing thoughts objectively. If we observe our thoughts, by definition we are not those thoughts. But, how can we train our attention when we are constantly bombarded by information?
Attention Management: How to Create Deliberate and Concentrated Attention
“Attention management offers the ability to consciously direct our attention in any given moment, to be more proactive than reactive, and to maintain control rather than inadvertently relinquish it. It’s about regaining control over your attention and thereby taking control of your life. Attention management empowers your productivity.” - Maura Thomas
Attention is both a valuable and limited resource. What we pay attention to affects both our conscious and subconscious mind. The things we observe every day, whether consciously or not, subtly influence what we think about the world and ourselves.
For example, have you ever hopped onto Instagram or Facebook and moments later found yourself aimlessly wandering into a shopping cart? When we surrender our attention to whatever shines brightest, we give away our free will to an unconscious program.
With so much information and data readily available, who can blame us for bouncing from one thing to the next? A study by the World Economic Forum puts this into context by explaining that “the entire digital universe is expected to reach 44 zettabytes by the end of 2020. If this number is correct, it will mean there are 40 times more bytes than there are stars in the observable universe.” With that amount of information flying around, it is crucial for us to develop an ability to focus our attention so that we can choose what to put it towards.
How to Start Meditating to Improve Attention
Think about your attention like the lens through which you view the world. If the lens is out of focus or constantly bouncing from one scene to the next, we lose our ability to hone in on that which is most important to us. We begin to train our mind to only focus on tasks for moments or minutes at a time. Do you ever stop to notice how you are training your attention? Again, the way in which we train our mind matters just as much as how we train our bodies.
Meditation allows us to notice where we pay attention. Here are two simple techniques to practice:
Box-Breathing (a Breathing Meditation)
- Begin by closing your eyes. Breathe in through your nose or mouth and count to 4 slowly.
- Hold the breath inside while counting slowly to 4 again. Try to relax the muscles in your face.
- Slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
- Repeat steps 1 through 3 at least 3 times.
Mantra Meditation (A Repeated-Phrase Meditation)
- Begin by closing your eyes. Breathe in through your nose or mouth and repeat silently the word of your choice. For example, “Be.”
- Breathe in through your nose or mouth and repeat silently another word of your choice. For example, “Here.”
- Repeat steps 1 and 2 at least 3 times.
When Should I Practice? Morning Meditation vs Night
Choosing a time to meditate is entirely up to you. Many meditators enjoy starting the day with morning meditation since the mind is fresh and less distracted by work and responsibilities. Before bed can also be a great time, especially if you tend to stress or clench your jaw while sleeping. By choosing a specific time, you begin to condition your body to habitually commit to the practice every day.
That being said, potential issues arise if we wake up late or fall asleep before practicing, which is why the most important part of practicing is consistency. If you know that you are going to work late, try to get your meditation in at lunchtime, even if it is just 2 minutes. Maintaining consistency with your practice will strengthen your ability to deal with any situation, no matter what life throws at you.
Start to challenge yourself to practice meditation when you're feeling mentally fragmented--some of my most valuable meditations come from forcing myself to sit and meditate when it is the last thing my mind wants to do.
Meditation Benefits: How Do I Know if I’m Making Progress?
Historically, one of the most difficult parts of meditation is that the effects could only be detected through careful observation. Oftentimes my clients would feel like their practice was not progressing, which would lead to discouragement and lack of interest.
However, with products like WHOOP we are able to use data-driven feedback as a tool for progress management. It is important to reflect on your improvements so as to keep the mind engaged in your practice. Although most results are not as immediately obvious as improved heart rate variability, here are some signs of progress with your meditation that can create noticeable changes in your daily life:
- Greater ability to focus on one task at a time
- Increased metacognition
- More time spent in the present moment versus daydreaming
- Less time spent ruminating on future fears or past regrets
- Reduced stress
- Increased compassion for others
- Finding it easier to let go of grudges and not stay angry
- More aware of the thoughts that are on your mind
By logging meditations as activities in the WHOOP app, you can self-experiment and track how they impact your physiological data as well. I notice higher daily recovery scores, better sleep, and improved metrics like resting heart rate and HRV when my meditations are consistent!
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Photo via @davidsalafia