Episode #7 of the course Understanding meditation and the science behind it by Colin Pal
I often hear from students that the hardest part of meditation is maintaining focus and concentration. You might feel the same. I don’t blame you. We live in a overly distracted world with hundreds of things fighting for our attention every day—from your demanding work to your clients, colleagues, friends, family, media and ads, the world and its problems, and now you and that voice in your head. With so much noise constantly fighting for your attention and energy, it’s easy to see why it’s so hard to live moment to moment consciously and intentionally. It’s so much easier to just be pulled around and live in a mindless autopilot based on stress reactions and emotional impulses.
How Can Meditation Help You Stay Focused?
Focus is an essential (even vital) skill, and through meditation and mindfulness, you can strengthen your ability to focus your scattered attention. How? It’s the work of your prefrontal cortex, the frontal region of your brain associated with attention, regulating emotions, memory, decision making, and many other cognitive functions. There are two functioning networks of your prefrontal cortex that are mutually exclusive: your default mode network (DMN) and your task positive network (TPN).
The DMN is associated with processes of inattention, i.e. mind wandering, rumination, daydreaming, self-reflective thoughts, and envisioning the future. It’s active when you’re thinking of the past or the future and not fully engaged with what’s happening in the present moment—which is most of your day.
The TPN is the opposite. Active during attention-demanding tasks, it’s responsible for directing conscious attention to the external environment, internal states of the body or mind, and the intentional execution of physical and mental activity. Sounds like mindfulness, right?
It should be no surprise, then, that meditation reduces the activity in the DMN and activates the TPN. They are both mutually exclusive—one inhibits activity in the other—and both are important for optimal human performance. It’s when they are out of balance that it becomes harmful to the mind and body. The DMN plays an important role in planning, envisioning the future, and even creativity. But abnormalities and overactivity in the DMN are associated with negative mood states and many mental disorders like anxiety, depression, and obsessionality.
By practicing meditation and training yourself to recollect your scattered attention, you’re activating the TPN and deactivating the DMN. You’re also training an ability called phase locking, where the stimuli and response are held in synchronicity. The more you train this, the better you will become at maintaining focus and activating the TPN. The next time you feel helplessly lost in worry or rumination, remind yourself of the power of the TPN. Go back to your breath or engage with the activity in the moment. You don’t need to overpower your DMN to escape the negative thoughts. You only need to intentionally engage your TPN and allow your natural physiology to disengage your DMN.
“The goal of meditation is not to control your thoughts, it’s to release the control they have over you.” —Tweet this.
Challenge of the Day
A practical tactic to maintain focus during meditation is to count your breathing. As you breathe in, make a mental note of “in,” and as you breathe out, note, “one.” With each cycle, count until you hit ten. Then start over at one again or count backward to one. If you get distracted—which you likely will, if you’re human—recognize the distractions and then bring your attention back to your breath and start counting again, starting from one. Starting over isn’t failure, it’s part of the practice of training focus and concentration.
In the next lesson, we’ll dive into understanding the various brain waves.
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