Do you ever feel stressed-out with the demands of day-to-day life and your seemingly endless to do list? These days, it seems that racing from one thing to the next is normal, forever caught up in hyper-alert, fear- based scanning of the environment.
When we are faced with physical emergencies these tendencies can be helpful. We can react without thinking and defend ourselves instinctively against perceived threats to our survival.
However, in modern society, for most of us, most of the time, the threats we face are psychological. We face fears that we escalate in our own minds. We face choice amongst an overwhelming variety of information that competes for our attention. We are overwhelmed with demands on our time, energy, and attention.
In this environment, it is absolutely essential that we develop the ability to filter information and choose our point of focus. In order to survive psychologically, we must consciously manage our time, energy, and attention. What is the secret to dissolving stress and overwhelm?
Let’s explore the keys to developing focused attention and how this can help us navigate through the sea of over-stimulation. We’ll use the practice of meditation as an example of how to do develop this skill.
In meditation, you learn that your attention is always on something, though the object of your attention is not always your conscious choice. For example, you may be following a thought, consumed by a feeling or a sensation in your body, off in a memory, or projecting some possible future event and living in that. Your attention is always somewhere.
In meditation, you consciously choose the object of your attention. After you have chosen the object of your attention, whether it is your breath, some focal point in your body, a specific insight for contemplation, or simply the stream of consciousness itself, you maintain your focus on that object. You stay with it. You cultivate a rapt interest in the object of your attention to the exclusion of everything else.
One of the instructions I use for this type of focus in meditation is “Pay attention to your breathing as if nothing else matters at this moment.”
To make your breathing an interesting object for attention, you observe the finest details about it. You feel for the moment when your inhalation arises, you follow it to fullness, you notice where it pauses, where it turns into exhalation, the quality of your out-breath, and the point where that pauses and turns once again into inhalation.
Paying precise attention in that way leads to single- pointed focus. You find yourself at one with what you are doing and solely engaged with that. This quiets and clears your mind, so that you discover calm clarity.
Whenever you notice that you have gone away from your focus, you gently recognize that (without judgment), you let that distraction go, and you return to your focal object. As you continue to do that, you find yourself staying more present with what is happening now.
The benefits of focused attention are many. You actually develop the part of your brain (the anterior cingulate cortex) that is responsible for focused attention. You integrate the various parts of your brain, so that your brain functions as an integrated whole. At the same time, your heart-rate and respiration relaxes, and your body shifts into its natural recovery mode–identified by Dr. Herbert Benson as “the relaxation response.”
Maybe most important of all, you gain a sense of relaxed presence that assists you in whatever you have to do.
From this state of relaxed presence you can more easily filter the overabundance of information around you, so that you can choose what is worthy of your time, energy, and attention.
What a relief that is.
Enjoy your practice!
– Kevin & Matt
The Mind-Body Training Company
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