Two Powerful Ways to Train Your Attention Through Meditation

Out of all the cognitive abilities that you possess, attention is by far the most powerful. And for a good reason too.

Research indicates that the human attention span is 8 seconds now from what used to be 12 seconds in the year 2000.

Distractions are all around us; more so now than ever before, and its effects are very evident.

Blame it on the mobile revolution perhaps? Whatever be the case, with technology on the rise, there is no reason to believe why this trend wouldn’t continue.

But thankfully there is a solution. And the solution lies in the fact that your attention is trainable and you can do that through the practice of focused meditation.

Your attention is trainable

Out of all the cognitive abilities that you possess, attention is by far the most powerful. And for a good reason too.

It is only by paying attention can you learn a new skill, think critically, understand things from a deeper perspective, apply knowledge, become self aware (meta-cognition) and a lot more. Yet, there is no education system that helps you train and enhance this powerful faculty.

The good news is that there is plenty of research to support the fact that attention can be  trained.

For instance, a research conducted by scientists in Wisconsin found that when Tibetan monks meditated, the activity in their frontal lobes (and more specifically their prefrontal cortex) was enormous in comparison to a control group who were just learning to meditate. These Tibetan monks had over 50,000 minutes of focused mediation experience.

Now the frontal lobe contains your prefrontal cortex which controls attention and other higher brain functions like meta-cognition (ability to stay conscious of your thoughts).

The fact that these monks exhibited stronger activity in their frontal lobe, shows that they had trained this area of the brain (in this case, through meditation).

In addition, there are several other studies that prove beyond doubt that meditation positively impacts your brain’s frontal lobe and the prefrontal cortex helping you sharpen your mind, strengthen focus and concentration.

2 Powerful Steps to Train Your Attention through Meditation

Now that you know the power of your attention, here are two steps that will help you train your focus and thereby drastically improve your attention span along with improving your concentration, meta cognition and other abilities. 

Step 1: Becoming conscious of your attention

On a general basis, your attention is in auto-mode. This means that your brain automatically allocates ‘attention’ to different tasks as it deems appropriate. For example, as you drive your car, part of your attention is on the road and another part is engaged in a thought or activity like steering/changing gears.

Neuroscientists believe that our brain processes over 400 billion bits of information, every single second. But out of that, we are conscious of only around 2000 bits. Why do you think that is? The reason is simple. Attention is a limited resource and hence the brain expends it only on information that it deems curial for survival. The rest is ignored.

At this very moment as you are reading this article, there is a lot happening in your environment that you are not aware/conscious of.

Now for a moment, stop reading this article, close your eyes and divert your attention to the various sounds in your environment. As you do that, you will start to become aware of an array of sounds that were previously non-existent – the birds chirping, the sound of the fan running, the sound your computer is making, a constant hum coming from a distance, sound of traffic, the sound of clock, etc.

What you did just now is called, ‘consciously paying attention’. In other words, you take your focus from being in auto-mode and consciously refocus it (in this case, on a sense perception).

The point to note here is that the brain was always processing all this information, just that you were unaware of it because your attention was not focused on it. The brain decided to not focus your attention on these sounds as these sounds were mechanical and hence deemed unimportant.

To become more conscious of your attention, you can spend time repeating the above practice with various sense perceptions. For instance, try to consciously focus your attention on your sight – consciously see and perceive your external environment. When you eat, consciously focus your attention on tasting the food. Similarly, consciously focus your attention inside your body and consciously feel how your body is feeling. You might become aware of various body parts that are stiff and under stress, and you can then relax these areas.

As you become comfortable with this, try becoming conscious of the thoughts running in your mind. Find out which thoughts your attention is focused on and see what happens when you remove attention from that thought. If you feel an emotion in the body, try to consciously sense that emotion.

Make it a habit to stay mindful/conscious of your attention this way and to divert it consciously anywhere you want to. The more you do this, the more conscious of your attention you will become.

Step 2: Learning to consciously focus your attention

The second step is about learning to consciously focus your attention by practicing focused meditation.

Keeping your attention consciously focused on an object or stimulus helps you develop your focus muscle. The stronger your focus muscle, the sharper your mind becomes. Think of this as sharpening a blunt knife. If you keep using the knife without sharpening it, the knife becomes blunt. The same is the case with your mind and conscious focusing in the way to sharpen it.

So become conscious of your attention (as in step 1), consciously refocus it on a sense perception and maintain focus for as long as you can. If your attention wanders, bring it back to focus. This simple task of bringing your attention back to focus as it wanders is what strengthens your focus muscle. This is akin to doing focused meditation.

Training your attention requires you to do both these activities in tandem. In-fact, one helps the other.

Meditation Exercise:

The following is a simple meditation exercise that you can do to understand this step better:

Sit comfortably, close your eyes and focus all your attention on your breathing. To anchor your attention better, try focusing on the sensations of the air caressing the tip of your nostrils as it enters and leaves your body.

Now, as you do this, thoughts are bound to arise and will try to pull your attention in. Each time you encounter a thought, don’t analyze the thought or try to force the thought to go. Simply let the thought be, and bring your full attention back to your breath.

This way of diverting your attention back to your breath over and over again is what strengthens your focus muscle and thereby improves your attention span.

Doing this meditation for 5 to 10 minutes daily should suffice. As your focus muscle develops, you will find that during your practise, thoughts no longer bother you as they used to. Thoughts come and go on their own and eventually settle down.

Conclusion

As you practice these techniques, you will start to see a marked improvement in your ability to concentrate and focus attention for longer periods of time.

In other words, your attention span will improve drastically. In addition, you will also develop mental clarity as thoughts will no longer distract you as they used to and your thinking will improve.

One more major benefit of doing these exercises is that you will become more conscious of your mind and develop increased self awareness and meta-cognitive abilities.

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Mukesh Mani

Mukesh blogs at outofstress.com where he writes about meditation, mindfulness, self-awareness, self-healing, subconscious mind, consciousness and other related topics. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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