We are all familiar with the experience of having our mind wander. We’re reading a book, and realize we’ve read the same page 5 times without any recollection of what we just read. Or when we are driving and realize we are way off course, but were so lost in thought we had no idea that we had missed our turn.
As discussed at The Science of Meditation Summit in October, 2016, scientists at the University of Miami, under the direction of Amishi Jha, Ph.D., conducted a recent study showing that people’s minds wander for 50% of their waking moments during any given day. Now having a wandering mind is okay and even beneficial if we are engaged in relaxing activities like taking a walk or soaking in a bath. If we, however, have a task we need to complete in a timely manner such as a report or an examination, a wandering mind can be challenging and frustrating.
In addition, as we get older we seem to realize more than when we were young that life’s moments are precious, especially those moments spent with loved ones. So naturally we want to treasure those moments as best we can and be fully present with our loved ones, not following our wandering minds around as if we were on a leash.
So what do we do about these wandering minds of ours? Before we address that, let’s examine what it is we are trying to improve.
The neuro-scientists at the University of Miami have put attention into three main categories. The orienting system is like a flashlight, which allows us to direct our attention where we need it to go. The alerting system is like a flashing yellow light we see on the side of the road. It’s a system that’s in a readied state, on hand to alert us to anything that needs our attention. And the system of executive control acts like the juggler of the brain, ensuring that all components of the brain are performing, as they should.
All three systems have the potential to get stuck. For example, anxiety occurs when the alerting system has gone awry. Unfortunately, our attention is more susceptible to getting stuck because of our high alert world. Our phones alert us to emails, text messages, phone calls, and social media notifications all through the day, and our brain can’t differentiate between high alert and low alert needs, so our alerting system is overtaxed which can then throw off all the systems. Mind wandering is particularly troublesome under high stress situations, and the more high stress situations we are in, the more our mind wandering will increase.
University of Miami scientists have found that improvements in performance measures of attention have been found with mindfulness meditation. They can now confidently confirm that mindfulness meditation strengthens all three categories of attention, for it allows the brain time to rest and recharge. Although our bodies rest when we sleep, our brains do not. Meditation is the only time that our brain achieves a state of rest.
Mindfulness meditation uses the breath as a focal point for your attention. The goal is to focus your attention on slow and deep breathing. When your attention wanders away from the breath, and it will (for this is normal brain function), simply bring your attention back to your breath without any self-judgment or criticism. In addition, take 1-minute breaks throughout the day to bring your attention to the now, to this moment of your day. This simple exercise will enhance your breathing practice and further strengthen your attention, thus allowing you to be more present in your life.
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