Meditation is a powerful ally if we want to train the mind. Practice any kind of real meditation, and you’ll realise that it’s essentially like weight-lifting for your mind.
When I say train the mind, I mean cleaning up our addiction to thought and our lack of presence. If you do this, you’ll live deeply in the present. This brings heightened fulfillment, self-mastery, a greater ability to deal with life’s challenges, and insight into yourself.
The effects of meditation on attention have been well-documented since antiquity, and the best science is now verifying them.
In this article, we look at how to train the mind with meditation. We start by looking at the seven core attention skills, then cover how classic meditation practices help us train them. We round off by diving into the six stages of attention so you get inspired to practice meditation regularly.
Meditation, at its root, retains attention, and different types boost varying aspects of attention.Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson
Let’s now cover the seven core skills, which weave together to form a comprehensive picture of what it means to train the mind.
Train The Mind: The 7 Core Attention Skills
Train the Mind: 1. Selective Attention
Suppose you’re in your favourite restaurant on a noisy Saturday night. All the tables are full, the noise of conversation fills the room, and there are waiters buzzing around to attend to guests. How can you possibly enjoy the food with all these distractions around you? This is where selective attention comes in.
If we train our this skill, it’s much easier to hone in on one item despite the presence of others. In this case, we’ll be able to move our focus from the commotion in the restaurant and turn it to the food: its appearance, flavour, temperature, and feel in our mouth.
We’ve all had the experience of getting absorbed in a good book amid a flurry of noise and chaos. This is also a great example of selective attention. Though that other activity remains, the book consumes us and everything else becomes secondary.
Without selective attention, our focus is pulled here, there and everywhere and we have no control over it. The upside is that most meditation helps us to train this skill.
Numerous reports, both anecdotal and scientific, support the idea that meditation leads to better sustained attention, or, to use the technical term, vigilance.Daniel Goleman and Richie J Davidson
When we talk in lay terms about attention span and the ability to focus, often what we’re talking about is vigilance: the ability to maintain our focus on a chosen object, whether it’s sound of someone’s voice, the words on a page, or the sensations in our body. Vigilance is crucial at work, in study, and even in play. If we can’t retain attention over time, we’ll find it difficult to be productive, learn, and enjoy our activities.
When our focus starts to wane, we experience fatigue, boredom, and the desire to be elsewhere doing other things. We might even grab our smartphones to drown out the boredom.
And in the overstimulating modern world, it’s no wonder our vigilance is dropping. To compensate, ads, videos and articles are becoming ever more dumbed down, shorter, and more stimulating to keep us engaged, further blunting our vigilance.
But as Goleman and Davidson say, meditation can help us boost our vigilance, which brings numerous benefits.
Train the Mind: Skill 3. Habituation
We tend to notice things long enough to check or categorise them. Once we know they’re safe or familiar, we stop paying attention to conserve energy.
Take the example of the taste of coffee. You may have had hundreds, even thousands, of cups of coffee in your life. But how many times have you tasted every drop as though for the first time, gaining the same satisfaction from every single one? If you’re like most people, probably very few times.
Tuning out repeated sensory stimuli is called habituation. Though it’s necessary for our functioning, one of its downsides is that we can become used to anything familiar, including our house, our loved ones and our favourite food. It makes life more manageable but more dull too.
Here’s where meditation comes in. Japanese researchers took EEG scans of Zen monks while they listened to monotonous series of sounds. Most monks showed normal patterns of habituation, paying less attention after the tenth beep.
But the brains of the three advanced monks responded as strongly to the twentieth beep as to the first. Those monks could maintain focus when other brains would tune out. In another experiment, Tibetan meditators were found to have lower habituation to loud noises.
As we’ll see, during meditation we practice being awake to each moment as though experiencing it for the first time. We bring a curiosity to all our experiences, whether they seem exciting, boring, marvellous, or mundane.
Train The Mind: Skill 4. Allocation/Detection
Another key area of attention is allocation, or the ability to detect details in our inner and outer world.
To give another familiar analogy, when you taste a dish and try to guess the ingredients it contains, you’re relying on allocation. You focus deeper, look for tiny sensory clues, and split apart the many sensory impressions you receive. By doing so, you’re able to detect several ingredients, not just the overall flavour of the dish.
But this doesn’t only apply to taste. We can detect details in all our senses – sight, sound, touch, smell, even in thoughts and emotions. When we combine detection in several senses at once, we have a powerful tool for appreciating them more deeply and seeing greater beauty in the everyday.
5. Attention Blink
Yet another core aspect of our attention is what’s known as the attention blink.
It refers to moments when our ability to track our senses goes offline and are dumbed down. It’s as though our senses momentarily disappear and we go into a cloudy, unconscious state. On the other hand, the lack of attention blink comes with an ability to notice small changes.
For a long time, science claimed that this property was hardwired. Yet studies on meditators show that meditation also improves this facet of attention.
The same vipassana retreatants as before showed a 20% reduction in their attention blink. Further investigation has shown that open-monitoring meditation reduces the effect of age on attention blink, and that temporary reductions occur after only 17 minutes of practice.
So far we’ve been talking about the key skills at work during periods of concentrated attention. But what about periods when our attention is unoccupied?
You may have noticed that in these moments self-related thoughts often rush in, and we go offline. These thoughts tend to revolve about plans, fantasies and memories, and often have a negative slant.
In fact, in such moments there are certain parts of the brain that tend to activate: the mPFC (midline of prefrontal cortex) and the PCC (postcingulate cortex). Together they make up the Default Mode Network or DMN.
What’s more, this habit is responsible for our suffering – Harvard researchers studied the DMN and its effects, and concluded that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”.
Yet it’s possible to overcome this, through a skill called meta-awareness. This is the ability to track our attention moment to moment and notice whether we’re attentive or not, which enables us to re-establish presence.
The lesson? We aren’t at the mercy of poor attention. Not only can we train the core attention skills, we can track our attention over time.
Let’s cover another meta-skill, one that leads us nicely into meditation.
7. Non-Judgemental Awareness
As noted earlier, our tendency is to quickly categorise everything around us. We stick labels on it, compare it with what we know, then swiftly dump it out of awareness if it’s uninteresting. But this habit makes life repetitive, predictable and sterile.
As an antidote to this, we can apply non-judgemental awareness to any phenomenon we experience. Non-judgemental awareness combines our ability to suspend judgement with the core attention skills, and enables us to experience our senses as though for the first time. We capture life as it really is, moment to moment.
Taking this further, we can even see pain and discomfort with new eyes. Perhaps they aren’t the death sentence we suppose they are. Maybe there is a deeper reality to pain and suffering that we usually miss.
Train The Mind With These Beginner-Friendly Meditation Techniques
All meditation practice shares a common core. We execute a series of steps designed to help us improve our attention in a specific way. Indeed, if we lack these attention skills, we’ll struggle to meditate in the first place.
And rest assured that meditation does train your attention, especially when practiced over the long run. In seasoned meditators, we find stronger connections between the brain regions required to perform basic steps behind all meditation – during meditation practice and outside it. And the attention skills we train on the cushion become enduring traits we can permanently access off the cushion.
One skill common to all meditation is to notice when we’ve fallen into unconscious thinking and return our attention to the practice. As we do, we activate and strengthen the connection between the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex and the Default Mode Network. This gives us greater control over our attention, an increased ability to detach from sticky thougts, and a quieter mind in general.
Let’s now touch on specific meditation practices and which attention skills they help us develop.
Train The Mind With The Body Scan Meditation
Do the body scan right, and you’ll be developing selective attention, vigilance, habituation, allocation, meta-awareness, and non-judgemental awareness. These skills are all contained in the basic instructions of the standard body scan. See if you can spot them in these instructions.
Here’s how we do the body scan. While sitting, lying down or standing, we focus our attention on each body part in turn. We typically begin with the toes, then slowly move our way up through the body until reaching the top of the head.
The goal is to feel each part of the body as it is, dropping our resistance to what we feel, and maintain our attention on it for around 15-30 seconds, depending on the duration of the body scan. We see each body part anew, as though experiencing it for the first time, and attempt to detect details. When distractions pull our attention away – like sounds in the environment or thoughts – we gently bring it back to the body part we were working with.
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See In and Hear In
If you’ve been in the meditation world for some time, you’ll have come across this meditation in one form or another. My name for it comes from the Unified Mindfulness system. Meta-awareness is probably the main skill we develop in this technique, but we also build each of the other six core attention skills.
In this technique, we work with our mental images and mental chatter, applying the three-step noting process (also from Unified Mindfulness). The key to doing this technique well is to see that your thoughts are simply passing mental phenomena, like clouds in the sky. We look at them afresh and experience them with non-resistance and attempt to detect qualities like location, size and intensity.
When we get lost in the thoughts, we begin to run the three-step cycles again, experiencing our thoughts as fully as possible while retaining meta-awareness.
Not only does this exercise strenghten your attention skills, it helps you see your thoughts in an entirely new way and reduce their hold on you.
For more on the Focus In technique, check out my article Intro to Unified Mindfulness.
Train The Mind With My 5-Step Emotions Meditation
I developed a five-step meditation exercise for challenging emotions, and it’s interesting to ponder what attention skills it develops. I believe that it develops all seven core attention skills and in particular encourages meta-awareness and non-judgemental awareness. Follow the link for full details.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Mindfulness-based stress reduction or MBSR is not one technique but a series of them. It’s an eight-week programme based on classic mindfulness practices such as breathing meditation, the body scan, and walking meditation.
Several hundred studies have been done on this system and we now know that it strengthens attentional networks. In one study, novices trained in MBSR were found to have increased orienting, a component of selective attention that enables us to direct our attention to one input among many. That’s no surprise. This is a constant facet of meditation practice of almost any form. Yet it’s also very encouraging we can develop it after only eight weeks of the programme.
The skill of orienting is crucial for stressful situations, when we are often bombarded by unpleasant thoughts and emotions. With meditation, we can direct our attention away from that inner material and anchor it elsewhere, like our breathing or the sights and sounds around us.
Train The Mind Through Meditation Breath Practices
When you start out with meditation, there’s a good chance you’ll work with the breath. But meditations involving the breath don’t exist solely to make meditation accessible for newbies – they’re powerful practices that help us develop the attention skills we’ll need for our entire journey.
Let me pick two studies that showcase the power of breath practice in very different populations: zen meditators and university students.
Zen meditators with over three years of experience showed reduced DMN activity during breath meditation, meaning less mind-wandering, along with improved attention skills at rest. This is crucial – in these meditators, their skills carried over from the cushion into their daily functioning.
Likewise, in university students who were beginner meditators, three 10-minute sessions of breath counting significantly increased their attention skills immediately after the sessions, undoing the damage done by multitasking.
In reality, these studies only capture a tiny part of a monstrous phenomenon: breath practice is the cornerstone of many spiritual traditions and has been for millennia. And if we train the mind, we can go far beyond some reduced mind wandering and a little boost in attention in daily life, as we’re about to see.
You might enjoy my video on the four biggest meditation myths.
Train The Mind: The 5 Stages
I love the five stages of attention training because they show us what’s possible if we commit to long-term meditation. I’ve taken these stages from Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson’s work and added my own labels to the stages.
Stage 1 of Meditation: Struggling
To begin with, meditation is effortful. We struggle to maintain our attention on our object of focus – whether that’s our breathing, our body, or the sights and sounds around us. We’re continually caught up in the monkey mind.
At this stage, the object of our attention us seems solid and separate from us, and we have to work really hard to focus on it.
Stage 2: Stabilising
After some time, our thoughts subside and flow like river. We’re better able to witness thoughts as they come and go without getting caught up in them so much: they’re less “sticky”. We notice we can hold attention for longer, and this may start to spill over into daily life.
Stage 3 of Meditation: Deepening
Experienced meditators (those with 1k-10k hours of formal practice) report less difficulty in sustaining attention. Their can hold attention on the object of the focus, their mind remains tranquil, and they often experience feelings of delight and calm.
When we measure brain activity among these meditators, we find less connectivity among the several areas of the Default Mode Network along with lower activity in the postcingulate cortex, indicating focus, effortlessness, and contentment.
Stage 4: Full Absorption
If we continue to train the mind, all distracting thoughts cease and our attention is unshakeable. We retain attention effortlessly. We begin to realise that our senses aren’t separate from us.
I’ve noticed that when we’re in Stage 4 of attention, life seems different. It at once becomes more real, more vivid, yet also more surreal and dreamlike. We’re so focused that our perception alters.
Stage 5 of Meditation: Non-Perception, Non-dual
At this level, the distance between us and the object of our focus collapses. As John Kabat-Zinn puts it:
there is less and less separation between me and the view when I give myself over to attending, when I allow myself to come to and live within my senses. Subject (seer) and object (what is seen) unite in the moment of seeing. Otherwise it is not seeing.John Kabat-Zinn
When we focus on the breath with this level of awareness, we realise that we’re not separate from the breath. Our habitual sense of self collapses, and we become intertwined with the breath.
If we want to experience the higher levels of attention, it’s crucial we begin a regular meditation practice and deliberately train the core skills. With time, they become ever more accessible.
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