In this last of my series of posts on mindfulness, I want to mention one more benefit of becoming fully aware of the present moment: improved concentration. Many of us have occasional difficulty concentrating; distractions such as noise, headaches, worries, and phone calls all get in the way of us being fully engaged in the moment. Also consider how difficult it is to concentrate if you’re a child or adult with ADHD. Mindfulness meditation is now being studied as a treatment for the inattention symptoms of ADHD and it seems to be helping. (For one example of a recent study, check out this article from the Journal of Child and Family Studies.) Anyone who works in emotionally intense environments (e.g., social work, medicine, counseling, teaching, religion, etc.) knows that when emotions are high, concentration decreases. As a counselor, I know this first hand. I have the honor and challenge of listening to and bearing witness to the pain, anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness others go through. I always find it easier to concentrate and stay in the present moment with my clients when I’ve spent some time in mindful meditation earlier in the day. The days I don’t begin with mindfulness, I am scattered, distracted, and don’t give my best attention and energy to my clients.
The reason why mindfulness helps improve concentration is that, through meditation, we learn to notice and accept distractions (thoughts, sounds, sensations) without attaching to them. In other words, the distractions don’t go away, we simply notice them and return our attention to the present. However, this takes practice. We often want to escape an emotionally difficult or mentally draining situation, so our mind actually seeks out and latches on to distractions — anything to mentally pull us away from what’s going on in front of us since we often can’t escape it physically. Practicing mindfulness can allow us to let go of distracting thoughts, sounds, and sensations with increasing ease until it becomes almost automatic.
What distractions are pulling you away from the present moment? Are there people, activities, or work tasks on which you need to concentrate more deeply? Try spending a few minutes each day (mornings work for me) practicing mindful awareness of the present, noting distractions but letting go of them as you exhale. It can help to focus on sounds that you hear in that moment. If those sounds lead your mind to wander, simply exhale and bring your attention back to the sounds. Remember, the important part of being aware of the present is to do so without judgment of it. This will be particularly hard for any of us who have an inner critic or perfectionist, but keep trying.
Peace, joy, and health,