Exercise Your Attention with Mindfulness

by Daron Larson

Scientific research into mindfulness practice and its potential benefits has exploded in recent years. It has been shown to help people manage stress, decrease anxiety, and get better sleep. In addition to personal reports, technological advances have improved our ability to track the impact of meditation on the brain’s structure and functioning.

The enthusiasm stirred up by these findings is understandable. Who doesn’t want to feel a little more ease in their lives?

But the excitement can lead to inaccurate assumptions about the experience of mindfulness practice itself. This is why it’s so important to understand the differences between the outcomes you hear so much about and the exercises required to experience them.

Comparing mindfulness practice to what we already understand about physical fitness can help you adjust your expectations and increase the chances that you will stick with the exploration long enough to experience its numerous beneficial effects.

Not Weird Anymore

Not so long ago, running and lifting weights were activities reserved for athletes and soldiers. Imagine the confusion and neighborhood gossip that must have spread when ordinary people started to run around their blocks. It was only a weird thing to do until family doctors started to explain how physical exercise might help hearts and lungs function more efficiently and even lead to longer, more energetic lives.

The images people associate with meditation can still seem a little weird today. Meditation is associated with monastic practices from various contemplative traditions.

Over the past three decades, however, neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that mindfulness meditation can actually improve your sense of well-being over time.  

We know that it’s possible to run without training for the Olympics. Moving — including running, walking, swimming — on a regular basis improves physical health. Turns out that sitting relatively still for a few minutes a day has benefits, too. But not everyone knows yet that you can exercise your attention without converting to a different religion or becoming a monk.

Research studies confirm again and again that consistent mindfulness practice can improve your mental and emotional well-being. The latest versions of the Apple watch and FitBit trackers have already gotten in sync with these findings by offering ways to encourage and keep track of breath awareness exercises.  

Physical training approaches can and should be adjusted to reflect specific interests, challenges, and goals. Athletes work with coaches and other experts to explore better ways to enhance their performance.

Mindfulness exercises can also be modified to fit the way we live now. Experienced mindfulness coaches can walk you through exercises, help you improve your technique, and develop personalized practice programs.

Not Always Comfortable

Scientific research over the years has helped us understand that in order to have stronger bodies, we have to regularly engage in exercises that can be physically uncomfortable and fatiguing.

We know through direct experience that changes in your heart rate, breathing, and perspiration are to be expected when you challenge your body by climbing stairs, lifting weights, or cutting loose in a Zumba class. It’s also that you know that it’s possible to recognize the difference between healthy moderation and risky overexertion.

When you train your attention by focusing on a sensory perceptions such as sounds or the sensations related to breathing, you quickly discover how often your awareness wanders away from what you’re trying to notice.

This is the point at which so many people misread the signs and give up, even though their experience is completely normal and expected aspect of training your attention. It would be like assuming that fatigued chest muscles prove that you aren’t cut out for push ups.

The road to physical strength is challenging because of the many discomforts along the way. The path to focus, self-awareness, and emotional regulation is riddled with distractions. It might not sound like it at first, but learning to relate to discomfort and confusion differently can be liberating. This is because general contentment becomes less dependent on comfort and certainty.

Just as the research psychologist Anders Ericsson writes in his new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise :

“Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities.”

This is why working with a coach can be so useful.

An experienced mindful awareness coach can help you clarify your expectations about mindfulness practice, identify effective strategies, navigate common obstacles, and avoid misinterpreting the evidence that indicates that you’re performing the exercises perfectly — even when it doesn’t feel like it at all.

Not a Replacement for Expert Care

Physical exercise increases strength, flexibility, and endurance to support the regular activities of daily life. Mindfulness practice develops attentional fitness to improve your ability to focus, relax, and observe thoughts and feelings more objectively.

Just because you go to the gym regularly or get 10,000 steps every day doesn’t mean you never have to go to the doctor. Consistent mindfulness practice doesn’t replace the need for support groups, counseling, or other mental health interventions. It complements them by improving self-awareness and emotional regulation. Over time, it can help you get better at detecting the clues that indicate it’s time to reach out for additional assistance.

There are many different approaches to mindfulness practice. As with physical exercise, it’s always a good idea to check with the care providers you trust to make sure that what you’re considering adding to your routine will contribute to the work you are already doing together.

You're Already Training Your Attention

How we habitually move and eat directly impacts our bodies in observable ways. Similarly, how we think and feel changes our brains in ways that neuroscientists are getting better at observing and measuring. Mindfulness practice takes advantage of neuroplasticity, the brain’s stunning capacity for repairing after trauma and adapting to new challenges.

It took a long time to hone your current default responses to emotional triggers. It takes time to cultivate new ones.

Besides, you're already ready training your attention.

  • What is your current strategy for relating to thoughts and confusion?
  • How do you relate to pleasant and unpleasant feelings?
  • What do you do when you feel uncomfortable or confused?

Habitual responses to mundane challenges determine what your contentment depends on and the degree to which circumstances can erode it.

Mindfulness is certainly not a quick fix. It requires curiosity and commitment. But through consistent exercise based on your individual challenges and needs, mindfulness training can develop natural abilities that can gradually transform the way you experience your life.

You can get better at deciding where to put your attention, and for how long.

You can get better at observing your thoughts and feelings without taking them as personally.

And as your skills of attention increase, you can nudge down the habitual tendency to wait until circumstances are ideal in order to feel engaged, connected, and alive.