Sarah McLean on meditation and training yourself to pay attention on purpose.
Your attention is your superpower. You have the ability to take advantage of this superpower by training yourself to pay attention on purpose. And when you do, you can transform your life as well as the lives of others.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “where your attention goes, energy flows”? It’s true. Your attention is a powerful currency, after all you pay attention. And, when you offer your unconditioned, gentle attention to someone or something, consider this: you are sending a very powerful message: “I see you. I hear you. I love you.”
I refer to attention as the “currency of love” because what you attend to, you enliven, nourish, and encourage to thrive. Every living being, from people and animals to plants, and even molecules of water, respond to attention. Your body, your projects, and your relationships all can thrive when you are paying attention to them.
Unfortunately, many of us squander our attention without even recognizing its value and its power. We can become mindless, rather than mindful. That’s because attention is so subtle. It can be overshadowed by competing interests and distractions.
Technology and the media hijack your attention, often without your permission. Your mental musings, including your compulsions and obsessions, can distract you from what is important to you, too. In addition, you might have the habit of paying partial attention: not truly engaged, but kind of half listening, half distracted, or easily thrown off focus because of the demands from your to-do lists. If you’re not aware that you’re distracted then your connection with the people and causes you care most deeply about will suffer.
But you can change that. You can deliberately make it a point to regain control of how and to whom you direct this powerful currency, by paying attention. So take a moment to pay attention to your attention right now. You can become ridiculously in charge of it and how you focus it on purpose through the practice of meditation.
Meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, is an important ingredient for living a peaceful, powerful, purposeful life. It strengthens your attention muscle and helps you deal with distractions so you can take back control of your attention. With it, you learn to be more focused, present, and engaged. And, you’ll see the benefits of your meditation practice because you will live more mindfully, savoring your life, including the relationships and experiences you are engaged in. You will also be able to focus on what is truly important to you. You’ll purposefully live your life, frame by frame. And, as each new moment unfolds, you’ll be aware of that which calls your spirit into action.
Here are answers to the basic questions new meditators frequently ask when starting a new practice:
- What time of day should I meditate? The body loves rhythm, so you can create a new one by setting aside a period of time each day to meditate. The two best times to meditate are when you first wake up in the morning and again between work and dinner – what I call “happy hour.” Before you start, put your mobile phone on airplane mode, and tell those around you that you will be otherwise occupied so you won’t be disturbed. It’s ideal to meditate on an empty stomach. Because meditation can increase your alertness, it’s best to finish meditating at least three hours before bedtime so it doesn’t interfere with your sleep.
- Where should I sit? Find a quiet place free of distractions, one that you can return to at the same time each day. As you become more experienced, you will be able to meditate anywhere – at work, on the subway, at the doctor’s office. How do I do it? Sit down, close your eyes, and get comfortable. Sit upright in a comfortable position – seated in a chair with your feet on the floor, or, if you can, on a floor cushion cross-legged. Remain relatively still with your eyes closed. There is no need to be rigid or stiff.
- What should I do next? In order to meditate you need three things: 1. Your resolve to do the practice. 2. A gentle, nonjudgmental attention, and 3. A focal point for your attention such as a sound, sensation, or visual focus. Bring your gentle attention to the focus (read about different meditation techniques below.) and if your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your focus without judgment. Welcome everything, and resist nothing. Let go of expectations too: don’t wait for something magical to happen, instead, just do it.
- How long should I meditate for? Decide ahead of time how long the meditation period will be and stick with it the entire time. Start with five or 10 minutes and, if you like, you can increase your meditation time up to 30 minutes twice a day, Any amount will be beneficial, but to build self-discipline, it’s important to stick to the amount of time you commit to once you start your session. This resolve will help to train your attention. Use a watch, a meditation mobile app, or the vibrate mode on your phone to let you know when your time is up.
- How do I end my meditation session? Take your time coming out of meditation. Give yourself a few deep breaths and become aware of the space and the sounds around you. Begin to gently stretch your body and slowly open your eyes, just as you would coming out of a restful night’s sleep. Take at least two minutes before you return to activity.
There are many different styles of meditation. Experiment and find one that feels most natural to you. Here are five different focuses for meditation:
- Gently focus on the natural rhythm of your breath. Your breath is an anchor to this present moment. It is a go-to mindfulness practice. Try it now. Feel your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Notice the pauses between each breath too. It’s okay if you get distracted, and when you realize you’re “off topic”, simply refocus on your breath again. Remember, this is training.
- Some people find it easier to focus on a sound. You can listen to a sound in nature such as the wind in the trees, a bird song, or the ebb and flow of the waves in the ocean. You can also use a mantra – a word or phrase that you repeat to yourself or out loud. When you use a mantra, you can focus on the sound of the word. Experiment with the word “one,” “om”, or “amen.” You can use numbers too as you silently count your breaths (Inhale-1, exhale-2, inhale-3, exhale-4, inhale-5 and so on.) When you lose track of the numbers, start again at one. And, be kind to yourself.
- Another way to practice being more mindful is to bring your attention to the sensations of your body. Starting at the crown of your head, bring your attention to the physical sensations you notice, and relax each area you become aware of. Then, mindfully and slowly, work your way down your body, noticing sensations such as coolness, warmth, lightness, heaviness, tingling, numbness, and more. You can even notice the air on your skin or your feet on the floor. Do this practice throughout your body until you reach your toes. If you notice you are telling yourself a story about this or that part of your body, return your attention to the sensations themselves rather than interpreting it.
- One go-to practice for many is to softly focus your gaze on something. You can choose a candle flame, a star in the night sky, or even a flower. After gazing on the object for some time, close your eyes and begin to visualize it. When the image fades from your awareness, then open your eyes and return your gaze to the object again. If your mind wanders to a thought or a story during the practice, open your eyes and return to observing the object without judgment or interpretation or labels.
- Another way to meditate is by cultivating a positive emotion such as gratitude, appreciation, or kindness. You can bring to mind someone or something you care deeply about or something or someone you’re thankful for. While you do this, you can bring your attention to your heart. Remember, where your attention goes, energy flows.
About the author: Sarah McLean is a meditation expert and a best-selling author of the book, Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation. Her new book, The Power of Attention: Awaken to Love and Its Unlimited Potential with Meditation both of which are endorsed by Deepak Chopra. She’s the founding director of the McLean Meditation Institute in Sedona, Arizona and County Cork, Ireland. MMI offers meditation and mindfulness classes and the Meditation Teacher Academy which has trained meditation and mindfulness teachers around the globe. Sarah will be sharing the secrets to meditation and the power of attention at a retreat in County Cork Ireland, May 5-7, and at the ThinKnotts event in Nottingham City Center on May 13th. Find out more, visit www.PowerofAttentionBook.com