Q+A With Tamara :: deepening concentration when faced with a wandering mind

“I have been doing the Calm app for about 45 days. I seem to still be having trouble with my mind wandering. I keep trying to refocus with the breath. Any suggestions for staying focused? Thank you.”

- Devora 


Thanks for your question Devora. It’s such an important one. 

Beginner meditators are often under the impression that their mind shouldn’t wander. I’ve been meditating for 25 years and my mind still wanders. This is simply the nature of the mind. ;)

While we don’t want to spend our entire practice just sitting still thinking, we have to expect that as we meditate, thoughts will arise and our mind will follow. 

What this practice is about, is noticing what’s happening in our experience from moment to moment.

So when the mind begins to wander, simply notice it wandering! The moment you observe that you’ve been pulled away from your object of attention, you’re already back. This is the work of a meditator – to see all that arises – our thoughts and emotions and sensations without getting caught up in them. And if we do, (or rather when, ‘cause we will!) we recognize what’s happening and catch ourselves.

Simply come back to the breath or the body or whatever your anchor is each time you notice the mind wandering. If you have to bring it back a hundred times, bring it back a hundred times.

Progress is when you are able to stay equanimous – meaning that you don’t become judgmental or agitated when the mind wanders. Our objective here is to remain calm and non-reactive. Do your best to notice thoughts without getting swept away by them or by adding more thoughts. 

That’s my first suggestion to help you return to the breath more quickly. The more you get pulled into a story, the more difficult it is to pull away. 

Watch the boats floating by; just don't climb into any of them.

Here are a few additions suggestions for deepening concentration when the mind is busy: 

  • Take three or four deep, conscious breaths. You can count the breaths as you take them or silently say to yourself “Breathing in” and “Breathing out.” This helps concentrate attention. 
  • Focus on the body for a few moments. Bring your awareness to the hands or feet, feel them heavy, and notice any sensations. Direct the breath into those areas for 3-4 breaths. Directing our attention into the body can be helpful when attempting to divert our attention from thought. 
  • Try meditating for longer periods of time. When the mind is busy, it can sometimes take a good 20 minutes or even longer for it to still. Sometimes practicing for longer will allow you to attain a more still mind.
  • Check your posture. Try straightening your back and see if an alert posture helps still the mind.
  • Relax. Sometimes we become tense if we’re trying too hard. Take a few deep breaths with an audible sigh, fully relaxing the body before coming back to your object of attention. 

Keep in mind that concentration takes time to develop - it’s just like strengthening a muscle. Have patience and compassion for yourself while applying the right effort towards your practice. 

All the best,
Tamara 


Q+A with Tamara: what is the best time for meditation?

Q: "I want to ask you what is the best time for meditation?"

- Chris


Thanks for your question Chris! It’s a common one.

In relation to the best time of day to meditate, it’s different for everyone. It can be beneficial to meditate first thing in the morning because you’re able to cultivate a mindful state you can bring into the day.

Starting the day off with a gentle meditation, rather than jumping out of bed and rushing into the day can create a calm feeling of spaciousness, so if you face stress, you’re better able to deal with it.

It can help you bring awareness to your habits and reactivity because you’ve started the day off mindfully, and it can assist with calm decision-making.  
 
I personally love my evening meditation because I tend to have a very busy mind at night, which impacts my sleep. Meditating in the evening can help still the mind, and is a great transition to wind down and prepare for sleep.

However, some people find they are too tired to meditate in the evenings so they end up skipping their evening meditation or falling asleep during it – those people would do better with morning or daytime meditations.
 
You can really meditate any time – morning, after work, after dinner… What’s most important is that you find a time of day that you can stick with for the sake of consistency.

I encourage you to experiment to get a sense of what time of day feel best for you. After all, this is your practice. Make it work for you! 
 
All the best, 
Tamara

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Q+A with Tamara: How to work with thought and apply mindfulness in daily life

Q:  “Although I understand the idea of returning to the breath during meditation, I was wondering if you could tell me about the applications from meditation to the rest of my day. In other words, if I'm walking on the street, is the ideal to keep the mind silent? I typically daydream and think of research project ideas (I'm applying to Economics PhD programs this fall).”


 - Freddie


Fantastic question Freddie.

When we meditate, as you suggested, the practice is to return our attention to the breath (or whatever our point of concentration is) each time the mind drifts off.
 
So first of all, let’s break this down into smaller steps for the sake of clarification.

When we meditate, we make efforts to calm the mind by focusing our attention on let’s say, the breath. Sooner or later, the mind wanders off. When this happens, we make efforts to bring the mind back.
 
So what’s actually happening each time we get lost in thought and bring ourselves back? We’re noticing what’s happening. This simple act of noticing is key to practice.
 
Once we notice what the mind is doing, we have the opportunity to pull ourselves away from distractions and back to our focus. And for that first millisecond that we notice we’ve drifted away, we can observe what the mind is doing. Perhaps we’re worrying about something later that day, perhaps we’re ruminating about a past conversation. Regardless of what’s pulled us away from the breath and broken our concentration, the act of noticing allows us to return.
 
In daily life, there’s a lot we don’t notice:

  • We lash out at our partner, totally unaware that our anger is because of an old hurt - If we recognize the need to address that old hurt we can resolve it and move on.
  • We sabotage opportunities out of fear - If we notice this is a pattern we can look deeper into its cause.
  • When we have anxiety and our thoughts fall to worst-case scenarios and we notice, we can make efforts to calm our mind, view our thoughts in a more balanced way and change our response.

Noticing allows us to make conscious choices in life and run the
show ourselves, rather than letting our lives run their
course in an unconscious way.

 

This is mindfulness.
 
So to answer your question, is it okay if you begin daydreaming about your project ideas when walking down the street... dream away! Just notice your dreaming.

When we do things without noticing, that’s when we’re not being mindful. But if you notice your daydreaming, and make the choice to continue, then you’re being mindful of where you’re applying your attention. As long as your thinking isn’t distracting you from something else you need to be doing, think away!
 
Many of us think for a living, so we have to carve out time for it. I personally have some of my most innovative ideas while in movement.
 
Last, the same answer applies to how we can integrate mindfulness in daily life: notice what’s happening. Notice when your thoughts take you on a ride, Notice what triggers your emotions. Notice your habitual responses and patterns. Notice when you’re on autopilot.
 
When you notice what’s happening you have a choice – you can ask yourself, “do I want to continue down this road?”
 
And if the answer is yes, forge ahead. Dream, brainstorm and think away.
 
Just notice. ;)

Best of luck with your studies,
Tamara


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Q+A with Tamara: How to Combat Sleepiness during Meditation

“I keep falling asleep while using the app. As a result I remember almost none of the training.

And I have to listen to the same training (say, day 3) again and again in order to really understand the technique. Is such reaction typical? Is there a way to change this?

-Andrey S.


Great question Andrey.

It’s not uncommon to become sleepy during meditation because for many of us, it’s the only time of day our mind and body settles into a relaxed state.

With the cessation of physical and mental activity our body allows itself to feel the extent of our fatigue. It’s great to have this awareness, but it’s important to remain alert and mindful during meditation. Otherwise, as you suggest, we aren’t able to train and practice effectively.

Here are six techniques you can practice to combat sleepiness:

  1. Maintain proper posture. Maintaining good posture has a great deal do with how alert you are during your sit. Straighten your spine so it’s nice and tall, and each time you notice yourself beginning to slouch due to fatigue, imagine a string at the top of your head pulling you up. When you straighten your back, it will help to maintain alertness.

  2. Don’t meditate on a full stomach. If you’ve just eaten a large meal, that could attribute to fatigue. Try eating lightly before you meditate, or wait for about an hour after consuming a large meal. 

  3. Deep conscious breathing. When you notice yourself getting tired, take a few conscious deep breaths. It can also help to note the breath: Try silently noting to yourself that you’re breathing in and breathing out. Each time you breathe in, say to yourself the words, “breathing in,” and each time you breathe out, say to yourself the words, “breathing out.”

  4. Open your eyes. In order to prevent sleepiness, you can ever so slightly, open the eyes so you’re gazing ahead of you just a few feet. The light hitting your retina will help you stay alert, but make sure not to pay attention to what’s in your line of vision. Once you feel more alert, you can continue your practice with your eyes closed.

  5. Choose the right time to practice. Last, make sure you’re meditating at the best time for you. If you’re meditating at night and feeling tired, you may want to try switching to a morning practice. Different people feel more sharp and alert at different times of day, so test out practicing at various times to see which time of day enhances alertness.

Best of luck!
Tamara


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