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8 Tips to Develop Your Focus Meditation

Move past the myths of meditation and learn what works.

Key points

  • The "focus" style of meditation requires sustained attention on a single target.
  • Experimenting with meditation approaches is important to finding what will work for you.
  • Body posture, movement, and layering techniques can all make a focus practice much more engaging.
  • Meditation tools such as guided meditations, music, and neurofeedback can help deepen your practice.

Before we begin, it is important to recognize that there are hundreds of styles of meditation. Most of these can be placed into one of five categories depending on how attention is directed, the intention of the practice, and which brain regions are activated (or deactivated; Tarrant, 2017).

The focus style of meditation includes any approach that requires you to direct your attention to a single target (breath, mantra, image of Buddha) while minimizing other thoughts. When the mind wanders (which it will), the task is then to become aware of the mind wandering and gently, patiently, and lovingly, escort your attention back to the target. That’s it.

While this may sound very simple, if you have ever tried this type of meditation, you know that it is extremely difficult. Focusing on one thing is boring and the mind will quickly become distracted, looking for anything to entertain itself. Having taught meditation for the better part of my life, I have figured out some tips and tricks that can help in the development of a focus meditation practice.

Start slow

A common mistake when beginning a new meditation practice is assuming that you have to meditate for 30 or 40 minutes to achieve any benefit. This attitude is often a setup for failure. If you are unable to meet this arbitrary time limit, you might assume you can’t meditate or that it isn’t for you.

The reality is that meditation is a skill and takes time to develop. Begin slow, maybe only practicing for three minutes and gradually increasing the amount of time a few minutes each week. Set yourself up for success and let go of ideas about what meditation “should” look like.

Include movement

If you find that a seated meditation is difficult due to excessive mind wandering or trouble staying awake, you can add movement to your practice. This should not be something that is overly complicated as that will also take you out of the single focus meditative state.

In general, it is best to use a simple, repetitive movement that you can coordinate with your breathing. There are many Qigong exercises that fit this role. For example, you can simply raise both arms above your head on an inhalation and bring them down the centerline of the body on the exhalation. You are still focusing on your breath, but now you are using your body to help stay engaged. This can be done from a standing or seated position.

Body posture

Most meditation teachers and books will recommend sitting in a stable posture, often with the legs tucked under you or in a lotus-type position, with the spine erect, shoulders relaxed, hands in a particular mudra, and chin slightly tucked. These suggestions make a lot of sense for many reasons and they do not account for individual differences.

At the NeuroMeditation Institute, we emphasize experimenting with a variety of postures to find the one that is most likely to facilitate the desired state of consciousness. In this case, we are hoping to be alert, focused, and relaxed. Well, what does that look like in your body? Because we are a mind/body, if you influence one, you influence the other. What happens if you sit in a chair? Or lay on the ground? Or stand up? Meditation is a state of mind, not a posture. Listen to yourself, discover what works best for you, and then honor that wisdom.

Layering

We have already established that a focus meditation can be pretty boring and mentally challenging. However, if you combine a few techniques together, it can add enough interest and stimulation to make the practice much more engaging. For example, rather than just watching the belly expand and contract, you could also count the breaths. Inhale, exhale, that’s "1." Inhale, exhale, that’s "2."

In general, it is best to only count to 10 and then return to 1. This prevents competition by somehow trying to get to 100 or 1000. If you space out and lose track, just return to 1. This strategy is adding a cognitive element to the breath awareness. You could also add movement, as suggested earlier. Inhale, the arms go up. Exhale, the arms go down; that’s "1." Now you have breath awareness, a cognitive element, and movement. You get the idea. You can also add visualizations, or energy sensing. In general, there is a limit to how many things you can add before it becomes stressful or distracting. Experiment for yourself and see if it helps.

Use tools

I sometimes use the term “scaffolding” to refer to the use of tools to support our meditation while it is still “under construction.” This can include things like guided meditations, music, or more technology-heavy approaches such as biofeedback.

40489267 © Thungsarnphoto | Dreamstime
Source: 40489267 © Thungsarnphoto | Dreamstime

Guided Meditations: Pre-recorded guided meditations can be very helpful when beginning or developing your focus practice; it is kind of like having a personal meditation coach, encouraging you and reminding you about the task at hand. There are many good meditation apps out there with dozens of guided meditations. The trick is to find meditations that are strictly a focus style. Most guided practices incorporate several different meditation styles into one practice. It might begin with focus, but then shift into an open heart practice, before settling into a quiet mind practice. This isn’t bad, it just isn’t focus. So, if your goal is to develop or strengthen your focus practice, it is best to stick with meditations that emphasize sustained attention on one object.

Music: Many guided meditations will have music in the background to “set the tone.” Whether used with guided meditations (layering) or on its own, music can help facilitate certain states of consciousness. Think about how you feel when you listen to Native American flute music. How about Rage Against The Machine? Obviously, it is important to choose a musical style that matches the desired mental state (alert, focused, relaxed). This might mean that there are some individual preferences in this regard. For one person, space music might help them let go of the internal chatter from a busy mind, allowing them to actually focus on one thing. For someone else, space music might be too mellow, causing them to zone out and forget what they were doing.

While it is important to experiment with different types of music, it is also recommended to avoid music with lyrics. In general, when there are words in a song, we tend to become caught in the meaning or a desire to sing along, again, distracting from the actual meditation itself.

Neurofeedback: By wearing a relatively simple EEG headband, we can monitor complex rhythms in the brain and use this information to help find a focused state of attention. Essentially, when your brain is in the desired state, the meditation music becomes a bit louder. When the brain is distracted or mind wandering and the brain wave patterns are not in the desired state, the volume of the music decreases. With this type of guidance, it becomes much easier to recognize what a focus style of meditation feels like, which in turn, makes it easier to generate in the future.

Be consistent

Repetition is how the brain changes. If you want to build a new skill, if you want to strengthen your brain, you have to use it. To get the most from any style of meditation, it is important to develop a consistent practice. Think of it like any skill, in order to get better, you have to practice.

References

Tarrant, J. (2017). Meditation interventions to rewire the brain: Integrating neuroscience strategies for ADHD, anxiety, depression, & PTSD. Eau Claire, WI, PESI Publishing.

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