6 Ways to Focus Your Attention During Meditation
“Just focus on your breathing. Deep, cleansing, relaxing breath…” Anyone who’s ever tried to meditate has surely heard this seemingly simple instruction. But sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to practice deep breathing, so much so that I feel like I’m failing at yet another endeavor. I want to scream back, “My breathing is shallow, anxious, and stressed out – that’s the whole reason I’m meditating!”
But focusing on your breath is not the goal of meditation – it’s merely a tool to help calm your mind and center your attention. And it’s only one tool at your disposal. So instead of giving up on meditation if you have “bad breath,” try one of the following instead:
This is my personal favorite. Simply allow your attention to gently focus on the sounds around you. Expand your attention outward, outside of yourself. Listen to sounds nearby… and listen to sounds in the distance. Sound spontaneously appears and changes – there’s nothing for you to control. All you need to do is notice.
Perform a slow, inquisitive scan of your entire body. Beginning with the top of your head and moving to the bottom of your feet, see if you can feel each small space in your body “from the inside out.” Try not to judge. For example, instead of labeling a certain part of your body as “painful,” try to describe the sensations instead (“heat,” “tingling,” “stiffness”).
People sometimes ask me why Hindus pray to idols. One of the reasons is because the idol provides a focal point for meditation. But the object needn’t be a religious statue – it can be anything – a candle, a flower, a stream of water. Softly gaze at the object. Take in its form, its colors, and its energy, as you allow the thoughts in your mind to fall away. Objects in nature are particularly calming (if you’ve ever watched a sunset, you’ve already practiced this form of meditation). And you can even do this if you can’t get outdoors – for example, by taking a few minutes to focus on a tree outside your office window.
A mantra is a word or phrase which is repeated during meditation. The idea is, if you’re saying the same word over and over (to yourself in your mind), your attention won’t be able to drift so easily. Some people like to choose an exotic Sanskrit mantra – “Om” being the most sacred and simplest of them all. But your mantra could be anything – a positive affirmation, a favorite word – there’s no need to be precious about it. Try repeating “marshmallow” for 15 minutes. It’ll focus your attention and surely make you laugh along the way!
There’s no rule that you must be seated on the floor to meditate. Try walking meditation, which is especially helpful when you’re feeling lethargic because it keeps you from falling asleep while meditating (something that’s happened to every single one of us!). Find a small area where you can walk back-and-forth in a line or in a circle. The key is to sloooooooow down to a snail’s pace. Slowly and deliberately lift your foot and place it down, observing the sensations in your body as you move. The same can be done for any routine activity, from brushing your teeth to drinking a cup of tea.
Coming back to where we started, there’s more than one way to use breath in meditation. Most people try to extend and deepen their breath as a way to calm the nervous system (as mentioned above). But another tool is to simply observe your breath, however it is. If it’s shallow or constricted, that’s okay – there’s no need to force it to change. Simply focus your attention on the breathing sensations in your nose, your belly, your chest… and allow that to be your anchor.