A Note from Natalie
Natalie is the resident writer, but not an expert. For expert advice, please book a consultation with Dr Quinn
We’re familiar with the oxymoron, right? Meditation can help you improve focus – but it is a practice which requires precisely the skill you’ve got the most trouble with.
If you cannot sit down and focus on meditation techniques long enough for them to make any difference, then you’re really not on your own – it’s why most people have at some point tried meditating, but few can say it’s a standard practice in their daily lives.
Starting from scratch
A really basic techniques requires you to be able to do 2 things:
- Breathe in and out
- Count to ten
Ignore any preconception you have of clearing your mind. It’s not necessary. Instead, visualise the number 10 and breathe in.
Visualise the number 9 and breathe out.
Visualise the number 8 and breathe in.
Visualise the number 7 and breathe out.
You get the picture.
Every time your mind wanders (and it will, FREQUENTLY, as every practitioner from novice to master will tell you), you just return to the image of the numbers and keep going.
6, breathe in.
5, breathe out.
Struggling with the Visualisation?
When I picture the numbers behind closed eyes, I picture them forming like beautiful strokes of calligraphy. There is fluidity to the movement of them emerging in my mind – as I find stillness difficult in my pursuit of focus. I am generally much more at ease with rhythms like waves, rain sounds, thunderstorms – these are the sounds I go to if I run into trouble getting to sleep, or in times of physical discomfort, etc etc.
This is purely a matter of personal taste and preference. Since static images are very hard for me to hold, the movement of ink on the white space in front of my mind’s eye makes this countdown easier for me to retain focused on – so if you’re struggling with ‘visualisations’, try something mid-flow.
There’s really nothing tricky to it – and I know it seems impossible that something so simple could have any major benefits, but it really does, and I’ll go into some of those below.
For now, keep it to your own pace – don’t hyperventilate by trying to go too fast. Taking deeper breaths is great (always remember to breathe out for a little longer than you breathe in – get that CO2 out of your lungs before you take your next wave of lovely oxygen!), and just relax into it.
Set yourself a timer.
Start realistically – don’t settle on your first session thinking you can do this for half an hour every day. We’re talking more like five minutes. Just go back to counting down from 10-1 each time, and stop when your timer tells you to.
– don’t restart every time you lose focus. Just return to your numbers. Guilt-free, judgement-free. A master at meditation will NEVER say their mind doesn’t wander. But they will say that they are well practised at bringing the mind back to the process – and it gets easier the more you do it.
– Don’t react to ANY thoughts or ideas that come up – remember, reacting to stimulus is exactly the problem we have with staying focused, so whether you have an idea, hear a phone ring or an email alert – do not stop your countdown to take action. Delay the action until AFTER your practice. The only way you are going to develop the skill of focus is by practising it – and by applying it in the real world where these distractions occur all the time. If it’s easy to stay focused in a silent room, it’s not as much use to use as staying focussed when you’re suddenly aware of fifty other things going on. Not reacting is the biggest life skill this practise is going to give you – so take it seriously. Don’t make exceptions. For anything!
– Don’t count upwards! It sounds crazy, but by counting down from 10-1 each time, you are interrupting a very natural urge to instigate your competitive or goal-oriented triggers. You might be tempted to see how high you can count if you start at 1 and work upwards; you might be tempted to try and better your last session etc etc. This is not surrendering your ego, this is actually distracting you from the simplicity of focus. The sole purpose of counting is to give you something to focus on – not to start keeping score.
– don’t get emotionally involved! What does that mean?
Distancing from Emotional Reactions
Believe it or not, most of the impulses driving us to do pretty much all the things which get in the way of a steady ability to focus are based in an emotional reaction. The perception of boredom, frustration, impatience, guilt – everything you FEEL while trying to practice meditation is a very illusory version of reality.
If you’ve set aside five minutes to just breathe and count, and you find that impossible to stick to, ask yourself why.
What else of value will you do with this five minutes? It’s roughly the same time it takes to make a cup of coffee. It’s a fraction of the time we devote to ‘browsing’ online – emails, social media, blogs, etc etc etc.
When you say you have a problem focusing – how did you identify this problem?
- Because you are aware you waste time on things you’re not really getting value out of?
- Because you find it difficult to make a decision and commit to actioning it?
- Because you find it difficult to maintain concentration on a particular task?
- Because you frequently feel aimlessness or lost unless you’re reacting to outside information or instruction (ie, you don’t know what to do first with your day if you’re not responding to a demand, an email, a chore…)
The things which are calling you away during your breathing and counting are exactly the kind of things you’ve identified as a problem, so you are most definitely NOT depriving yourself by refusing to react to those impulses and emotions.
Deprivation really doesn’t come into it.
You are all about gain.
Here are some of those benefits we mentioned before:
Increased oxygen to your cells = better cell and system functioning (less CO2= feeling refreshed instead of sluggish and heavy)
Mental clarity and alertness
Gradual development of ‘muscle memory’ – the more you practice an activity, the more naturally you can repeat it with less and less effort
Emotional balance – observing first-hand that you control the extent of your emotions’ influence on your life and your behaviour, not the other way around
A relaxed body is a functioning body.
Remember your body takes its cues from neurotransmitters which the brain cycles to tell it whether you are in an optimal situation, or an emergency situation.
Picture this as a complex facility – it can run on emergency settings for a short time when it needs to, but try running permanently on those settings, and things start to shut down. Send normative messages around your body and you start to allow for repair, for optimisation and for higher functioning. Sounds over-simplified, but at the heart of it, that’s what Wellbeing is really all about!
This week’s recipes – inspiring season ingredients!
Blackberry Açaí Nice Cream [Vegan, Gluten-Free]
from the amazing One Green Planet.org
“Nice cream can be more than just bananas — this Blackberry Açaí Nice Cream is a combination of frozen bananas, frozen blackberries, full-fat coconut milk, and Açaí powder…”
Important: Debbie is selecting recipes with combinations of ingredients to inspire your cooking regimes, but while they are healthier choices in general, they will not address individual issues. You MUST make sure that all ingredients you use are compatible with your own individual medical conditions, medications, allergies and goals.
- 1 13.5-ounce can full-fat coconut milk, refrigerated overnight
- 4 frozen bananas (very ripe)
- 1 1/3 cups frozen blackberries
- 2 tablespoons natural almond butter
- 1-2 teaspoons acai powder
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla powder
- 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup (or more, to taste)
- Place the can of coconut milk in the fridge overnight or, even better, a day before. Open the can and scoop the thick white cream and add it to a high-speed blender or food processor. Add the bananas, blackberries, almond butter, acai powder, vanilla, and maple syrup.
- Blend until smooth and adjust sweetness if desired.
- Transfer the mixture to a freezer-safe container (with a lid) and freeze for about 2 hours or until scoopable.
- You might need to let the nice cream thaw at room temperature for 10 minutes approximately before serving.
- Homemade nice creams tend to be rock solid after sitting in the freezer but if you add the right quantitity of fats it’s just a matter of patience and a few minutes until it reaches the creamy consistency again.
- Scoop the ice cream and serve topped with fresh fruit, nuts, and hemp seeds. Also you can serve it with your favorite chocolate or caramel sauce: it’s up to you.