So the recurring theme in my posts about meditation is the struggle that I have with maintaining focus. This has been complicated by breast cancer medications that are associated with cognitive effects, not to mention the eventual menopause and “brain fog” that has resulted from them.
And while I’ve taken all sorts of classes and scoured meditation how-tos, I used to wonder, am I even doing this “right”? Shouldn’t I have an easier time with this by now?
A recent “Daily Trip” contemplation on the Calm smartphone app, narrated by meditation teacher Jeff Warren, reminded me that it’s important not to overthink what we’re doing.
Often in mindfulness meditation, we’re taught to use different aspects of our breath as an “anchor” or point of focus. The breath is a nice anchor to use because it helps us move inward while still staying present. It’s also a moving target, so to speak, so it might be more interesting to watch (and therefore focus on) than a static sensation.
But people are different, and if it’s really not working for you, or if focusing on your breathing actually makes you feel more anxious, you can switch to another focal point. How about the sensation in the hands, the feeling of your body’s weight against the surface on which it rests, or the distant sounds around you?
Maybe you even use several anchors within a single meditation (consider dual focus). The idea is to remain present and aware of what is happening now, even if you have open all your senses in order to do so. What anchor(s) work(s) best for YOU? It is, after all, YOUR meditation.
And then, instead of worrying about maintaining focus, what if we let go of that? It’s okay, even expected, for your mind to drift off. I would argue that losing focus is an integral part of mindfulness meditation. Because it gives us the opportunity to be aware that we are no longer focused. And once you realize this, you have returned to the present. Nice job!
The more you practice this back-and-forth, like tossing a beach ball between your anchor and your errant thoughts, the more adept you will become at realizing that your thoughts have carried you away. The more you do that, the easier it will become to return to your anchor, and that’s the whole idea.
If you’re new to mindfulness meditation, you might have found it difficult to hold focus on your breath. But the reality is that you don’t need to be a beginner to struggle with this. There are some days that the mind refuses to be still and even a long-time meditator will find themselves carried away by thoughts.
In an effort to help keep my head here and now, I started paying attention to how it was that I lost focus. For me, it happens during the lull between breaths.
What is that lull? Well, there’s a very short, almost imperceptible pause between my inhale and exhale. I’m okay during that time because I can focus on the sensations in my chest and belly. That’s not the pause that gives me problems.
It’s after the exhale that I experience a longer pause before the next breath begins, especially if my breaths are slower and deeper, because my body doesn’t require another breath right away. And that’s when I’m more likely to “see something shiny” and my mind wanders off.
But I found that by focusing on my hands during this pause, I could keep my random thoughts at bay.
If you’re having focus issues and would like to try this, all you need to do is consider your focus as cyclic. First, with the inhale and exhale, focus on the breath sensation–choose wherever you feel the air movement most distinctly, such as the rising & falling of your chest, the rushing of air in and out of your nostrils, or similar. It will be different from person to person.
Next, during the pause between your breaths, turn your focus to the sensations in your hands and fingers. There may be some tingling or throbbing, or perhaps nothing discernable. That’s okay. Just see if there’s anything there that you can feel.
Then, when your next inhale begins, pay attention to the breath again.
It may sound like you’re jumping from one body part to another, but in reality the transition is very smooth. The focus on the hands gives you a place to go until the next breath returns, all the while keeping you present.
When I first tried this, I thought I was “cheating” because I wasn’t staying with the breath. And I had to remind myself that the purpose of this wasn’t to earn a gold star for being the best “focus-on-only-the-breath” meditator. It was to stay with whatever was happening “now”.
Allowing a slight change in focus when my mind is active keeps me present. Staying present calms me more effectively. And that helps me return to the meditation cushion day after day after day.
There is beauty in the stillness that we experience between breaths. This dual focus practice isn’t meant to pull us away from that. Rather, it gives us a focus for those days when the mind is active and easily distracted, and appreciating that stillness is not available to us.
I meditate. It is a daily habit that I engage in with the best intentions, but I am a victim of my wandering mind. Some days are better than others, most days I struggle with distractions.
Often, I can be halfway through a sit before I realize that I’ve been clenching my jaw or tensing my brow or gripping some other part of my body, thinking I’ve been relaxed but I’ve been kidding myself.
There are times that I’ve managed to stay with my breath, and then start getting excited that I’ve stayed with it that long, and then start imagining how I might look, staying with my breath…and of course, then I’m no longer meditating.
So it goes, day in, day out. Everyday, once or twice a day, or maybe even more. Some days feel like a complete waste, like I’ve got a freeway running through my head and have no idea what I’m doing.
But once in a while, I get a few moments of golden light. They may just flicker in and out, but when I look back at those moments I know everything flowed.
And those mindful sessions make all the other ones worth the effort. Every time I pause before reacting. Each time I recognize my body’s physiological response to a stressor. When I remember that I don’t have to respond with anxious energy. That I get to chose what happens inside my head. That I can just say, “Sh-h-h-h.”
That I can stand back and observe the storm without getting sucked into the whirlwind.
I meditate and often don’t do it well. But I still meditate. As of this posting, 1,380 days in a row, originating with the most frantic breaths shortly after my cancer diagnosis. Even through chemo, when I thought I wouldn’t make it through the night. Sloppy meditation sessions that seemed to be going nowhere.
Those imperfect meditation sessions have changed over time, imperceptable on a daily basis. Perhaps they have worn away a few rough edges the way constant drops of water oh-so-gradually wear away a stone. And just as an indentation forms where the drops hit, so meditation has molded a little basin for me, a bit of extra space in my mind that provides just that much more breathing room.
I am still at the very start of my mindfulness journey, so imperfect and stumbling. But even with the little that I have achieved, I am light-years ahead of who I was before I started, wide-eyed with fear and not knowing how to stop the rush of emotions.
It was terrifying then because I didn’t realize what was happening. Now I know, and that makes all the difference.
Decades ago, my introduction to yoga took place in my parents’ library, a small paneled room with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books. There I found an illustrated guide, replete with black and white photographs of odd contortions and strange nasal flossing. It seemed weird.
I had barely begun elementary school, and at that age was a natural-born yogi, as many young children are. Lotus pose? I could get my legs into position without using my hands. King Pigeon was no big deal, and nothing hurt when I folded myself up. I didn’t have a regular yoga practice at that age, but I would get occasional exposure to yoga moves at school, and I imagined all yogis wore diaper-like pants and lived on mountaintops.
High school provided an opportunity to do more. One of our French teachers practiced yoga, and I took a season of classes with her. Really, I remember little from that time. At that point, I was still limber but not as lanky, and yoga wasn’t particularly exciting. Volleyball was my game and I had no appreciation for how yoga could improve my playing. Had I practiced it properly, yoga could have helped immeasurably and prevented many a lost serve. But I lacked introspection and so barreled on as before.
Yoga resurfaced in my life now and again, but obsessed with more active ways of sweating, I steered away from it. I swam, ran and eventually strength-trained my body into shape. Yoga didn’t have a place in my view of what fitness should be.
Holding poses for a prolonged time? Not for me. Sweating through hot yoga? You’ve got to be kidding. A friend sustained a serious back injury from a yoga teacher who tried to force her into a pose. That was it; I was done with the idea of incorporating yoga into my already packed fitness routine.
Then I got cancer.
And I realized that my mind was victim to free-ranging anxiety. Desperate, I immersed myself in learning to meditate. I know they say that you need to find calm in the midst of chaos, but being thrown into chaos is not the best place to learn to be calm. I limped through cancer treatment and clung to the hope of peace. The only relief came from my love of fitness and drive to exercise as soon as the worst side effects of each infusion had passed.
Still, I pushed yoga away. Not interested. I needed to get my body back to where I’d been pre-cancer, not do slow movements that might tweak something and burned too few calories.
But the more meditation I did, the more mindfully I moved, yoga kept coming up, like a refrain in a song. Movements paired with breath.
And then, it hit me. Movements paired with breath. I was all about the breath by then. Yoga provided the movements. And I found bliss.
When I opened myself up to yoga and invited it into my workout routine, something magical happened: my body started stretching out. All that tension that I’d carried for decades that had gradually tightened me up started releasing. My fingers found the floor in a forward bend again, and gently brought my palms with them. My heels easily pressed against the ground in a downward dog, with little peddling required. Moves that I could once do became available to me again.
So here’s the thing about breast cancer: after surgery, you lose some mobility in the affected side. Even now, side bends stretching my left side “pull” uncomfortably compared to my right side. Anyone who’s had lymph nodes plucked out of their armpits knows that that area stays tender for a good long time. Often, this brings an imbalance to the body.
My workouts had consisted of pounding myself through rowing, conditioning intervals, strength training with heavy weights and swinging kettlebells around. But without yoga, something critical was missing. Initially, I was afraid that “sacrificing” exercise sessions to yoga would result in faster decline of my physical ability and a push towards a more sedentary existence. Oh, how wrong I was! If anything, yoga has moved me towards vitality, flexibility and a sense of youthfulness that straight strength training had never allowed. Yoga opened up my whole body and allowed it to breathe freely.
What this has offered me is another way to look at how my cancer journey is progressing. After the aches and pains associated with never-ending adjuvant therapies, I admit I felt it was all going to be downhill, and that all I could do was desperately cling to my workout routines as my abilities gradually slipped away. Yoga brought back an element of fitness that I’d forgotten, and now, even though I know that I will be lifting less and rowing slower as time goes on, there is a new, perhaps more gentle world of fitness that I have yet to fully discover.
These are the most difficult mental calisthenics I’ve ever done.
The most frightening part of anxiety for me is that when scary, intrusive thoughts hit, they are right in my face. It feels as though there is no buffer zone so they come at me fast. I am highly reactive — nausea, cold bowels, rapid breathing, sweating, buzzing head. No opportunity to pause and consider a response. I am thrown into “flight” mode.
I don’t get panic attacks the way others have described them: heart beating so hard it feels like it’ll burst out of your chest, or hyperventilation to the point of getting lightheaded, even passing out. But I still feel anxiety intensely and physically.
So my practice lately has involved allowing stressful thoughts into my line of sight, but softening them, so that they appear blurred and more distant.
I establish this by immediately focusing on my body sensations as soon as I’m aware of the physical sensations of anxiety. That means feeling down to where my skin touches my clothing and focusing on the sensation of pressure on my seat and feet (if sitting) or the entire length of my back (if lying down).
Once my attention in on my body, I revisit the stressful thought, but as if squinting with my “inner eyes”, sometimes looking at it from the side instead of head on. I acknowledge its presence, but fuzz out the details, and most importantly, I keep it at a distance from me so that I have some space. Then I bring in deep breaths, slowing them down and allowing them to calm me as much as possible.
This is not even remotely easy. On some level, I’m still reacting to the thought and do experience a fear of bringing it closer to me. But the soothing nature of the breath helps temper my reaction. I think of this as exposure therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, except where everything takes place inside my head.
Lately, I’ve been having more success with this, particularly when I wake in the middle of the night, which is one of the most frightening times for me to experience runaway anxiety. This self-comfort would not be possible without established meditation and relaxation techniques — I’ve used the breath to soothe myself through cancer diagnosis and treatment, but the great majority of my meditation practice takes place when I am not stressed.
That fact, along with consistency in practice, has been critically important to me. In order for the breath to serve as an effective anchor, it must be recognized as one. And that means building up “anchor-like” peaceful associations over time so that the link is not easily broken.
None of this is a quick fix. But as with many things that are not quick fixes, the process of achieving success is part of the success itself. And that is a very reassuring thought.