Staying Present: Dual Focus Meditation

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.

The breath remains the main focus.

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.

The main point of this exercise is to stay present during those times that the mind is very active.

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.

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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.

Does Mindfulness Make a Difference?

Yes, yes it does.

I am AWARE.

What used to feel like a jumbled mess of emotions and sensations before, now makes sense to me. Intense feelings don’t come at me as quickly as they used to and there’s more space between a stimulus and my response to it.

There is a PAUSE.

I may still feel overwhelmed by circumstances when something unexpected happens, but now I know what’s happening and can pull myself out of it.

That doesn’t mean that I’m perfectly calm and don’t get frightened, anxious or frustrated. I do. You can see that in some of my posts, because I try to be very honest about what I’m experiencing in the moment. But no matter how deeply I dip into fear, I don’t stay there.

I can find the CALM amidst the CHAOS.

When things get intense, I know how to feel into my body. I recognize the physical sensations and I focus on releasing them. Smoothening them out. Breathing through them.

All those abilities were always available to me, but I resisted calming myself. I am aware that on some level I used to feel that anxiety was a necessary way to express my fear; that it was necessary to descend into fear to express my emotional state to others, so that I would be taken seriously. While it sounds odd to read that now, it was only through learning that I was able to soothe myself that I learned I didn’t need to commit to the torture.

I return to the PRESENT.

When I start thinking about fretful things in my past or fearing the possibilities of the future, I can now recognize that my mind has drifted away and I can pull myself into the present, feeling into my bodily sensations. I can break through the dark tumult that’s enveloping me. And suddenly, the noise is gone and I’m standing with my feet firmly planted in my room. I hear the birds and I find peace.

I know I am SAFE.

I have learned how to feel into my body to help it bring me back to the present and away from fearful thoughts.

I realize that there were behaviors that I engaged in during times of anxiety in the past, like pacing back and forth, that actually soothed my nervous system. Just as rhythmic rocking soothes a child. My body was wise and knew what I needed. When, years ago, the burden of my workload chained me to my desk and prevented me from movement, my anxiety skyrocketed and became almost unbearable. That was a clue, but at that point in my life, I didn’t know how to listen to my body.

Now I know what I must do to calm down and I allow myself to do it. But this change didn’t come about suddenly.

It takes PRACTICE.

Practicing mindfulness meditation when I am at peace allows me to build up the habit that carries me through difficult times. I practice daily. Somedays I can focus on my breath perfectly; other times I lose myself in thought shortly after I’ve begun. Regardless, I don’t give up. Even the “bad meditation” days are better than no meditation at all. Each session strengthens my mindfulness habit.

Every day. No matter what. It makes a difference.

Falling Back Asleep: Nighttime Relief

As calm as I may be during the waking hours, nightfall poses a unique challenge. How many of us have struggled in the darkness, surrounded by those scary thoughts that we thought we had dealt with during the day?

The darkness seems to make us more vulnerable to flying thought-gremlins. They creep in at night when our brains can’t reason them away. I’ve fought those little buggers for much of my life and they’ve been responsible for many hours of lost sleep. It wasn’t until I got serious about meditation that I developed means of protecting myself against them.

These are my best recommendations for returning to dreamland:

Drop into your bed. After waking to Dementor-esque anxieties circling you, realize that they’re flying, ephemeral creatures. And if you’re up there with them, it’s time to come back to Earth and settle into your bed. That is where you really are and you are safe. Focus on how it feels to have your body contact the bed, how the bedclothes feel against your skin. Rustle the sheets and listen to the sound. Take three deep breaths and listen to the exhales. You’re not “up there” with the swirling thoughts. You’re down here where it’s calm.

At times when there’s too much noise in my head, I will put a soothing voice in there from a meditation app like Calm, Plum Village or Insight Timer. Sometimes a guided meditation is enough to quiet the negative clamor.

Practicing stress release during the day will make it easier to do the same at night.

To support nighttime attempts at falling asleep, establish a sense of calm during the day. Practice being present — as opposed to chasing thoughts down rabbit holes. Pay attention to your reaction to various stimuli. Take conscious breaths, meditate, and use whatever tools work for you.

For instance, I have associated certain images with a calm state and I use them as anchors during the day (e.g., setting up a safe space). I have them pinned up by my bed and at work so that as I work to release stress I look at them, and as I look at them I release stress. The more I do this, the more powerful the association. I draw upon those images and feelings at times when things seem out of control. Practice during the day and you will have more peace at night.

Appreciate the nighttime wakening. Odd as it may seem, this can be a positive opportunity. Each such interruption allows you the chance to ground yourself and learn how to gently drop off to sleep. Stressing about being awake does you no favors and only adds to your wakefulness.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad or frightening things actually happening in your life — sometimes there are and they can be very serious. I struggled with this when I got my cancer diagnosis. But at that moment in the middle of the night, lying in your bed, you have a temporary reprieve. Your only responsibility then and there is to go back to sleep. There’s nothing on fire.

Unless there really IS a fire, in which case, RUN. But most of the time, it’s just our fiery thoughts. And we can learn to douse those flames.

This will take practice – it’s not a one-time pill. But once you have done this enough times, you’ll find that not only is the relief wonderful, so is the knowledge that you are capable of determining how you react to things. That provides a satisfying sense of strength and a peaceful sense of control over what may seem like an out-of-control situation.

“Dropping Down”: A Meditation Analogy

One of my greatest obstacles to meditation is distraction. I’m particularly susceptible to having my mind wander off because of the drug tamoxifen that I’m taking for breast cancer, the side effects of which include difficulty with concentration and focus.

A wandering mind, however, is not limited to those with cancer medication side effects. If you meditate, you’re pretty much guaranteed to struggle with focus at some point. I use the analogy of a cave to describe what this feels like and how to deal with it.

I sit in a darkened cave, warm and comforting, the only light coming from a hole far up above, where the noisy world buzzes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but right now is the time to devote to my meditation cushion. I focus on my breath. As I sit, a thought emerges and I notice a rope hanging down from above. Before I realize it, I’ve grabbed hold of it and start climbing.

These thought-ropes are so tempting to grab onto, pulling us up and away from the meditation cushion.

The further I climb, the easier it is and the louder the world gets. My surroundings brighten, but I’m no longer meditating. I’m actively engaged in what’s going on up above, perhaps agitated, perhaps excited. I’ve lost track of my breath.

“Drop down,” I tell myself gently. And I slide down the rope, into the welcoming darkness below, until I find my place back on my cushion in this womb of Earth. One deep breath and I’m grounded again, calm and rooted.

I can’t stop what’s going on in the world above, but I can choose whether or not to climb a rope.

This experience repeats itself, like a flowing dance between the meditative breath and wandering attention. Another thought catches me and I reach for its rope, making my way back up swiftly.

“Drop down,” I tell myself again patiently. I let go and return to my place in the cave, surrounded by the supportive darkness. Another deep breath and I’m calm again.

So many thoughts, so many tempting opportunities to climb out of my cave too soon. Some days, I swing from rope to rope, only hovering over my cushion, never quite managing to ground myself. On other days, it’s easier and the path to a peaceful meditation session is straightforward. The darkness of the cave soothes me and reminds me that I am safe, and that I can choose whether or not to cling to a thought.

My distraction is a constant, but that doesn’t matter as long as I can drop back down. And I can always drop back down.

Mindfulness Apps I Love: “Calm”

Following my cancer diagnosis, my General Practitioner wrote me a prescription for Xanax because anxiety resulted in a steep drop in my weight (not a great way to prepare for chemo!). I’m not a pill popper and didn’t like the idea of treating my runaway anxiety with drugs; nonetheless, I relented because my situation seemed out of control. When my radiation oncologist suggested that I try meditation for long term stress relief, I jumped at the idea, but wasn’t sure where to start.

The opening screen of the app reminds you to breathe. I’ve conditioned myself to take an extra deep breath here.

The Calm phone app was enthusiastically recommended by a co-worker, so I tried it. It remains the only phone app to which I’ve ever gotten a lifetime subscription. I used the free version for several weeks but got so hooked I decided to spring for it — since my first meditation with Calm almost exactly two years ago, I have not missed a single day. I also shamelessly plug it to anyone who’ll listen (*ahem*) like I’m doing here.

Features that are worth the price of admission~

Tamara Levitt’s voice: Perfection! Tamara is officially the Head of Content for the Calm app and her voice is so soothing it could cool sunburns. I’ve tried a lot of guided meditations hosted by a variety of speakers and have heard few voices that can compare to hers. Try one of her meditations and you’ll immediately know what I mean.

This little bubble provides a lot of relief!

Breathe bubble: This is a circle that expands and contracts, enabling you to follow along and breathe as it does so. It has “inhale” and “exhale” tones so you can close your eyes if you wish, and you can adjust the pace and pattern (with or without pauses) of breath, albeit minimally. I wish there were a way to personalize it more fully, but I make do with the available options. I used the bubble feature at times when I was too anxious to effectively listen to a guided meditation and I credit it with getting me through some very tough times.

Just a few of the scenes available to play in the background. Love this!

Scenes: I adore this feature! You can select from (at last count) 35 dynamic background visuals with nature sounds or airy musical motifs to play alone or along with the meditations. All these scenes are available in the free version and suit a broad spectrum of moods. I open the web version of the app on my work computer and play this feature in the background all day long. It’s magical!

As an extra bonus, you can set up the background sounds to continue playing after the meditation is over, so that if you fall asleep during your practice, you’re not jarred awake by sudden silence.

And of course, Meditations: Take your pick! There are a vast variety of meditations to choose from, most guided but some with only bells, and there are a number of lengths (in minutes) available. Since I subscribe to the app, I enjoy the Daily Calm, which has a different topic everyday, always led by Tamara, so you can expect a consistent level of quality from them (kind of like a cup o’ java from a favorite coffee chain, but without the caffeine).

Beginners should try the free “7 Days of Calm” learn-to-meditate series that offers a week’s worth of daily 10-minute sessions to ease you into a mindfulness meditation practice.

Be aware: the free version does offer some meditations, but the majority are available only to subscribers, and you’ll soon find yourself craving for more. At that point, you’ll have to decide whether it’s in your budget to commit to the paid version.

The “more” screen showing additional features available. Loads of great stuff here!

There are other features that I use less often but are worth mentioning. A friend of mine swears by the Sleep Stories, which are high quality tales designed to help you nod off, and a number of them are voiced by celebrities like Bob Ross (yes, the ‘happy clouds’ painter — what could be better?), Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Fry and even Peter Jefferson, who used to do the UK shipping forecast which so many in that part of the world found so soothing. Most, although not all, require the paid version of the app.

There are also Masterclass courses offered that I’ve found useful enough to make my family listen to them during long car trips. Topics are broad-ranging and presented by experts in their fields and new courses are added from time to time. Some courses are free, but most require the subscription to progress further than the first class session.

The Music feature offers a generous variety of specially curated musical pieces that are perfect for creating space in your day, like a life vest in stormy seas. I haven’t even come close to making full use of this feature! Many of these are free and worth exploring.

Calm Bodies is a new feature which brings mindful movement into your repertoire of calming tools. I prefer to do yoga on my own, so I haven’t made use of this feature, which unfortunately is limited to subscribers.

There are other perks for subscribers (even a special relaxation room available at select airports!) not available to those using the free version. For me, investing in a well-curated library of meditation and mindfulness options was worth the cost.

Want to stick with the free version? There are still enough great elements available to merit downloading and playing around with the app.

If you are interested in incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your life, the Calm phone app is a great place to begin.

View from the Waiting Room

I am weirdly at ease.

Today is my 3-D mammogram, the one that will either confirm that I’m in breast cancer remission or that I’m going to have another rotten year (or more). Two years ago, around this time, I was completely racked with anxiety in preparation for the diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound that would detect my cancer.

I feel placid. Granted, I do self-exams on an almost-weekly basis (it’s a survivor thing) and was checked out by my oncologist early last month, so I know there’s nothing palpable there, although the 3-D mammogram could pick something smaller up. But I’ve also matured in my ability to let go of thoughts that drag my mind away to wild extremes, and instead accept what is happening in the moment.

I admit that I’m holding off on travel and hair expenses until after my mammogram, because if my cancer comes back, the money spent on them would be better put towards treatment. Neither a cross-country flight nor an edgy new haircut would be in the cards for me.

If I could have one superpower, it would be to remain calm in every situation.

Another reason for waiting on making plans? It’s because the agony associated with desperately clinging to the desire to be cancer-free and then having those hopes dashed is excruciating. So for the moment, hanging around in limbo with less emotion invested in an outcome provides more comfort.

I started meditating in an effort to free myself of expectations. Today I am able to make space within myself to hold the possibility of both remission and recurrence, and then to think about neither.

So I sit in a comfy robe as I wait for the radiologist’s assessment, feeling the warmth of the cup of tea in my hand. I am here now, focused on the present instead of potential outcomes. And this is the most peaceful place to be.

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Shortly after I wrote the above, the radiologist came in to confirm the good news. Another year, another clean bill of health.

Last year when I got the “all-clear” I was still finishing up treatments. And the news felt like a huge release.

This year, I felt much calmer. Not gonna lie — somewhere inside, try as I might to release all expectations, I still expected to be okay. But I was able to not focus on the outcome of the mammogram and instead go with the flow of the day. This is a first for me, so my ability to maintain that level of calm may be more significant than being cancer-free.

Oh, who am I kidding? Being cancer-free kicks ass!