Identifying Our Blind Spots through Mindfulness

One of the realities of human existence is that we all have blind spots – what others see in our words and action but we can’t see ourselves.  Our blind spots may be obvious to other people who can see patterns in our behaviour.  The problem is that we can never eradicate our blind spots completely but we can learn to identify them and learn to better manage our responses – to effectively reduce the hurt to others and to ourselves.

Kelly Boys, author of The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What’s Right in Front of You, suggests that our blind spots have a number of dimensions:

  • Visual– we actually have a physical blind spot in our eyes. You can check out your physical blind spot in each of your eyes through this link.
  • Attentional – we can suffer from an attentional blind spot because of our lack of ability to truly focus.  Daniel Goleman suggests that the capacity to focus involves the triad of awareness – focus on ourselves, focus on others and focus on the wider context.
  • Cognitive – these are the fixed thoughts we carry about the world and ourselves in the world – “I’m not good enough”, “The world is not safe”.  These may have worked for us over time but will lead us to diminish ourselves and devalue the energy and support of others.  Cognitive blind spots can cut us off from experiencing the world as it is and limit our opportunities.
  • Behavioural– we may be totally oblivious to persistent patterns in our behaviour that are very obvious to others.  It may be the way we respond to criticism or attempt to please others all the time -what Harriet Braiker calls, The Disease to Please.
Identifying the core blind spot

Kelly, in her interview with Tami Simon, offered a simple exercise to help people identify their core blind spot – “the way we hold our perception of ourselves and the world around us together”.  Identifying the core, which often relates to a sense of separateness, can lead to a major transformation in our lives.

Kelly suggests that being still and open to the present moment is a key way to access our blind spots and to understand the underlying pattern in our perceptual, cognitive and behavioural responses. In the exercise she led during the interview she encouraged people to become grounded; be open to, and aware of, their senses (sound, sight, breath) and to notice any tension, tightness or contraction in their body.  Staying with this bodily feeling is a way into understanding the underlying blind spot – “Where does this tension come from?’ “What am I saying to myself about my looks or capacity?’ “How am I perceiving the world or the actions of others?” “How am I planning to respond – why?”

As we persist with this kind of exercise, where we use our bodily awareness as the gateway to our blind spots, we can delve deeper into our core blind spot and open up the way to respond very differently – we can better understand our reactivity in certain situations and increase our response ability.  This self-awareness and self-regulation are key outcomes of mindfulness practice.

As we grow in mindfulness we begin to recognise patterns in our thoughts and behaviour and what we pay attention to.  If we persist in the relevant mindfulness exercise, we will come to understand our core blind spot. This growing realisation opens up new possibilities for us as we free ourselves from the limitations in our perceptions and responsiveness that arise through our blind spots.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Overcoming the Obstacle of Restlessness During Meditation

In today’s post I continue to explore the theme of obstacles to meditation introduced by Diana Winston.  I have previously explored obstacles such as sleepiness, desire and aversion.  Here I want to focus on restlessness as a universally experienced obstacle to meditation.

Diana, in introducing restlessness as an obstacle in her meditation podcast, makes the point at the outset that “obstacles” can be viewed as part and parcel of our human experience rather than problems to be solved.  By reframing obstacles as integral to life experience and what we encounter in meditation, we can more readily face them with a positive, encouraging mind and avoid criticising our self because they arise.

Restlessness is a natural human condition as our minds are conditioned to scan our environment for threats or impending challenges.  Our amygdala, our fight/flight response centre, keeps us on the alert for anything that may stress or harm us.  So, our mind tends to wander from one thing to another scanning our internal and external environment.

Overcoming the obstacle of restlessness during meditation

Diana explains in her podcast that there are at least three possible ways to gain control over restlessness during meditation – (1) more precise focus, (2) wider awareness, and (3) paying attention to the experience of restlessness itself.

  1. Becoming more precise – for example, if your focus is on your breathing, then being more precise involves focusing more closely on the experience of breathing.  This entails observing not only the in-breath and out-breath but the space between.  It can also involve moving awareness to different parts of the body where you experience your breathing – your nose, chest, abdomen.
  2. Developing a wider awareness – make your focus more expansive by taking in the sounds around you, being conscious of your posture and its effect on your meditation, shifting your posture to change your focus, noticing where your mind is going to, e.g. today’s activities, future pleasurable activities, desires and wants.
  3. Focus in on the experience of restlessness and its bodily manifestation – shifting position frequently, wanting to get up from the meditation, feeling tense in the shoulders or back.  This focus involves being with what is at the present moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practice we can learn ways to overcome obstacles such as restlessness, desire and sleepiness.

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Feeling Joy for Others

We have so many opportunities to feel joy for others and to extend our desire for their joy to grow and continue.  However, we can be held back by feelings of envy or jealousy about their good fortune, especially if it comes at our own expense, e.g. when someone gets “our” carpark spot during the mad Christmas shopping period.

Meditating with a focus on feeling joy for others who have experienced good fortune, achieved an outstanding outcome or been publicly acknowledged for their achievement, can take us outside our self-absorption,  build our capacity for “empathetic joy” and warm our own hearts through “vicarious joy” and the experience of happiness for them.

Diana Winston provides a meditation podcast on feeling joy for others in which she guides us through the process of focusing on the joy that someone else has experienced as a result of their good fortune.

Feeling joy for others meditation

Once you have achieved the initial meditative state of being grounded, you can identify someone or group of people who have experienced joy and happiness as a result of some event, achievement or fortuitous gift.

As you focus on the joyful experience of another person or group, try to place yourself in that experience – feeling what they must be feeling, appreciating what they are grateful for.  You can use images to intensify this identification and what Diana calls “appreciative joy”.

Once you have been able to clearly focus on the joy of another you can then express the wish that their good fortune continues and that their joy grows and develops in a sustainable way.  This expression of good will can offset constant exposure to the media’s focus on peoples’ ill fortune.

There is something special about this feeling joy for others meditation in that it takes us away from self-centredness, opens our eyes to the rivers of goodness in the world and enhances our sense of gratitude.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become more aware of others and their experience of joy in times of good fortune and more generous through our appreciative stance engendered through meditation where we focus on others’ joy.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Focusing Inward to See Clearly

So much of our daily lives is taken up with focusing on things that are external to ourselves – social media, meetings, conversations about recent events, driving our car or trying to catch a train or bus to work.  Our thoughts are often racing as we plan, evaluate and critique.  As a consequence, we spend so little time focusing inward and getting in touch with our inner reality.

While our focus is external most of the time, it means that we are susceptible to being pushed and pulled by external forces – whether they relate to the internet, invasive advertising, loud conversations or the fast pace of life.

Focusing inward to see clearly

Diana Winston reminds us in her meditation podcast,  Focusing inward and seeing clearly, that mindfulness meditation can bring insight, clarity, creative solutions to problems and a new level of awareness of both our inner and outer reality.

The starting point is to become grounded by placing our feet firmly on the floor and closing our eyes (or looking downward).   This initial step is designed to move our attention from external things to our internal world.

We need a focus to maintain our attention to our inner world.  This focus could be our breathing or sounds.   However, the latter could distract us from our inner work because we are always interpreting sounds, comparing them or recalling memories that are stimulated by particular sounds.

A couple of deep breaths at the outset of our meditation can help us to let go and get focused on our breathing and where in our body it is most noticeable.  A progressive body scan can also help to fix our attention within.  We can feel the sensation of our feet touching the floor, the firmness of our back against our chair and the warmth/tingling in our hands as we progress our meditation.

We might also notice areas of tension in our body and progressively release this tension as we bring our attention to the relevant parts of our body.  This, in turn, can make us open to our feelings which we have been holding back – we could be anxious, frustrated, angry or feeling hurt.  By naming our feelings, we can gain control over them and sustain our attention on our inner focus.

Once we have stabilised our attention on our inner world, we can address several questions designed to deepen our personal insight and increase our clarity, for example:

As we grow in mindfulness through insight meditation, we can unearth new understandings and different perspectives on issues as well as creative solutions, we can really open up the spaciousness of our minds and achieve more of what we are capable of.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Mindfulness and Dealing with Pain

Diana Winston in her meditation podcast, Working with Pain, offers some suggestions on how meditation can be used to alleviate and/or manage pain better.  She highlights the fact that along with pain are the stories that we tell ourselves about the pain we are experiencing, e.g. “This pain will never go way.”, This is ruining my life.”, “I cannot cope with this pain.”  Diana suggests that the stories aggravate the suffering we experience with pain and only serve to amplify the pain through their negativity.

Pain and suffering are part of being human as we are reminded by the Buddhist tradition.  Diana quotes the often repeated saying, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, to remind us that we have choices in how we deal with pain.  So, we are left with the challenge of managing the pain that occurs at different points of our life, whether the pain of loss or physical pain in some part or all of our body.   Dealing with chronic pain through mindfulness has been the focus of a lot of the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Meditation for working with pain

Diana provides a meditation exercise for working with pain in her podcast mentioned above.  The meditation practice involves several discrete steps and is about 20 minutes in length:

1. Grounding – feet on the ground, arms relaxed on your lap or beside you (h0wever is comfortable), eyes closed or looking downwards, a few deep breaths to relax your body.

2. Focus on your breathing – focus your attention on wherever you can feel your breathing in your body (nose, mouth, chest, stomach). Don’t try to control you breathing but just notice it, e.g. the undulations of your stomach.  Get in touch with your in-breath and out-breath and the space between.  You can rest in the space.

3. Body scan – explore your body with your attention, noting as you progress from your head to your toes any points of tightness, tingling or other sensation.  Just notice as your attention moves over your body and let go as you experience the sensation. (The art of noticing is integral to mindfulness practice.)

4. Refocus on your breathing – now return to mindful breathing (3 above).  Spend a reasonable amount of time resting in this focus – about 10 minutes say.

5. Focus on a relaxed part of your body – the aim is to locate in your body a part (e.g. arm, leg, chest) that feels secure, relaxed, at peace and pain-free.  Rest for a time in this relaxed part of your body to enable the sensation of peace and calm to spread through your body.

6. Focus on your pain – now focus on that part of your body where you are experiencing the ongoing pain.  Feel the sensation of the pain and describe the sensation to yourself.  Now focus on the stories you have developed around the pain and let them go – they are fabrications created by your fight/flight response.  If you can, bring your focus to a point outside the area of pain as a prelude to completing the next step.

7. Re-focus on the relaxed part of your body – experience the restfulness here.

8. Re-focus on your breathing – gradually bring your attention back to your breathing.  After a time of mindful breathing, resume your daily activity.

As we grow in mindfulness though meditation, we can learn ways to reduce pain or better manage pain so that we can function normally.  It is important to master our stories that aggravate our suffering from pain.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Paying Attention

Marvin Belzer provides guidance in a meditation podcast on “paying attention”.  Marvin was on the faculty of UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the time.  He has many years experience with practicising and teaching meditation, having taught a semester-long course on the theory and practice of mindfulness.  Among other things, he provides meditations for teens – ways for young people to learn to pay attention and to access calmness and clarity.

Marvin emphasises that “paying attention” is a natural ability that does not require forcing.  We can notice things, look at things closely, observe what is happening in front of us – it all comes naturally.  However, we have lost the art of focusing because of the distractions in our lives and, particularly, our endless thoughts.

To learn to pay attention again, we need to practise.  This practice ideally involves focusing on something simple – our breath, hand, bodily sensations or sounds around us.  If we keep the focus simple, we can more easily sustain our attention.  As Marvin points out, the process of stabilising our attention on something that is simple (and does not entice our thoughts to go wild), “automatically induces calmness”.  If we practise paying attention through daily meditation we also gain clarity, be able to think more clearly.

The challenge of losing attention

If our mind wanders, we do not need to consider this a failure, but “part and parcel” of the process – affirming, firstly, that our mind is active because an intelligent mind needs to exercise itself on something challenging, not something that is simple.

We will find that, as we attempt to pay attention, our mind will suddenly become absorbed in memories, thoughts, emotions or planning – like me, you could end up planning your next activity, working on your to-do-list, deciding how you are going to get to that meeting later in the day.

The important thing is to re-focus without blaming yourself or indulging in negative thoughts and stories about yourself and your perceived “weakness”.   A useful technique to use if your are distracted during a meditation is to make the distraction a part of the meditation itself.  Instead of consuming energy trying to get rid of the distraction (and distracting yourself more) just notice what is going on – “i see that I am feeling a bit anxious now and I sense a tightness in my shoulders”.  You can just name the emotion and feel the sensation in your body.

It is important to remember that you are not trying to perform for anyone else, even yourself.  You are not trying to meet anyone else’s rate of advancement.  Focusing on something simple is a neutral activity and encourages you to be calm and real – to give yourself permission to be-in-the-moment.

Paying attention meditation can open your mind and heart to creativity.  By stilling your mind, you are able to a access what Kabat-Zinn calls the “spaciousness” within.  You will gradually overcome your existing habit of “mind wandering” and be able to develop the sustained attention needed to fully access your creative mind.

The process of paying attention is integral to all forms of meditation, with the focus varying from one form of meditation to another.  In his podcast, Marvin Belzer leads you through a paying attention meditation that moves from a focus on breath, to listening to surrounding sounds,  to undertaking a form of somatic meditation – focusing on your body.  As we grow in mindfulness through practising paying attention in meditation, we can readily access calmness and clarity and open our minds to creativity.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Slow Down for Gratitude

In the previous post, I discussed being mindful at work.  Among, the suggested ways to be mindful in this environment were slowing down and being grateful.  If we slow the pace of our life wherever we are, we can focus on gratitude and develop not only a positive outlook on life but also the resilience to bounce back from setbacks, challenges and difficulties.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), maintains that mindfulness is very much about living more in the present moment.  In line with this view, she explains the nature of mindfulness in the following way:

Mindfulness is about paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.

Diana provided this explanation when introducing a gratitude meditation as part of the UCLA’s free, weekly Mindful Awareness Podcasts.   In this podcast she highlights the value of being grateful for the small things that make up our daily lives, from moment to moment.

Gratitude for the small things in life

It is not a big deal to be grateful for the small things in our life that we take so much for granted.  We can overcome this lack of appreciation through overfamiliarity by slowing down what we are doing and expressing appreciation for the small things in our lives.  This can be done as part of a meditation process or “on-the-go-slow”.

Firstly, we can focus on our senses and the wondrous world that is open to us through sight, sound, touch, taste and hearing.   With sight alone, we have access to colours, shapes, lightness and darkness and the never-ending variety of the sky, the flowers and trees, the birds and the animals we encounter in nature.

With hearing, we can access a very wide variety of sounds, the nuances in people’s voices, the chorus of birds and the buzz of life around us.  Recently, I was playing a game of tennis against a young man who was deaf and his sister, and it prompted me in the moment to be grateful for my hearing.  He communicated with his sister by sign language but was unable to communicate with myself and my partner except by hand movements and limited facial expressions.  His hearing impediment clearly affected his game.  On reflection, I am now conscious that he could not hear the sound of the ball leaving the racquet and be able to judge the speed and distance of the ball that comes with hearing this sound.  So, there is a lot to be grateful for with the sense of hearing.

On another occasion, I was playing tennis with a male partner who was becoming increasingly agitated and frustrated with losing points because of his lack of timing and coordination.  The temptation was to join in with him and express my own frustration at my own lack of timing – negativity is contagious.  However, for once, I just expressed gratitude that I could be playing tennis after a long layoff, that I could run and still play some good shots.  I sensed, too, that my partner gained better self-control by the end of the game through the influence of my calmness and focus – positivity is contagious. If we slow down, and savour the moment and what we have, we can achieve better self-management through control over our emotions and our responses.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more often be-in-the-moment, and develop our positive outlook on life and build our resilience in the face of setbacks, whether at work or play.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Mindfulness at Work

David Allan maintains that the best place to meditate is at work.  In part, this is because it is often in a work situation that you need to be calm and have a clear mind.  The cost of being frazzled at work is not only lost time through inability to focus but also lost creativity through inability to access the “spaciousness” of your mind.  You need to calm the busyness of your mind to access this creativity.

It is also very true that we spend so much of our time at work that a large part of our day (more than a third) is consumed with thinking and doing, not just being present.  This means, too, that we are not taking the opportunity to access the full benefits of our mindfulness practice developed elsewhere on a daily basis.

David Allan found that he was able to book a relatively underutilised room for 15 minutes a day to enable him to undertake some form of meditation at work on a daily basis.  He found that this short period of conscious mindfulness practice created real productivity benefits throughout his day and served to break the work stress cycle.

Ways to be mindful at work

In a comprehensive article, Shamash Alidina suggests ten ways to be more mindful at work.  I have identified four of these suggestions below that are readily implementable:

  1. Intent to be consciously present – this entails beginning your work day with the clear intent to be present as often as you can.  This intent extends to controlling your thoughts when on-task, maintaining focus even on mundane tasks, working a little slower when the opportunity presents (e.g. after a rush to meet a deadline) and reminding yourself of the very clear benefits for work and life offered by mindfulness.
  2. Use brief mindfulness exercises – there are many opportunities throughout the working day to engage in brief mindfulness exercises.  These could entail open awareness, awareness of our senses, mindful walking or a short compassion meditation.  Sometimes in the workplace we need to engage in a brief self-compassion meditation, instead of beating up on ourselves for a mistake or for unconsciously hurting someone else with our words  or actions.
  3. Overcome the temptation of multitasking – this means consciously avoiding distactions (such as checking social media or the news every few minutes), staying focused on a single task at a time and organising your day where possible so that you can do like tasks together.
  4. Use reminders of the need for mindfulness – Shamash has some detailed strategies here that are very helpful.  Some of these entail linking a work activity to a mindfulness practice, e.g. when the phone rings, taking a deep breath and reminding yourself to be fully present to the caller.   Gradually, with regular practice, these reminders can immediately elicit mindfulness.  Some people may find a mindfulness app an appropriate reminder or an aid to mindfulness at work.
Further ways to be mindful at work

Eckhart Tolle in his talk to Google staff suggested ways that they could be mindful at work, including mindful breathing at their workstation.  Another mindfulness practice that can be employed at your desk is to occasionally focus on physically grounding yourself by ensuring that your feet are flat on the floor and your legs and back are straight.   This can be combined with mindful breathing.  If you are facilitating a workshop you could practise mindfulness through a brief loving kindness meditation directed towards one individual who may be struggling or towards the whole participant group.

Grow in mindfulness at work

If we want to grow in mindfulness through our behaviour at work, we need the strong intent to make the most of the opportunities for mindfulness that work presents.  Regular practice of mindfulness elsewhere will help to build this intent as well as consciousness of the opportunities for mindfulness at work.  Starting small with a single mindfulness practice maintained over three weeks will mean that the practice, such as mindful walking, will become embedded in your daily routine.  You can progressively expand these focused practices so that you become unconsciously competent at utilising opportunities for mindfulness at work.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Barriers Experienced During Walking Meditation

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in the Power of Awareness Meditation Training Course, identified a number of barriers that you could experience during a walking meditation.   These relate to your internal thoughts and feelings and your physical balance.

I discuss three of these barriers below and offer some suggested strategies to overcome them:

  1. Loss of balance – you can experience a loss of balance because of the unusual slowness of the practice of walking meditation.  The way around this barrier is to go a little faster until you find a speed that enables you to walk with ease and maintain your balance.  Over time and with further practice, you will be able to walk more slowly without losing your balance.
  2. Invading thoughts – despite your intention to still your mind and the incessant internal chatter, you may find that, since you have stopped rushing to go somewhere,  your mind will become hyper-active.  You could be invaded with all kinds of thoughts, e.g. thoughts related to planning, negative self-evaluation, problem solving, or anticipation of a future event.  The secret here is not to entertain these thoughts but let them float by and bring yourself back to your focus on your bodily sensations.  This serves as good training for any form of meditation.  In terms of negative self-evaluation, it is important to remember that there is no right way as far as walking meditation goes.  You have to find the approach and location to suit yourself.  The main thing to achieve is slowing down with a focus  on bodily sensations.
  3. Strong emotions – sometimes when you slow down your pace of life through a walking meditation, some deep feelings emerge.  They could be feelings of anger, grief, disgust or any other strong feeling.  It is as if the hectic pace of life has enabled you to hide away from these feelings and avoid noticing them and naming your feelings.  The feelings refuse to stay submerged when your focus turns from rushing  to meet external expectations to focusing on you internal state, both physical and emotional.  In this scenario, it is possible to stop walking and begin a standing meditation where you pay attention to the strong feeling, accept its existence, investigate its impact on your body and nurture yourself by drawing on your internal resources – a process we discussed as R.A.I.N meditation.  When you have the strong feelings under control, you can resume your walking meditation.

As you grow in mindfulness through standing and walking meditations, you will develop strategies to overcome the barriers to your focus and, in the process, acquire a core skill that will positively impact other forms of meditation and your daily life.  Focus is the foundation for awareness,  productivity, creativity and social skills.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Strategies to Handle Restlessness During Meditation

Restlessness during meditation is experienced by everyone, even the advanced meditator.  It is important to be with the moment and be non-judgmental with ourselves, avoiding the temptation to “beat up on ourselves”.  So, part of dealing with restlessness during meditation is accepting what is and what is happening to us without self-censure.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), reminds us of the essence of mindfulness:

Paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.

Diana in a meditation podcast on restlessness as an obstacle to meditation offers four strategies to deal with this restlessness which can be experienced in our mind and manifested in our body in the form of tightness/tension or the need to keep changing our posture.  These strategies require a consciousness about what is happening in our mind and/or body during meditation and a willingness “to be with what is”.

Strategies to handle restlessness during meditation

The strategies discussed by Diana incorporate a change in the focus of your meditation or a momentary change in your posture:

  1. Narrowed focused – you can narrow your focus so that you are concentrating even more closely on your breath.  You can observe the beginning (in-breath), the middle (space between in-breath and out-breath) and the ending (out-breath).  You could narrow your focus like the child in the image above who is totally absorbed in their play with a bucket at the beach.  This response to restlessness entails stillness combined with a narrowed focus.
  2. Widened focus – an alternative to narrowing your focus during meditation is to do the opposite, widen the focus of your attention.  One thing that you could focus on is the sounds that you hear, bringing your attention to listening.  Your focus could shift from the sounds that are nearby to those that are the furthest away.  Widening your focus entails changing your attention away from the mind’s relentless activity to what is happening aurally in the present moment.
  3. Focus on the restlessness – you can focus on the restlessness itself.  This involves paying attention to what is going on in your mind and your body.  You could name the mental restlessness by saying something like, “There you are again Mr. Restless drawing my attention away”.  You could then get in touch with your body to feel the impact of the restless mind and to notice “how” and “where”the restlessness is being experienced in your body.
  4. Change of posture – this involves a slight change of posture to re-focus your mind.  You may find, for example, that your shoulders have slumped slightly, so you could straighten them.  You may have crossed your feet and no longer have the soles of your feet on the ground.  Correcting your posture can bring you back to the present moment and what is the purpose of your meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through the regular practice of meditation, we can more easily adopt strategies to deal with restlessness during meditation.  Persistence with meditation practice brings its own rewards.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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