Meditation is a powerful practice that provides many benefits, including brain health, stress relief, and mental well-being. Staying focused during meditation can be tricky as the struggle to tune out distractions is common.
Even when we manage to find a quiet, soothing physical space, our mind chatter can undermine that by creating a chaotic internal environment. We can increase concentration with meditation in two ways.
First, we can gather tools to help concentration during our formal meditation practice. Second, we can apply these methods anytime and anywhere to bring ourselves back into that centered, focused mental state no matter the situation.
Let’s explore seven tips that can help our concentration through meditation.
Concentration With Meditation
Meditation is only effective if you know how to do it properly. Having the right concentration will help prepare you for the activity and avoid unnecessary disturbances from outside.
1. Eyes Closed
Removing visual stimuli helps us conserve energy. We can better utilize that energy for inner focus during our practice. Processing visual information uses more than half the surface of the brain. Closing our eyes frees up that energy for our other senses. We can tune out external distractions and also connect with our inner world more easily.
Memory, a key aspect of concentration, is linked to this form of sensory mastery. Take, for example, eyewitness recall. Say you were involved in a hit-and-run accident. It may have felt like time stood still as the other car collided with yours.
Then the moment was over in a flash as you watched it speed away. Your stress response kicked into high gear with your heart racing and muscles tensing. As you attempted to report the details of the event, would you remember anything helpful? Locked into a high-stress response, concentration could be especially difficult.
Closing your eyes could make all the difference. One study published in Memory and Cognition described memory difficulties are due to high mental load. This could be from environmental factors as well as perceived stress. It also demonstrated that closing the eyes decreased incorrect recall by an impressive 43%.
Intentional freedom from visual stimulation can provide massive improvements to our concentration. We can engage in this practice with or without including meditation. It doesn’t need to take a lot of time, even a couple of minutes daily yields benefits.
2. Engage in a Mental-Load-Lightening Brain Dump
As already discussed, a high mental load can diminish concentration abilities. It’s difficult to be fully present in our meditation practice or daily life when our minds are swirling with ideas. Entering these moments with enhanced mental clarity can help. This means setting all concerns, stresses, or unresolved responsibilities outside the meditation space. How do we do this?
We can take simple actions like doing any physical activity. This can mentally solidify our intention to set all worries and tasks aside temporarily. One method is brain-dumping on paper. It may seem like writing about stressors and to-dos would only intensify bedtime anxiety. But actually, the opposite happens.
The process actually takes all that mental baggage and ‘checks it in’ to an alternate space. The mind is then free to focus on the present priority – relaxation. Ruminating over issues during times we want to relax wouldn’t do us any good anyway.
All our problems would remain unresolved when we wake up groggy the next morning. But having them listed out allows us to see the big picture and take action in real-time. This strategy works well any time we are settling in for intentional stress relief time. Use it before bedtime, just before a massage, or as part of your pre-meditation ritual.
3. Perk Up Your Posture
A key component of meditation is the mind-body connection. It’s often thought that this only goes one way with the mind affecting the body. But studies show the body affects the mind as well. Charles Darwin’s work led to studies that aided in the development of what scientists now call the “facial feedback hypothesis.”
One aspect of these studies was the “pencil experiment.” It demonstrated that manipulation of the facial muscles into a smile by holding a pencil between your teeth elicits feelings of happiness.
If the facial muscles can directly impact our mood and emotions, it stands to reason that other muscle groups can do the same. In fact, research published in the journal, Biofeedback, demonstrated this.
Participants engaging in opposite arm and leg skipping experienced increased energy and alertness. Walking in a slouched position caused a decrease. Interestingly, some participants with attention deficit disorders reported a better ability to focus their attention after skipping.
Part of setting ourselves up for our meditation practice includes “sitting in an upright position”, thereby setting our posture to open up our energy. Science explains this too. Sitting in Lotus Posture increased energy levels in all acupuncture meridians of participants in one study. Those who sat in chairs showed a decrease.
We can practice posture-improving exercises anytime, whether we’re meditating or not.
4. Focus on the Breath
Our breath is something we usually don’t pay much attention to. We often forget the power we have to control this underrated function of our bodies. It’s important to harness this power in ourselves.
Focusing on the breath is an integral part of any meditation practice because it directly diffuses stress reactions in the body. When we’re in a fight-flight-freeze mode, our breathing becomes more shallow and quick.
This leads to decreased oxygen levels in the body. Oxygen is a primary source of fuel for our brains. With insufficient fuel, concentration and focus become challenging, if not impossible.
There’s also a physiological change that happens in the brain when we’re stressed. In this state, the emotional part of our brains, or amygdala takes over. It shuts off the line of communication from our prefrontal cortex, known as the control center.
This process disables several important brain functions. One of these is our ability to focus. The amygdala takes over, signaling the body to leap into action to evade imminent danger. This is an involuntary process that distracts us from anything else we want to focus our energy on.
Focused, intentional breathing helps us slow down and switches us out of fight or flight mode. Some studies even suggest that regular breathing practice during meditation can increase activity in areas of the brain associated with enhanced attention and concentration.
Breathwork is an integral part of any meditation for concentration. However, you can engage in breathing exercises anytime and anywhere.
5. Hand and Finger Posturing
Have you ever heard of the Mozart effect? In 1999, the Journal of Neurological Research cited a study where children scored 27% higher in math tests after taking piano lessons. It was believed that this stemmed primarily from the power of music to teach spatial-temporal reasoning.
In his book Meditation as Medicine, Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D. offers an alternate theory. He states that from an Eastern and yogic perspective, it’s believed that
“various discrete neurological effects can be gained by…touching the fingertips to the thumb, or crossing certain fingers.”
Remember how focusing on the breath helps our concentration by providing oxygen that fuels the brain? Well, it turns out more recent studies actually demonstrate finger activity to increase cerebral blood flow.
This means that finger movements provide even more oxygen to the brain via this improved blood circulation. In fact, finger exercise training is so effective at activating brain function and diminishing cognitive decline, it’s used as a method for rehabilitating stroke patients.
Cognitive health is directly tied to concentration. In meditation, these hand and finger postures are called mudras. An easy one to try is Rudra. This mudra is said to improve clarity and concentration of thought, as well as relieve chronic tension in the body.
To do this mudra, connect your thumb to your index and ring fingers while keeping your other two fingers as straight as you can.
6. Move Your Mind-Body
Sometimes the effort of trying to keep our minds clear during meditation can hinder us from reaping the benefits of the practice. Relaxation-induced anxiety is unfortunately a very real thing. It’s a phenomenon where people experience a spike of anxiety while trying to relax.
This presents another example of how the stress response can block both relaxation and concentration. The mind-body connection is a key component of meditation. But remember, our bodies can influence our minds just as our minds affect our bodies.
The good news is, we can ‘trick’ our brains into allowing us to relax enough for meditation. All it takes is to do something that provides the perks but doesn’t actually feel like meditation. There are many body-centric options that don’t require sitting still as with traditional forms of meditation.
With a focus on mindfulness, we can engage in activities called “moving meditations.” They address the anxiety issue because they relieve the pressure of meditation as something that must be done in a prescribed way.
Mindfulness is a separate but connected element of meditation that also boosts concentration. The focus is on attention to the present moment and accepting things as they are. This eliminates the ‘shoulds’ that pop up when people ‘try to meditate.’
Try These Things
Take a walk in nature, paying close attention to aspects of your environment, such as how the sun’s shadows cover your path. Engage in mundane tasks like cleaning out drawers or washing dishes.
No matter what activity you try, remember this is a space for your mind to wander. It’s ok if you run through a hundred thoughts a minute. The important thing is to notice each one as it comes and goes. This is a powerful exercise for improving focus and concentration.
7. Connect With Your Emotions
Modern society does not tend to favor open emotional expression. As a result, it’s very common to avoid or deny our emotions. We do this in many ways. Some involve avoidance coping methods like overeating or substance use, including alcohol.
Others are less obvious, like everyday activities which we might not even realize we’re actually using as distractions. For example, what do you tend to do when you’re procrastinating on an important task? If you’re honest, you might confess that scrolling social media or binge-watching TV top the list.
It’s easy to fill our minds and bodies with excess stuff in our attempts to avoid feeling our feelings. The problem with this is, most of the stuff we choose is more like a band-aid than a long-term solution.
In fact, running away from our emotions can be one of the underlying reasons for relaxation-induced anxiety. Deep down, we might feel afraid of what will come bubbling to the surface if we allow ourselves to let go and be still in body and mind.
Facing our deep emotions and working through them helps concentration and focus. Through the process, it requires that we purposefully remove distractions and busyness from our lives. Only then can we truly experience the clarity of mind that we seek.
Simple Ways to Increase Concentration with Mediation
Meditation for focus and concentration is often defined as “prolonged concentration.” However, sometimes our approach prevents us from this state. And sometimes we don’t need formal meditation at all.
Understanding how mindfulness, meditation, relaxation, and concentration integrate with each other in our brains can help us increase concentration inside our meditation practice and beyond.
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