Extending my attentional endurance

Who has a longer attention span - him or me?

So, I was up at a decent hour this morning, and I took time to sit and breathe for about 20 minutes. Generally, I try to focus on my breath and counting how many times I breathe in and breathe out. It’s good for me. It gives my brain a rest. And it helps me start the day with good concentration.

Here’s the thing, though – when I am tired (which I am, today), my mind really wanders, and it takes a mammoth effort to bring me back to where I need to be — focused on counting my breaths. Suddenly, a ton of different things seem so critical that I can’t help but think about them. And I am convinced that I have to solve these problems right here and now.

So, there are a number of issues that I can address in this exercise:

  1. Distractability – being prone to have things catch my attention and pull it off where I need it to be.
  2. Impulse Control – just “going with” the stuff that comes up, instead of consciously deciding that I’m not going to pay attention to those things until after I’m done sitting.
  3. Weak Attention – if all these different thoughts are coming up, if my attention is strongly enough focused on what I’m doing, the two things above don’t need to bother me.

But they do. And that’s the thing. It’s a thing I need to address. And guess what – I can address it. Each morning, as well as at different times throughout the day.

Now, I know that meditation is supposedly good for your soul — it’s supposed to lead to enlightenment, and that’s why a lot of people pursue it. But enlightenment is not my main goal. I want something a whole lot less grand — I just want to be able to sustain my attention on a single fixed point for longer than a hummingbird focuses on drinking nectar from a flower.

Seriously. It’s just ridiculous, sometimes, what comes up in my mind for no apparent reason. Things like the current political debates, the task items I have to do for work by end of day Monday, my upcoming schedule this week, what I want to discuss with my neuropsych, repairs I need to make to the house, and of course the pain and discomfort I’ve been feeling in my left upper back, due to my body acclimating to the different movements I’ve been making when I work out in the morning.

It’s just this never-ending march of whatever-ness that just won’t quit. And there I sit, boldly attempting to hold my attention to the number of the breath I’m presently on.

Hm.

I’ve read up on this a little bit, and apparently there are a number of different ways to spend your time while sitting in meditation. You can look at the end of your nose or your hand or a selected point out in front of you. You can count your breaths. You can recite mantras. You can can think about unsolvable puzzles in hopes of receiving a sudden flash of insight when your brain finally gives up trying to do what it isn’t designed to do.

I’m sure there are tons of people who have made good use of these practices, and for all those who sit in meditation in service to humanity waking up, I’d like to say “Thank you.”

For my purposes, however, the point of sitting is much more basic and far less grand. It’s just to get a handle on my head and extend my “attentional endurance” — to train myself to be able to focus on one single thing for longer than 15 seconds. Not being able to keep focused on one single thing for extended periods of time has serious repercussions for my work and my life. Just the other day, I misplaced some gift cards I’d received over the holidays, and now I can’t find them. Because I wasn’t paying attention when I put them away. I have no idea where they are. I’ve looked high and low. I’m sure at the time I thought was being clever, putting them somewhere “safe” — so safe, I can’t find them now.

This is just one example. At work, not being able to focus on things for longer than a few minutes at a time (partly because of constant interruption, but also because of poor practice), cuts into my productivity and keeps me from achieving what I set out to achieve. It makes everything that much harder to do, that much longer to finish, that much more of a chore.

In my personal life, too, not being able to attend to the people around me, not being able to focus exclusively on them while they are talking to me, not only makes them feel unimportant, but it also makes it really hard to have a conversation. I already have issues with working memory, so when I don’t pay attention and I don’t actively follow along in the conversation, I can lose pieces of what we are talking about, and then I sound like I’m talking gibberish.

And that’s no good.

So, that’s why I sit and count my breaths each morning. If enlightenment comes, that’s fine. 🙂 But I’ll (hopefully) be so focused on keeping my attention fixed on a certain point, that I won’t exactly notice. And that’s how I think I’d like it to be. The day when I can keep my attention fixed so intently on something as “insignificant” as a shoe lying on the floor in front of me, that I’m not distracted by something as profound as an evolutionary bump to the next level, is the day my attention is good to go.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

8 thoughts on “Extending my attentional endurance”

  1. I think you echoed beautifully what every person seriously seeking meditation has faced. It definitely takes practice. At some point you get so tired of and frustrated with “trying” to quiet the mind that you let it go and finally float into that place where everything relaxes. For me, the only thing that eventually worked was not observing my breath or the tip of my nose (tried those)… it was feeling my own consciousness. I focused on that and let my mind go. It never goes quiet. That’s what they don’t tell you. You can’t turn it off; it runs 24/7, even when you’re asleep. What you can do is draw the attention of your consciousness away from it and focus it on itself. Let the mind babble away like a television in another room. You’re not watching it. It works for me. I really enjoyed your article.

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  2. I don’t know anyone who meditates for enlightenment – though if enlightenment is what a person seeks I believe that it would be difficult to do if you did not have a strong mediation practice. Meditation is EXACTLY about what you describe – giving your mind a rest, strengthening the ability to focus, learning how to turn down the monkey chatter -all that ‘stuff’ that keeps rising to the surface. Indeed everyone has that stuff – and when it comes forward you learn to say, hello stuff, thank you for visiting but I will talk with you later and then you turn away from the stuff. There are numerous ways to meditate – breath, mindfulness, body scan, walking etc.
    Read Jon Kabat-Zinn – Full Catastrophe Living (also Where You Go, There You Are).

    By the by – I recall a while back when you said ‘bah, humbug, meditation makes me feel worse – the only reason I bring that up is because it is a good example of how hard it can be for people to adapt new practices, especially when they feel uncomfortable or alien. Meditation is not ‘easy’ – nor are the results/benefits immediate and we don’t like that. Also all that monkey chatter makes people uncomfortable – we don’t like to face the trash that is running around in the back of our minds. It is hard for people to STOP and do ‘nothing’ for even 10 minutes – they feel they are wasting time even though not doing it means they will waste more.

    Each of the forms of meditation has values/uses in different circumstances – body scans are helpful for example with pain management, mindfulness can help with awareness – and some feel it can help with things like overeating and depression as it makes you slow down, taste food and value the vast beauty around you, breath meditation is good for focus – as is mantras.

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  3. It’s true – once upon a time I was pretty “bah humbug” about the whole meditation thing. It just didn’t make any sense to me. Now, with experience, and also learning about the benefits to my general nervous system, I’m convinced. Funny, how that works…

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  4. It really wasn’t meant to be critical – it is actually a complement – so many folks with BI’s say ‘nah, this is no help’ (like exercise, mediation, good food, etc) because it doesn’t make a difference right away. I just had someone tell me about the meds they are taking and it was astounding that they can even walk – yet they believe in those meds totally. I don’t know if they are needed or not (I am not trained for that) but I do know that those folks could at least also try other approaches. I find that very frustrating. I also believe however that everyone has to come to things in their own term and way – and I deeply respect that you have pursued this and are making it work.

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  5. Thanks – I took it as a compliment – I probably didn’t convey that very well 😉

    It is frustrating to watch people turn to meds, when they could be exploring other less expensive (and ultimately less toxic) alternatives. I think it can be comforting for people to have something tangible to take — a pill, a liquid, etc — that is specially designed to *do something*. It could be, too, that people need to feel that they’re cared for by someone, and meds will do that for some people. I know someone who equates money spent and meds prescribed with the amount of care someone has for them. Their mother played out that scenario, and died before her time, on too many meds and with too little money. Something else was obviously going on, besides finding a way to get better.

    Thanks for your words — it’s a relief that I’ve gotten to this point, because I was a ways away from it for a long while, and I wasn’t sure where the relief was going to come from. Now, something seems to have “clicked” and I’m in good shape. I consider myself extremely blessed. I just wish I could pass that along to others, too.

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