A 3-Step Process for Shifting Attention and Regaining Focus

I am noticing a pattern in my efforts to develop healthy habits.  When I add a new habit to my routine, it causes a temporary setback in the habits that I already established.

I recently started doing regular brain training exercises to enhance my memory, attention and flexibility through Lumosity. This coincided with an unanticipated change in my work schedule that caused me to have to leave 1/2 hour earlier in the morning, which  affected my meditation and exercise routine.  The first week, I played the brain training games on 6 out of 7 days but did not meditate or exercise at all.  The second week, I did brain training 4 times and also succeeded in meditating several times. Now in the third week I am continuing brain training and meditation and also getting more serious about exercising again.

I decided to add brain training to my routine because:

  •  I have been watching people I care about struggle with memory loss as they get older and my memory has  never been great to begin with.
  • While I have greatly improved my ability to stay focused over the years, I still have difficulty shifting my focus when I am absorbed in something compelling and need to get other things done.

After the first two weeks of brain training, I have already seen significant improvement in my working memory and selective attention and more limited improvement in flexibility through the task switching and response inhibition games.  Hopefully, doing both brain training and meditation will have a synergistic effect that helps me improve my mental flexibility since that has been the hardest skill for me to develop.

Mind wandering is an expected part of meditation.  Bringing my attention back to the focus of my meditation, whether it be my breathing, body sensations, sounds in the environment or my emotions, helps me to develop mental flexibility.   Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues at Emory University studied mind wandering and attention during focused concentration meditation and identified a 3-step process for resuming focus: awareness, shifting, and focusing.

  1. AWARENESS:  Becoming aware of mind wandering during meditation helps me to practice monitoring conflicts between my intentions and my actions, my goals and obstacles to achieving them. This is believed to be a function of the salience network of the brain, which helps distinguish between relevant and distracting stimuli, according to Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues.
  2. SHIFTING: The most challenging skill for me to apply in my daily life is to be able to shift or reorient my attention as needed.  This skill involves the executive network of the brain, which is thought to activate attentional disengagement and redirection skills for the purpose of following through on tasks deemed relevant to goal achievement.  The flexibility games in Lumosity appear to develop the same skills; the response inhibition games seem to be designed to promote attentional disengagement and the task switching games seem to be excellent practice for redirection of focus.
  3. FOCUSING: The focus phase is what I have been practicing the most, both through meditation and persistent  choosing to prioritize practicing new habits. Hasenkamp and her colleagues believe the focusing phase involves executive system working memory. This involves keeping goals in mind through repetitive selection, or active rehearsal, to achieve sustained attention.    I suspect that the development of my focusing ability is the reason why my working memory and selective attention skills in Lumosity are showing so much improvement and why I have been able to get back on track so quickly when obstacles interfere with my routine.

Does your mind wander a lot?  Do you have difficulty with awareness, shifting, and focusing skills?  Have you tried anything that has helped you to improve these skills?  Please share your thoughts below.

A Lovingkindness Project for Schools to Combat Bullying

I have been practicing  lovingkindness meditation for several months now, so when I read an article in my local newspaper about an anti-bullying program that tries to promote kindness and compassion, I started to wonder if introducing lovingkindness meditation into our schools would help combat bullying.

The Star Ledger article was about 18 year old Ashley Craig and the non-profit foundation she started, Students Against Being Bullied (SABB), which focuses on setting up “dedicated texting lines in the school to allow bystanders to anonymously report incidents and victims to seek help, safe rooms with staff to provide refuge for students before classes begin, and monthly programs to promote community, kindness and compassion.”  I was impressed with Ashley Craig’s passion, determination, inventiveness, and commitment and encourage everybody to check out the foundation’s website (http:studentsagainstbeingbullied.org).

As I reflected on the foundation’s goal of promoting community and kindness, it occurred to me that introducing daily lovingkindness meditation  could potentially accomplish even more than monthly programs.  So I played around with the idea in my mind and came up with a way for schools to institute lovingkindness meditation as a community practice.  First I modified the traditional lovingkindness meditation so the words were particularly relevant to a student population. Then I came up with some ideas of how to implement a year-long lovingkindness project in the schools.

Lovingkindness Meditation for Schools

Start with three full breaths.  Breathe in through your nose, imagining you are smelling a flower. Breathe out through your mouth, imagining you are blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Try to make the out-breaths last as long as possible.

Recite the following out loud:

May I be safe
May I be peaceful
May I be free from suffering
May I be filled with lovingkindness
May I be happy

May my family and friends be safe
May my family and friends be peaceful
May my family and friends be free from suffering
May my family and friends be filled with lovingkindness
May my family and friends be happy

May my classmates be safe
May my classmates be peaceful
May my classmates be free from suffering
May my classmates be filled with lovingkindness
May my classmates be happy

May my teachers be safe
May my teachers be peaceful
May my teachers be free from suffering
May my teachers be filled with lovingkindness
May my teachers be happy

May the entire school be safe
May the entire school be peaceful
May the entire school be free from suffering
May the entire school be filled with lovingkindness
May the entire school be happy

May all people be safe
May all people be peaceful
May all people be free from suffering
May all people be filled with lovingkindness
May all people be happy

Suggested Plan to Implement the Lovingkindness Project in Your School

1. Have a teacher meeting and a parent meeting to introduce the Lovingkindness Project
2. Have an assembly for all students introducing the Lovingkindness Project.
3. For younger grades, have teachers follow up with discussion of what it means to be safe, peaceful, free from suffering, etc.
4. In older grades have teachers lead discussion of the difficulty of having good wishes for people who have harmed you and encourage students to try to include everyone. For those who are unable to include those who have harmed them, encourage them to try to say a separate phrase “May those who have hurt me be filled with lovingkindness”.
5. Say it over the loudspeaker every morning at the same time
6. Have teachers model participation for students
7. After one month ask students to make a pledge to do it every day, including weekends, vacations, sick-days, etc. for the entire year
8. Ask teachers and parents to take the same pledge. Teachers would replace “classmates” and ‘teachers” with  “students” and “fellow teachers” in their meditation and parents would change their meditation to include  “my child(ren)’s classmates” and “my child(ren)’s teachers.”
9. Continue doing it over the loudspeaker daily
10. After 3 months (or right before thanksgiving) have group discussions about the impact
11. At the end of the year have an essay contest about lovingkindness

Please share this idea on social media and suggest it to schools you are involved with. Together we can make a difference!

Note: If you have any suggestions that could further enhance this project, I would love to hear from you.  Please share your ideas on my trauma blog, From Where I Stand.  Since this post is cross-posted on both blogs, I disabled comments here so all comments will be in one location.