Gold stars for those who can make it through this article without wondering about their next meal or unattended emails, mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or scanning half a page before realizing you have no idea what the heck you just read!
Amit Sood, author of the book "The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living," calls this autopilot daze, in which we're physically here, but mentally elsewhere – our default mode. And it's not a great place to be. We spend about half of our day in default mode, in which we're typically unhappy, leading to increased risk of depression, anxiety and attention deficit.
Our brain's counter to default mode is its focus mode.
Imagine this: You're driving down the freeway, thinking about who knows what, when a police car pulls up behind you. Even if you're obeying the law, your attention shifts to the rearview mirror and speedometer, and recollections of the workday, etc. are instantly replaced with silent urges for the police car to change course.
While we don't want a police car following us, this illustration is helpful to engage that focused attention such an experiences beckons. Meditation is essentially the process of doing just that – cutting through our brain's static and finding focus. The practice not only offers a slew of health benefits, from stress management, to helping with high blood pressure, heart disease and depression, but it's also something you can weave into your everyday life.
Beginners can try the three simple meditation exercises below just about anywhere, at anytime. Go slow, and be compassionate with yourself. It's natural for your mind to wander as you try to focus, so when it does, don't distress.
Walking meditation. This practice is very simple. Find a space outside, and simply walk at a slow or medium pace, focusing on your feet. Try to distinguish when your toe touches the ground, when your foot is flat on the ground and when your toe points back upward. Feel the roll of your foot. Observe sensory details: a tingle here, a pull of the sock there.
When your mind wanders, and it will, gently bring your attention back to your feet. You're building a skill of noticing when your attention drifts into default mode and bringing it back into focus. This ability can help you be more present and in control of your attention every day, especially in times of stress.
Gratitude exercise. What are your first thoughts as you awake? Maybe: What am I going to wear today? When is my first meeting? Where's my coffee? Even as we're still yawning and stumbling out of bed, we often dive head-first into default mode.
Try taking two minutes when you first awake to find focus.
Close your eyes. Think of a person for whom you're grateful. Bring that person's face in front of your eyes and focus on one part of their face that you really like. Now send them silent gratitude, or just a note of thankfulness that this person is in your life. Do this for a second, third, fourth and fifth person.
These silent gratitudes work for early mornings, as well as between appointments, waiting in the checkout line.
Concentration meditation. A concentrative meditation technique involves focusing on a single point. This could entail watching the breath, repeating a single word or mantra or staring at a candle flame. Since focusing the mind is challenging, a beginner might aim to concentrate for only a few minutes and then work up to longer durations.
In this form of meditation, you simply refocus your awareness on the chosen object of attention each time you notice your mind wandering. Rather than pursuing random thoughts, you simply let them go. Through this process, your ability to concentrate improves.