The Exercise of Meditation: How it improves focus and reduces anxiety
A lot of people I see don’t like meditating, and I completely understand. I often talk to my clients about the benefits of meditation but I have to admit I sometimes don’t like doing it as well – it feels a lot like exercise to me. It can be boring, repetitive, and just plain difficult. This is the case even though I do it fairly regularly in my office during breaks. I suppose that’s because it is very much like physical exercise, but understanding this can help us approach the practice more often. Meditating can be viewed as exercising the part of our mind that controls our focus, which is like a spotlight that we can sometimes control and but all too often seems to have a mind of its own. When we meditate, we try to simply be mindful of where that spotlight is aimed. We try to keep it focused on some sort of anchor, like our breathing, and as it inevitably pulls away to something else we simply note this and gently bring the spotlight back to the anchor – over and over and over again. It is this incessant shifting back to the anchor that is the exercise I am referring to. Just as working a muscle repeatedly causes it to strengthen, meditation strengthens our ability to be mindful of where our attention is and to bring it back to where we want it. This is obviously helpful for people with attention difficulties, but it is also beneficial for anxiety. Anxiety often involves being preoccupied with something in either the past or future, and grounding ourselves back in the present can restore our sense of peace. Meditation can also improve our ability to let go of distressing thoughts.
Its common sense that if you’re not moving in some way, you’re not exercising. Similarly, I think it can be said that if you’re not becoming distracted during meditation then you’re not meditating, for meditation is the practice of coming back to the present over and over again. When I remind myself that it is like exercise I can accept that it’s supposed to be difficult and this helps get me moving forward.