Open Your Focus I Day One
Nourish Your Mind
The Brain on Meditation
To understand the huge impact that meditation can have in our bodies, it's important to first have a basic understanding of how the human brain works.
Your brain is composed of billions of nerve cells called neurons. These neurons talk to one another by sending chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) to each other via small spaces between them called synpases. Whenever one of these chemical messages occurs, a pathway forms between the two talking neurons so that the same message can pass along more quickly the next time. It's similar to walking an uncharted path through the woods. The more times you take the same route, the more beat-down the path becomes, making it easier and easier to traverse.
In 1949, a Canadian neuropsychologist named Donald Hebb coined the phrase, "what fires together wires together" to describe this process. The more times we "fire" a certain thought, the more deeply "wired" it becomes in our brain. This is how we form our opinions, our personalities, our moods, etc. They are habitual patterns of thinking and feeling that get reinforced by neural connection.
However, what we learn through firing and wiring, we can also unlearn through focused attention. When we meditate, we focus our attention so that the brain moves into more healing and calming brainwave patterns, and a natural pruning process takes place in our neural networks. The pathways once wired for aggression, anxiety, fear and depression begin to reorganize, and the brain builds pathways congruent with the experience of peace and calm that meditation provides. The more we practice, the stronger and more natural these connections become.
As we meditate the brain begins to look completely different. More peaceful ways of being become natural and effortless, and the brain's chemistry alters to reflect this new normal. The scientific evidence showing these changes is immense. Not only has meditation been shown to increase immunity and decrease stress, anxiety and depression, but it also physically creates more grey matter and thicker cortices in the brain structure. This leads to increased brain function and health especially in the areas of positive emotions, creativity, focus, memory, multi-tasking, and even empathy and compassion.
Sitting still and focusing your attention has the power to absolutely change your life.
BUILD YOUR PRACTICE
Open-Focus, Part 1: Body Awareness
The first of the 12 Core Meditation Techniques that we will learn today is the Open-Focus meditation. This technique forms the building block for your practice and is a quick and easy way to soothe the brain into the calming brainwave states where neural pruning can begin to occur.
Introduced by Dr. Les Fehmi in his book The Open-Focus Brain, this process for relaxing your attention and subsequently diffusing your focus can be practiced with eyes open or closed. We will be working with it in meditation today with eyes closed, but I encourage you to practice this technique throughout the day as well with eyes open.
To sit for meditation today, simply find a comfortable spot where you will not be disturbed. This could be in a chair or on the floor. If you are sitting on the floor, it's a good idea to sit on pillows or a zafu (this is my fave) to elevate the hips so that the legs and feet do not go to sleep. If you experience any physical discomfort during meditation I invite you to approach it in whichever of the following three ways feels most supportive:
- Acknowledge the discomfort and bring your attention to it. See if bearing witness to the discomfort either causes it to diffuse or creates opportunity for you to overcome your body and practice sitting with discomfort. Can you practice being uncomfortable without creating any stories about it? Can you ride the wave and find internal stillness beyond the physical sensations?
- Ignore the discomfort and focus your attention elsewhere. Experiment with keeping your attention focused on your meditation despite the discomfort. If you give it no attention (and thereby no energy), can the mind forget about it? Use this as an opportunity to sharpen focus and discipline in the mind.
- Mindfully move to a more comfortable position and resume your original focus. Meditation isn't about suffering; it is about training your attention. Especially if you are new to meditation, you may find it difficult to practice sitting with or ignoring the discomfort. This is fine. Can you instead mindfully move the body without breaking your state? Practice maintaining focus while quietly readjusting the body without drama or story.
Focus Your Attention
Allow the Process
As the daughter of a race-car-driving father, I know all about the drive to succeed. Everything in my childhood was a lively competition - from who could swing the highest, to who could roll the hula hoop the farthest. Even on Christmas Day gifts weren't given in our house but were instead "won" in a series of silly games and challenges.
So when I say I understand that wired-in drive to achieve, I mean it. I really, really get it.
Luckily, this course isn't a race. Nor is it a competition. There is nothing to win, nothing to achieve, and there won't be any trophies handed out at the end. This is a slow, purposeful walk into the seat of your soul. It will look different for each and every person who meanders the path, and it will change course many times.
I encourage you to practice radical acceptance of what this process looks like for you. Free yourself of rules and timetables and lean into the inner whisper guiding you from the inside out. If you get one thing out of these days we share, may it be a gentleness with yourself in all the places where you've held yourself from it before. May you find yourself in the spaces in between.
Expand Your Awareness
Today pick one or several of these questions to explore in your journal. Feel into the spaces that you're hoping to widen this week, and allow the truth of your intention to spill onto the page.
Why are you here? What about this course called to your soul and what are you hoping to learn/become/realize here?
What are your beliefs about meditation and your ability to do it? Do you feel hopeful and optimistic? Is there room to soften your perspective and to allow yourself to show up differently than you expect?
Are you willing to carve out space and time in your daily routines for your meditation practice? What time of day and what duration of practice feels both realistic and nurturing to you right now?
If you could visualize yourself in a daily meditation practice, what does it look like? How do you feel in that future vision? What area of your life has transformed because of your devoted practice? Live from the end, and envision the way you want to feel. What intention would you like to hold this week in the direction of that vision?