“You are missing 50 percent of your life,” writes Amishi Jha, neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Miami, in her new book, “Peak Mind.” Decades of research have proven to Jha how susceptible to distraction human attention really is.
This distraction can take a toll: It can affect your work life, causing you to miss deadlines and important directives, for example. It can affect your relationships, causing you to miss important messages from loved ones when they need you to listen. It can even affect regulation of your day-to-day emotions, if you’re not paying attention to how you react.
“Attention is a currency, a multipurpose resource,” she writes. “We need it for nearly every aspect of our lives.”
Jha’s research focuses on mindfulness exercises and other tactics to gain control of your multifaceted attention system. At the end of the book, she maps out a four-week-long program of mindfulness exercises to be done at least five times per week for 12 minutes a day — the minimal amount of time she found was required to start rerouting the brain.
I tried doing this month-long program. Here’s how it affected me.
In “Peak Mind,” Jha prescribes four different exercises:
This is meant to help you identify where your focus is at any given moment. You sit up, close your eyes, and focus on a sensation of the breath, like how it feels going in and out of your nostrils. When you’ve noticed your mind has wandered elsewhere, you simply reel it back to that sensation.
This exercise helps you get a clear sense of the physical sensations of a given moment, which can help to absorb it better. You sit up, begin by focusing on the sensations of the breath again, and then start scanning the body for whatever it’s feeling. Maybe there’s a breeze on the bottoms of the feet, for example, or a strain in your back, or a rumbling in your stomach ― whatever it is, you work your way up and take note.
This sharpens your meta awareness, or “the ability to take explicit note of and monitor the current contents or processes of your conscious experience,” Jha writes in the book. You stand, feet hip distance apart, palms out, arms at your side. You begin with the breath sensations, then imagine you’re standing at the foot of a river, and whatever thoughts, emotions, or sensations arise, you imagine them floating past on that river.
This exercise is meant to sharpen the attention system as it performs within relationships. You sit up, find the sensations of your breath, then repeat the following three phrases for a few minutes: “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe, may I live with ease.”
You think of someone you love and repeat those phrases for them. You think of someone with whom you have no real connection and repeat those phrases for them. You think of what the book describes as a “difficult person” and repeat the phrases for them. Finally, you move on to everyone in your home, community, state, and country, and then to everyone in the world.
As an adult with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, I was personally starting this program at a disadvantage. Per its name, my particular disorder impairs some executive functions in the brain. But although these exercises can’t fundamentally alter how this brain works, even people with ADHD can see some difference in their attention afterward, according to the book. So I dove in.
The program is set up to mix the foundational Find Your Flashlight exercise with another new one every week. Week One focuses solely on Find Your Flashlight, Week Two switches between that and Body Scan, Week Three switches between that and River of Thought, and Week Four between that and Connection Practice.
I chose to wake up 15 minutes early every morning and do these exercises first thing. They were challenging, particularly Find Your Flashlight. I think it’s the most boring of the four, and my mind is already so prone to wandering. I found myself spacing out while doing it most of the time.
Luckily, all three of the others were more stimulating, with Connection Practice probably my favorite. That one left me feeling kind of warm and fuzzy every time.
By Week Three, I started feeling some sort of change. Jha mentions the effects of rerouting your brain are about more than just being able to focus better on the task at hand. They give a greater sense of awareness of what’s happening to your body and emotional temperament, too.
I found that to be the case. I normally drink coffee once or twice a week, for example, and on Tuesday of the third week of doing my exercises, when I bought a cup from a stand near the office, I was suddenly keenly aware of what that coffee was doing to me. I noticed it gave me a buzzy kind of fatigue, and I was hyper aware of how jittery my body became after drinking it.
I found that when my mind was wandering, I was more aware of when that was happening and where it was going. I could make a conscious decision to let it continue on that path and check my email, for example, or I could close the tab and finish my current work task.
I think for me the most valuable component of this program is that Jha really stresses divorcing an emotional reaction from where your attention is pointed. Historically, especially because I’m so often distracted, I’ve gotten angry at myself when I realize I’m watching YouTube instead of doing whatever I’m supposed to be doing.
Now, I’ve noticed a greater sense of calm overall.
Jha’s exercises stress the importance of removing all judgment from the work of refocusing attention. They’re just about noticing what’s happening ― or being mindful of what’s happening, as it were. What I’m training my brain to do every morning is not just to reel it back to the task at hand, but to do so without letting any emotions get in the way.
I still do the exercises five times a week, 12 minutes a day, when I first wake up in the morning. I’m hoping I can gain even more control of my attention as a result.
With training, says Jha in the book, “we can strengthen our capacity to fully experience and enjoy the moments we are in, to embark on new adventures, and to navigate life’s challenges more effectively.”
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