Amid COVID-19, many of my peers and I were forced to come to terms with the fact that we would not see cherished friends, colleagues, and tutors for an indefinite period. I was struggling to find the words and internal space for the sadness that accompanied the memories of my university experience which had been abruptly cut short. I found the floods of memories resurfacing rather intrusive, often disrupting my study sessions and interrupting the flow of my dissertation preparation. It turns out you cannot work as effectively when your mind is being pulled in divergent directions…who knew?
The abundant self-help resources concerning ways to wellbeing and positive thinking articles which consistently remind us of the benefits of “mindfulness” for our wellbeing have become increasingly clichéd. Despite the saturation of information about what mindfulness and meditation can do for our mental health, we rarely see how mindfulness practice can re-wire the brain in a way that helps us cultivate practical study skills like concentration and the relinquishing of day-to-day distractions. As the Wellbeing and the Curriculum researcher, it might seem odd to harness this blogpost around concentration and study skills as the primary attainment of mindfulness meditation. Mental health researchers, however, have long noted how episodes of overwhelming anxiety and depression can diminish concentration skills. Concentration, motivation, and reasonable levels of wellbeing are often mutually entailing.
When working from home, the capacity to get a hold over restless minds and jittery thoughts becomes all the more challenging. Most of the student body has been suddenly thrown into the constant close-presence of family members and housemates who unwittingly demand a lot of our time and attention. Our screens notify us with constant news updates and important email updates from the university that feel pressing. Studying from home rather than at the library means we are not situated at a safe distance from our beds, our kitchen cupboards, and our Televisions. This distractible mind of mine need only walk one minute to root through the cupboards for snacks and turn on the TV to alleviate the internal tensions about completing my finals during such a troubling time. Our proximity to innumerable distractions and the uneasiness I felt towards my distractible tendencies was giving me more and more reason to research the brain science behind meditation and commit a sizeable chunk of my quarantine time to daily mindfulness and meditation practice.
One of the most renowned researchers investigating the connection between mindfulness, concentration, and neuroscience is Richard Davidson’s work on ‘The Emotional Life of Your Brain’ (2013) and ‘Train your Mind, Change Your Brain’. The evolutionary interpretation of the human mind sees human alertness and our capacity to react quickly to different stimuli (or threats) as beneficial for survival and protecting ourselves from threats. If you see sense a car coming at you from a different direction to the direction you were focussed on, then your alertness to different stimuli (our distractibility) helps you survive. This biological conditioning helped me to accept that there is no need for self-disparaging attitudes of inadequacy because you “failed” to “conquer” or “overcome” distractibility—the cognitive process is entirely human. No one can fully overcome the erratic processes that the mind produces and a lot of the time we unwittingly get lost in disruptive thought patterns.
The habitual working of a mind lost in “doing mode” is to set this biologically-conditioned ‘alertness’ into every aspect of our lives. Without meditation we can run through the business of day-to-day life without conscious awareness of our thought patterns. In terms of our distractibility, Davidson believes we can only minimise its impact on our lives by turning towards these thought patterns accepting them for what they are and noticing the quality and nature of these patterns with curiosity—a kind of meta-awareness. It is only after detaching from the arising and passing of thoughts and sensations that I began to see how the brain’s neuroplasticity appears to us subjectively. I watched thoughts, feelings, and impulses move through me as impermanent, malleable, and always susceptible to change phenomena.
Without the appropriate direction of attention, it is easy to become conditioned by uncontrollable floods of new mental imagery and internal activations which push and pull us in different directions. On autopilot, we mindlessly respond to the demands, the occurrences, and the pressures of distinct stimuli: the imaginary (the “in our heads” memories, beliefs, apprehensions); and the external or physiological stimuli of hunger, human interaction, and impulses. But I have never performed particularly well in situations of relentless reactive thinking. Yet the more and more I tried to force myself to conform to the “ideal” way of studying during isolation, how I “should” just focus, and “ought” to have accomplished this work by now, the more and more frustrated I would become about the possibility of failing. But meditation practices originating from the Zen tradition offer some of the most compassionate approaches to mindfulness practice and harnessing concentration as the tradition encourages participants to cultivate ‘Radical Acceptance’ (2004) of our imperfect and ever-changing selves. This helped me come to terms with lingering afflictions about mental dullness, unproductivity, lack of concentration, and distractibility during isolation.
Initially, the transition into isolation felt rather manic and disharmonious, as I was striving to be “productive” rather than allowing the conscientiousness that got me to where I am in my academic career to flow out of me with more natural ease and engaged creativity. Since many aspects of business life are now on pause, I am finding more time to introspect and come to a few helpful realisations about my distractibility. I have now admitted to myself that my mental life before the lockdown was frightfully future-oriented. Teeming with frantic dispositions to run forward and try to catch up with the “ideal” self, I never gave myself the chance to mindfully breathe. Rarely did I enter a meditative space where I fully comprehended and appreciated the abundance of significant things around me. Rarely did I take notice of my body, how it sits and moves through the immediate and present surroundings, how feelings and sensations pass through temporarily and need not subject me to passing impulses. As I notice the changes in my thinking and capacity to focus, I am now more cautious of this subtle habit of mindlessness which develops throughout our busy lives and leaves many of us pressing into projects, hobbies, or the increasingly clichéd “quarantine activities” like an automaton with barely any conscious awareness of what we truly value and how we intend to use our time in quarantine.
In light of all this self-reflection, I set a commitment to cultivating Concentration and Calm through two weeks of daily meditation. Most of my meditation practice was guided by videos from Zen retreat channels and other experts on YouTube, as well as more personable practice and open conversations with Zen practitioners working for the University’s Multifaith Chaplaincy (still running remotely during this period). Even after only a week’s worth of mindfulness practice, I was already unveiling fresh insights about how I might live my life with more clarity, more calmness, and more focus. I could see those niggling thoughts pulling my attention away from what I set out to do, I took note of them, and then I let them pass by rather than play around with them.
Higher education successfully equips students with critical thinking skills, but few students receive the mental training required to discern between the objects and qualities worthy of critical evaluation and those self-directed value judgements that are simply self-deprecating. When these critical assessments are not contained or set into a larger perspective then our minds can become restless and easily distracted. Most often, the least productive criticisms are the ones we disparagingly directed toward past actions which are no longer within our control. The dwelling and chewing on our perceived “failures” of the past is referred to by psychologists as rumination and usually obsessive retrospective thinking rarely yield positive results, solutions, or answers that might help us in such a vague and uncertain future. The only time observing the past and criticising our failures might become productive is when we acknowledge that ‘I was not happy with the way that turned out, but I recognise what I did there and I will try to become more mindful of that behaviour if similar circumstances arise in the future.’ The observations, perceptions, and awareness’s most worth cultivating is mindfulness of the internal life and external surroundings of the present moment. What we did is already done; it happened, but now this is happening.
The risk of increased time with our inner world is that we spiral into unhelpful rumination or anxiety over our uncertain futures. But the kind of introspection and self-reflection I am defending involves meditation and tuning in with what is going on internally (our present values, intentions, and needs) rather than mindlessly busying ourselves with activity just to run away from unpleasant feelings. To cultivate a space where we can be focussed and concentrated on the precise steps towards satisfying, engaging, and fulfilling our studies and a sense of balance. It is helpful not to lose sight of all the simple events right in front of us instead of getting swallowed up by background noise of mental activity.
Despite all of my positive reflections on meditation, I caution against anyone interpreting meditation as a catch-all “solution” to high levels of de-motivation and distractibility. Mindfulness practice will not automatically enable us to accomplish all our aspirations or attain the “best” self who appears more focussed, centred, and concentrated. This is not what meditation is premised on because such future-oriented aspirations take us away from the present moment. Also, Buddhists rarely think of the “self” in the same way we Westerners do, as their metaphysics reminds us that all things as impermanent – including our understanding of self-identity. Meditation is better thought of as opening up the changeable activity of the internal mind, so we actively observe our most frequent thought patterns and how they interrelate with mood fluctuations rather than engage with them, Buddhist practitioners sometimes call this “examining the floor of your thoughts”, not analysing the content of your thoughts. The arduous process of learning to simply sit with physical discomfort and observe the arising-passing of thoughts, memories, and emotions rather than participate in the inner chatter requires discipline, it requires non-judgmental focus—essential for a self-compassionate approach to cultivating study skills.
Owen Barlow, Student Fellow