Why is it so hard to sit through meditation? - All about attention!

The usual face of annoyance during meditation

The word “mindful” keeps appearing in several articles more and more these days, but what does it actually mean? Being mindful means having good control over your attention: you can place your attention wherever you want; when you want to shift it to something else, you can. According to William James, the education of attention would be an education par excellence. Developing greater control over the attention is perhaps the single most powerful way to gain new perspective and reshape your thoughts.

Your brain needs to fulfil three requirements for steady and grounded attention: holding onto information, updating awareness and finding stimulation. Let’s look into each of these one by one.


Holding onto information

The brain needs to write the incoming information on the foreground of mental chalkboard such as a phone number you just heard or an important method taught by the professor in class.

Updating awareness

Second, the brain needs to update the chalkboard with new information about a mental object. For example, you come across a wedding photo of your long lost friend on Facebook. The brain is supposed to update the new face of your friend with the information that he is married.

Finding stimulation

Third, the brain has an inherent desire for stimulation that prompted our ancestors to keep seeking food, mates and other resources. This need is so deep that in cases of very few physical stimulus through the five senses, the brain starts to hallucinate imagery just to have new information to process.

How does the brain balance attention?

The brain keeps juggling the three requirements of attention and the two key players in this juggle are dopamine and basal ganglia.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps the brain in regulating rewards and pleasures. It promotes approach behavior towards things that seem rewarding and pleasurable. Basal ganglia is a mass of tissues in the brain which are involved with rewards, stimulation seeking and movements. Let’s see how these two play key roles in balancing attention.

When your brain holds any information, such as a presentation at work or sensations of breathing, the neural regions that support memory are stable. To keep them this way, a kind of gate protects the working memory from all other information. When the gate is closed, you stay focused. When there is a new stimulus - a notification on the phone, the sound of a bird or any kind of thought - the gate opens itself to new information in order to update awareness. Then it closes again to keep out new information.

As long as the contents of working memory are producing moderate stimulation, a steady stream of dopamine flows to keep the gate closed. If the stimulation decreases significantly, the stream of dopamine slows down and the gate opens to allow new information to come in. To use an example, consider yourself reading an article with your Facebook opened in another browser window. Interesting information in the article maintains stable dopamine levels and keeps your focus on the article. But when the article starts to run out of interesting information, pleasure and thus dopamine levels drop, and thoughts about other articles on Facebook now appear in the working memory. Or, if a notification from a friend on Facebook appears, dopamine spikes from this fresh stimulus also pop open the gate to awareness.

This dopamine driven system interacts with the basal ganglia in order to balance the rewards of stimulation-seeking with its risks. As long as the amount of stimulation remains above a certain threshold, the basal ganglia signals your brain to get more new information - and you find yourself being annoyed in a boring conversation or lost in thoughts while meditating.

What’s your personal profile?

Each of us has a different personal profile of three requirements of attention which is shaped by temperament, life experiences, cultural backgrounds and other factors. What would you like to improve? Which of the three requirements is most challenging for you - holding information in awareness, keeping away distractions or managing the desire for stimulation? (Or some combination of these?)

Often times we are not aware of the innate challenges that we face to maintain mental balance. If we become aware then it becomes a simple question of how we want to help steady our mind.

Hope the post would help you in being more clear of your personal challenges to mindfulness :)

Reach us at info@myom.in to know more about the study.

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