Mindfulness for a World with a Short Attention Span

Ed: Thanks to Edge Coach, Dona Witten, PhD, ACC,  for contributing these excellent directions on how to meditate.


Long before I became a coach, I was a student of meditation and ultimately became a meditation instructor myself. Many people over the years have posed the same problem to me. ‘I want to do a mindfulness practice. People tell me it will be good for me, but I just can’t do it. I can’t sit on that darn cushion. I can’t focus.’ What I’ve come to understand over the years, both from observing my own practice and observing the practice of other is this: WE CAN ALL MEDITATE, BUT MOST OF US NOT FOR VERY LONG.

Many people who want to start meditating and developing a mindfulness practice join a group. The group typically has regularly scheduled sitting practices that range from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. After a few times sitting on the cushion with the group or at home most people give up and say, ‘I can’t do it.’ Their experiences of sitting are that most of that time was spent either squirming with irritation or drifting off to think about anything and everything that came to mind. There were a couple of seconds of just being present in the moment. But those were far and few between.

But those few seconds are really important. They are the beginning of mindfulness. They are the beginning of being totally present and aware in the moment. In total simplicity and total aliveness.

What I recommend to students who come to me with this experience is that they focus on the few seconds of clarity and calmness rather than the minutes and hours of everything else. I recommend something called NANO MINDFULNESS and MICRO MINDFULNESS.

NANO MINDFULNESS: This is 30 seconds of mindfulness. This is where most people start and actually stay for quite a while. Begin by finding a quiet place where you can sit or stand. Look out a window or at a quiet setting. Eyes open if this is possible; eyes closed if what in front of you is cluttered. Take a single deep breath. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose and then exhale slowly and deeply through your mouth. This creates an autonomic calming effect. Then just do nothing. Be present with what is in front of you. If thoughts come up just shoo them away. If you want, you can watch your breath. But the easiest thing to remember is ‘do nothing’. When you’re done, then continue with your day. I recommend doing this early in the day and then throughout the day before you engage in a task. Like right before you start your homework or start a quiz or an exam.

MICRO MINDFULNESS: Same thing. But this time for 2 minutes. Start doing this once you feel comfortable with the 30 second exercises.

So why is this important? And especially, why is it so important to everyone with a short attention span? This short exercise interrupts the speediness of the brain. Try it right now and see the effect. Our brains are perpetually racing from thing to thing. We never seem to be able to pause and reflect on what has just happened or to reflect on what we want to do next. A short mindfulness break however can short circuit this speediness and help us focus and feel more relaxed. Try it and see how it works for you. And if it works try it again, and again, and …….

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