Closing your eyes and focusing on breathing can be hard for those who are easily distracted. But it is possible.
By A.C. ShiltonPublished Aug. 17, 2022Updated Aug. 23, 2022
Eyes gently closed, breaths slow and steady: Meditation, at least when other people are doing it, always looks so peaceful.
But in our chronically distracted, phone-addicted world, sitting still for 10 or 20 minutes is tough and often causes your brain to pinball between errant thoughts. Meditation teachers say that you should recognize those impulses and then come back to your breath or whatever you are focused on.
But what if you can’t find your way back? What if you are just left frustrated?
“That feeling is very common,” said Dan Harris, co-author of “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” and founder of the mindfulness app Ten Percent Happier. But, he added, “distraction in meditation is not proof of failure.”
Still, it can feel discouraging in the moment, as if you’ve failed or somehow missed the point. But the benefits of mindfulness can outweigh the frustrations; even short bursts of meditation can help people become more focused, less anxious and less depressed, even those who have the most trouble focusing in daily life.
“Mindfulness helps people for a number of different reasons — including that it helps with learning how to regulate attention,” said John Mitchell, an associate professor at Duke University and an expert in mindfulness and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Much of the research on distraction and meditation comes from A.D.H.D. experts like Dr. Mitchell who have, over the past 15 years, shown that it can be especially beneficial for people with attention disorders — despite the specific challenge that sitting still represents. And the discoveries these experts have made can benefit everyone who is looking for help in becoming a more skilled meditator.
But you have to get started — and that can be the hardest part. We asked meditation teachers and clinicians for advice on how to begin a practice — and stick with it.
Failure is actually success.
The first thing to know is that you’re going to be distracted again and again and again. That may lead to some negative views about your brain. Everyone struggles with this at first, said David Austern, a clinical assistant professor in the psychiatry department at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. However, these feelings of being “bad” at meditation are often more acute for people with attention issues.
There is no such thing as being good or bad at meditation. That’s just not the point. Every time you get distracted, you start again, so noticing the distraction is actually proof of success, says Jeff Warren, a meditation teacher who has A.D.H.D. and is a co-author of “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.” “The most good-for-you thing you can do is to notice where you’re at and accept who you are,” even if that’s getting distracted every 10 seconds, he said. You are human, and you’re allowed to be human. That’s the beauty of meditation. It’s about being human and in this moment — no matter how distracted this moment is.
Another tool for fighting back against mid-meditation feelings of failure is something experts call “loving kindness meditation,” which can help you forgive yourself when your mind wanders. It involves offering words of encouragement and kindness to yourself and others as you meditate. “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be free of suffering — those are kind of the classic meditation phrases,” said Dr. Lidia Zylowska, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota and one of the first to study how meditation can benefit those with A.D.H.D.
You can also practice this kind of meditation simply by offering yourself compassion and kindness when you feel your attention starting to drift. When you catch yourself trying to remember the names of all five Spice Girls instead of meditating, feel pride and love for a brain that just wants to think about ’90s pop groups. This can develop a more supportive and kinder attitude toward your distractible mind in day-to-day life.
You need not meditate to be mindful.
Mindfulness and meditation are related, but not the same, Dr. Mitchell said. Mindfulness is the practice of being attentive and aware in any given moment. It’s noticing when your brain starts replaying the obtuse thing you said in a work meeting while you’re supposed to be paying attention to your spouse recounting his day — and then bringing your attention back to listening. Mindful meditation is taking a set period of time to actively focus on being present — often by focusing on your breath.
Dr. Zylowska frequently starts her patients out with mindfulness exercises that they can do without setting aside any additional time in their day. For example, you can brush your teeth mindfully by spending those two minutes noticing the taste of the toothpaste, the sensation of the brush on your gums or the brightness of the light in your bathroom. Since you’re (hopefully) already in the habit of brushing your teeth, you’re more likely to do the exercise.
Mindfulness exercises are also, generally, very short — which is especially helpful for the chronically distracted. One beginner exercise Dr. Zylowska recommended takes just two seconds. Every time your phone rings during the day (or you get a text or work notification), take a breath before answering. That breath will give you a moment to check in with your breathing and find a sense of calm before launching into a conversation.
Many meditation apps default to 10-, 15- or even 30-minute meditations. That’s probably too long for beginners, especially those with trouble focusing, Dr. Mitchell said.
Mr. Harris and Mr. Warren have a motto they return to often with new meditators: “One minute counts.” “Shame is a terrible motivator,” Mr. Harris said. If you’re trying to sit for 30 minutes because you feel that’s what you ought to be doing, you’re not going to stick with your practice, he said, adding, “If you find it torturous, take a smaller bite.”
Start with three to five minutes and work up from there, Mitchell said. It’s a skill you have to develop, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get.
Take your meditation to go.
“You don’t need to sit on the cushion to get the benefits of meditation,” Mr. Warren said.
Incorporating movement allows people to release energy, Dr. Mitchell said. “When people are walking, they’re engaging their body,” which can enhance their ability to focus.
Dr. Zylowska recommends walking in nature — even urban nature — if that’s an option. “Nature is such an inducer of awareness in the present moment,” she said, adding that even noticing animals like poodles and squirrels can keep us in the moment. Mr. Warren also loves activities like yoga and tai chi, which allow you to move your body, but at a pace that allows you to be mindful about what you’re doing.
Or simply count your steps or focus on matching your breath to the rhythm of your stride, Dr. Mitchell suggested.
Curiosity trumps boredom.
“It’s very normal to experience boredom during meditation,” no matter who you are, Mr. Austern said. The human brain is wired for novelty. This makes beating back the desire to check Twitter (just super quick — one little peek!) during meditation even more difficult.
“One way to beat boredom is to focus on being curious,” Dr. Austern said. To cultivate curiosity — especially curiosity in your current moment — try to notice things you’ve never noticed before. Are there bird calls you’ve never heard? How does your breath feel as it moves through your nose hairs? Do you think those hairs wave like trees in a breeze as you exhale? Sure, it’s weird, but those thoughts will keep you in the moment.
Also, it’s worth being curious about why, exactly, we want to check our phones during meditation. There are generally two reasons, Dr. Austern said. One is that our brains crave the dopamine boost of novelty. The other is that we may feel anxiety about missing a crucial email. Take a moment to note what’s driving your desire and then acknowledge the feeling and get back to being in the moment.
Dr. Zylowska finds that many of her patients don’t realize that it’s normal — expected even — to struggle with meditation and mindfulness. Having access to a mental health practitioner who is trained in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy can keep you from feeling frustrated. So too can joining a meditation group or pairing up with an accountability buddy. ADD.org lists weekly, online meditation groups for those with similar journeys to find focus.