Last month’s poll: Can practising mindfulness meditation help you stay focused?

The following article was taken from a conversation with Janet Murchison, occupational therapist, and Dr. Norm Farb, Baycrest post-doctoral fellow.

To practise mindfulness walk slowly, notice the contact of the feet on the ground, the interplay between muscles in the front and back of the leg, the slow shift of balance from one leg to another.

As we grow older many of us notice that it can become harder to concentrate on the task at hand. For seniors, life transitions can pose their own set of challenges, preoccupying thoughts with worries, stressors and anxieties.

The prospects of changing health, ability to manage day- to-day life, roles, responsibilities and social circumstances are real and valid concerns for older adults. The problem is, at some point all of these concerns and worries can themselves become the biggest contributor to a person’s stress!

If we could let go of some of our worries, it would give us the freedom to appreciate what we have, at this present moment, right now.

We all have this innate capacity to pay attention to the world around us, but generally it is not a skill that we have actively cultivated. Mindfulness meditation provides us with this opportunity. It involves systematic training in paying attention to present moment experience with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance.

Mindfulness involves paying attention to what’s taking place right here, right now

The idea of mindfulness is to focus your attention on what’s taking place right here, right now. While this may seem like a simple task, it can be difficult to do: how many of us have had the experience of going to another room and forgetting why we went there?

Indeed, one of the first things that people notice when practising mindfulness is just how often they slip into absent-mindedness or automatic thinking. With practise, a person may learn to quickly notice when they have become distracted, refocusing attention on the task at hand. By anchoring awareness in the body, such as the feeling in the soles of one’s feet when walking, it is possible to maintain a connection to the present moment, preventing the mind from wandering.

At Baycrest, we have begun looking at mindfulness training for seniors. In our work as mindfulness instructors, we have begun to explore these issues in a pilot research program through the Mood and Related Disorders Clinic. We are delighted to find that these mindfulness practises seem to hold a great deal of promise for helping seniors to deal with the stressors they encounter. Many of the participants reported benefits such as feeling less worried, less rushed and better able to cope. One participant commented, “The program was a gift. I never knew that daily life could be therapeutic.”

It is never too late to come to the present moment with greater kindness and acceptance, and learn to let go of one’s stress. It does however take diligent practise – the participants had to do meditations everyday over the eight-week course, meeting once a week for group sessions – but the reward may just be a calmer more enjoyable life.

Some tips for practising mindfulness meditation:

Formal practises:

  • Body scan – systematic training to follow the body sensations from the toes to top of head;
  • Sitting meditation – sitting down with the intention to meditate. You can choose a specific focus i.e. the breath, body sensation, sound, or thinking;
  • Walking meditation – walking slowly, noticing the contact of the feet on the ground, the interplay between muscles in the front and back of the leg, the slow shift of balance from one leg to another.
  • Attitude – in all exercises, attempting to bring a sense of kindness and acceptance to one’s experiences instead of needing to control or explain them.

Informal practises:

  • Any daily activity that you’re doing, just pay attention to what you’re doing when you’re doing it. For example, if you’re brushing your teeth, pay attention to what it’s like to squeeze the tube, tasting the toothpaste, the movement of your hand, bristles on your teeth, the whole sensory experience.

Ms. Murchison is an occupational therapist in Neuropsychology and Cognitive Health in the Brain Health Centre – Mood and Related Disorders Clinic. Dr. Farb is the Women of Baycrest Postdoctoral Fellow, Rotman Research Institute.

Related articles & links