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Guided Practice: Focus on Breath

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In U.S. workplaces, distractions account for $650 billion in losses per year. With so many demands on our time and an overabundance of ways to communicate, it's easy to lose focus on the job.

Center Collaborator, Clinical Psychologist and Workplace Facilitator Shilagh Mirgain shares a simple practice dedicated to cultivating focus. Give it a try before you begin your workday or whenever you're feeling the need to take a break and refocus.

Audio courtesy of Shilagh Mirgain and UW Cultivating Well-Being: A Neuroscientific Approach

Shilagh Mirgain

Guided Practice on Focus

Led by Shilagh Mirgain

In this practice, you'll be using the breath as an anchor to train yourself in attention. This is not an exercise in breathing, but in shifting your attention to the breath. When your mind wanders as it will because this is what minds do, simply notice this and bring your attention back to the breath gently without judgment.

With this practice, you’ll have an opportunity to watch your mind and better understand and notice what is pulling you, hooking you, and draining your attention. You’ll practice refocusing your mind back on the breath, which we’ll use as an anchor to detach from automatic thoughts and return to the present moment. I invite you to settle into a comfortable position and allow your eyes to close or keep them open with a softened gaze.

Begin by taking several long slow deep breaths breathing in fully and exhaling fully. Breathe in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth. Allow your breath to find its own natural rhythm. Bring your full attention to noticing each in-breath as it enters your nostrils, travels down to your lungs and causes your belly to expand. And notice each out-breath as your belly contracts and air moves up through the lungs back up through the nostrils or mouth. Invite your full attention to flow with your breath.

Tree ring illustration by whilerests via iStockPhoto

Notice how the inhale is different from the exhale. You may experience the air as cool as it enters your nose and warm as you exhale. As you turn more deeply inward, begin to let go of noises around you. If you are distracted by sounds in the room, simply notice them and then bring your intention back to your breath. Simply breathe as you breathe, not striving to change anything about your breath. Don't try to control your breath in any way. Observe and accept your experience in this moment without judgment, paying attention to each inhale and exhale.

If your mind wanders to thoughts, plans or problems, simply notice your mind wandering. Watch the thought as it enters your awareness as neutrally as possible. Then practice letting go of the thought as if it were a leaf floating down a stream. In your mind, place each thought that arises on a leaf and watch as it floats out of sight down the stream. Then bring your attention back to your breath. Your breath is an anchor you can return to over and over again when you become distracted by thoughts.

Notice when your mind has wandered. Observe the types of thoughts that hook or distract you. Noticing is the richest part of learning. With this knowledge you can strengthen your ability to detach from thoughts and mindfully focus your awareness back on the qualities of your breath. Practice coming home to the breath with your full attention. Watching the gentle rise of your stomach on the in-breath and the relaxing, letting go on the out-breath. Allow yourself to be completely with your breath as it flows in and out.

You might become distracted by pain or discomfort in the body or twitching or itching sensations that draw your attention away from the breath. You may also notice feelings arising, perhaps sadness or happiness, frustration or contentment. Acknowledge whatever comes up including thoughts or stories about your experience. Simply notice where your mind went without judging it, pushing it away, clinging to it or wishing it were different and simply refocus your mind and guide your attention back to your breath.

Breathe in and breathe out. Follow the air all the way in and all the way out. Mindfully be present moment by moment with your breath. If your mind wanders away from your breath, just notice without judging it – be it a thought, emotion, or sensation that hooks your attention and gently guide your awareness back to your breathing.

As this practice comes to an end, slowly allow your attention to expand and notice your entire body and then beyond your body to the room you are in. When you're ready, open your eyes and come back fully alert and awake. The breath is always with you as a refocusing tool to bring you back to the present moment. Set your intention to use this practice throughout your day to help cultivate and strengthen attention.

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