With the start of the fall semester comes the renewed swing back into academic life — new information to digest, a flood of urgent assignments, long lectures and the social engagements of student life. While this shift can come with excitement and a healthy amount of academic and social stimulation, it can also be a big adjustment from a more relaxed summer schedule.
One side effect of these types of transitions can be exhaustion and trouble concentrating. Have you ever come back home after a day of classes and wanted nothing more than to just lie down? Have you found yourself unable to direct your attention towards one person speaking for an hour or more during these first few weeks of lecture? I certainly know that I have. To better prepare myself for the return back to campus in the fall, here are three strategies I’ve used to deepen my mindfulness and meditative practice so I can improve my concentration and focus to successfully tackle the semester.
Practice focused meditation on any aspect of your choosing
It’s no secret that mindfulness can have a profound impact on our ability to focus and concentrate for extended periods of time. In our ordinary lives we might find ourselves inundated by a stream of thoughts or sensations that constantly pull our attention away from whatever we ought to be focusing on. The training of attention, whether it be done through focusing on the breath, a physical sensation or a mantra, gradually leads to an enhanced ability to more “single-pointedly” focus on one element of our experience.
By carving out a small portion of our day to attend to just one anchor of attention, the energy of concentration will disperse through the activities we engage in. You’ll find it increasingly easy to return to that place of concentration with the simple reminder of the breath, the body or a mantra. Then, when in class, a meeting or a conversation, the same quality of attentiveness will arise and enable you to more effectively be present with whatever it is that necessitates attention.
Notice, without judgment, when thoughts become a distraction
Anyone who has practiced meditation and mindfulness can attest to the frequency with which our mind becomes distracted. When we try to focus, a range of stimuli can pull us away, most commonly thought. Distractive thoughts usually don’t serve any intellectual, creative, functional or intentional purpose, but rather arise on behalf of the urge to resist the current experience.
For example, daydreaming in class can be a form of escape from the boredom one might feel after having to sit through a drab lecture. Likewise, sitting for 10 or 15 minutes to focus on the sensations in our body or the breath can leave us defenseless against a range of feelings that might have been hidden by the business of work routines or engaging activities. Without any of the conventional outlets of distraction, thought becomes the primary means of avoidance and resistance to the current experience. The goal is not to be distraction free, but just to notice when the quality of thought becomes a means of distraction.
It’s up to you to discern which thoughts arise on behalf of distraction. However, know that it isn’t a failure to notice such thoughts. Self-criticism and frustration isn’t needed. On the contrary, noticing distraction is actually a form of success — the practice is working as intended!
Give yourself a break
A serious demand is placed on our minds as we enter the semester. Vast amounts of information burden our neural pathways and approaching essays and exams require the use of critical thinking, writing skills and information recall. The wheels of the mind turn all day, which can be quite useful for the functions of daily life, especially as a student. However, it also can wear us out. Just as physical rest and recovery is an important part of an athlete’s regimen, you can think of meditation as a space for mental rest and recovery.
While meditating won’t magically transform your mind into a squeaky clean blank slate, it does build a space where we don’t demand anything of our mind. Sitting without a task can actually feel deeply uncomfortable because of how often there is something to do, but steadily relaxing into a practice and routine will gradually become comfortable and second nature.