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Deep Work: How Meditation Helps With Concentration?

One of my ongoing goals has been to improve my mindfulness and concentration.
Which will greatly help in my ability to enter the state for deep work.
Meditation has been a cornerstone towards becoming a mindful and focused person for myself.

Meditation trains 2 very important attributes of the mind:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Concentration

Mindfulness is the meta-level awareness of where your concentration is pointed towards.
It is responsible for being aware whenever your concentration drifts off.
It is being aware of what you are being aware of.

Concentration is the act of cutting out the registration of all other stimuli from your mind.
Your mind narrows down its awareness on a particular object, thought, emotion, etc.

I found at least for myself that sometimes forcing yourself to concentrate works.
However, it is highly unstable, meaning that you are not aware when your concentration drifts.
Once it drifts, you unknowingly place your focus on another thought, emotion, task, object, etc.

Mindfulness is what brings your concentration back every time it drifts away.
They go hand-in-hand because it is challenging to be mindful without a certain level of concentration.

Article on Mindfulness Versus Concentration

Example with Candlelight Meditation

Candlelight meditation is when you direct your vision at a candle flame and focus on the flame.
You fill your mind with the image of the candle flame.
Bring your focus back to this image every time your mind drifts away to focus on something else whether a thought or object.

You see because your brain processes the signals sent via your eyes' optic nerves.
As you meditate deeper, your brain stops processing these signals.

Fixing your eyes on the flame provides no new information to the brain.
Your peripheral vision will start to fade from your vision completely.

Personally, I have experimented with different types of meditation over the years.
Focusing on breath, an object like door knobs, emotions, etc.
Candlelight meditation allows me to go deepest and longest.
I enter a state where it is no longer a struggle to continue.

More on Candlelight Meditation

Thoughts About Meditation

Keen to hear about everyone's thoughts on meditation!

I clarified with my friend.
She told me that it is good to share practices about meditation.

But not your experiences during your meditation like what comes into your mind and your vivid perceptions.
That will cause attachment.
It will lessen your effectiveness of your meditation practice.

What kind of meditation works best for you?

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano

Interesting.

One of the things about meditation is that it's not easy to measure and understand its impact, so I'm very glad to see how it's helping others.

In my experience, it helps, and also helps with general life satisfaction.
But I can't truly put my finger on it, and I consider myself a poor practitioner and a long-time beginner.

I enter a state where it is no longer a struggle to continue.

Wow, that sounds quite advanced.

That will cause attachment.

I'm not sure I get this.
In the sense that you will get into the meditation looking for something specific, and that by looking for it, you're less likely to find it?

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

I think we make it more complicated than it is. To me, meditation is a technique to calm your mind. I sit on a chair, I close my eyes, I breath and I focus on the breathing. It's especially useful when we are stressed or confused. It brings us back to us.

I'll give an example: transcendental meditation. I went to one of their free seminar. They asked for something around $1000-2000 to learn their techniques, I don't remember exactly. To me, it smelled SCAM! So I went back home and did some google research. Here is the secret: they make you choose a mantra and then you repeat it on a loop. That's it. Tadaaa. BTW (Imaginary generosity), you owe me $1000.

Matthew, I know that's not what you're saying, this is an example to show that meditation is what you make of it. That being said, after reading with more care, you candle light technique looks appealing.

That will cause attachment.

I don't understand either.

But I can't truly put my finger on it, and I consider myself a poor practitioner and a long-time beginner.

That's what's so cool about meditation: it does not matter. You always get benefits from it. I'm not denying there are levels to it like anything else. I view it more like fresh water: it satisfies your inner thirst.

One of the things about meditation is that it's not easy to measure and understand its impact, so I'm very glad to see how it's helping others.

I cannot seem to find the article on MRI scans of the brain of monks.
When it comes to the ability to focus solely on something, there was a study on how long an experienced meditator could hold a thought in his mind compared to the average person.

I found another article about measuring how long experienced meditators can focus on an object vs an ordinary person.

Meditating monks focus the mind

Personally, I have not measured the effects quantitatively.
Maybe I could.
At the same time, I aim to keep the practice simple.

That will cause attachment.

I'm not sure I get this.
In the sense that you will get into the meditation looking for something specific, and that by looking for it, you're less likely to find it?

When you share what you experience in detail during meditation, you associate those experiences with another person or discussion.
Generally, we have some sort of emotional/mental attachment to our partners, family, friends, and also other humans.
By associating these experiences with these emotional attachments, it is harder to let go during meditation and become a neutral observer of thoughts.
As a result, you may inevitably cling on to certain thoughts or emotions during your practice because of your sharing with others.

Why do we share emotions, thoughts, and experiences with others?
We want to connect emotionally in some way or at least share what you think in a way that the other can understand.
This is in a sense a form of emotional attachment.
Which detracts from being objective, neutral, and free from any strings attached during your meditation practice.

Sharing the rituals or about your practice habits like breath or candlelight is okay because it does not take place in the mind.

Maybe psychopaths could chime in here to share their experiences.

How I Understand Whether My Practice Is Effective

Meditation is a state.
When you enter deep work mode, that is akin to meditation.
You are able to keep your concentration narrowly on that task.
That is what happens during a meditation practice session.

When my mental state is similar during tasks as that during my meditation session, I consider my practice to be effective.
For example, when writing this post, my attention focuses on the current thought required to write the next sentence.
I am aware of other thoughts required to write this post but am focusing on a single thought at the moment.

When my focus is all over the place, jumping from one thought to another during a single minute.
I can tell that I am not in a meditative state.

In short, your meditation practice is not effective

  1. when you feel your ability to focus on tasks is not getting better (lack of concentration), and
  2. when you get distracted but take a long time to realise you have been distracted (lack of mindfulness)

If you can be a neutral, acute observer of your thoughts & emotions and freely choose which to entertain & focus on, your meditation practice is working.
Personally, I still have a long way to go.

Quantitative Aspect

I am using Rescuetime to determine how well I focus on tasks in general.
This is through measuring how much time I spent on tasks and websites that I consider distracting.

I am aware that spending lots of time on one task not necessarily means that you are focused on that task.
Additionally, I have incorporated other routines to improve my focus like cafe hopping, so there are lots of confounding variables.

What Made the Leap from Being Ineffective to Effective During My Meditation Practice?

Note that all this exploration took place over a few years.
I believe that it could be greatly shortened if I had an effective mentor.
I never went to any of the paid courses because they did not resonate with me.

How I Practice

Initially, I explored practising meditation through focusing on breath.
This year, I explored focusing on the flame of candles, and it worked really well for me.
I can go into a much deeper state from here.

Length of Session

Initially, I thought that I could get benefits from 5-minute sessions of meditation.
It did. 5 minutes is better than nothing.

Then I went to 20-minute sessions but was not regular with the practice.
Effects for my focus were good.

Then I went to daily 20-minute sessions.
I started to feel my meditative state from these sessions carry over slightly to my day-to-day tasks.

The leap began when I started candlelight meditations because it resonated with me.
I started to commit to daily 1-hour sessions with candlelight meditation last month.
That was when I started reaping lots of the benefits of meditation.
Being able to bring the meditative state into my day-to-day tasks.

I stopped for a while. I should continue because consistency is important.

 

NOTE: I may be doing some of this wrong. If anyone is more experienced than me, please jump in and share your experiences.
It is important to get this right as it will save people a lot of time.

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano

Yeah, the act of meditating is indeed simple.

What's not so clear to me is how strongly it translates helps with things such as:

  • Concentration
  • Ease of entering "deep work", as Matthew talked about
  • Emotional self-control
  • Life contentedness

I'll give an example: transcendental meditation. I went to one of their free seminar. They asked for something around $1000-2000 to learn their techniques, I don't remember exactly. To me, it smelled SCAM! So I went back home and did some google research. Here is the secret: they make you choose a mantra and then you repeat it on a loop. That's it. Tadaaa. BTW (Imaginary generosity), you owe me $1000.

Self-development in general has a high percentage of rip-offs/scams, but probably the highest percentage is around all the distortions of meditation, including law of attraction, and self-healing (see Joe Dispenza as an example).

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

To me, meditation helps with everything and the things you specified especially. You have more control over your mind generally speaking. So everything you do with your mind is easier. That's my experience. One of the biggest advantages of meditation is that it gives time before responding. It creates time within time. Let's say someone insulted you. Option 1 no meditation: reaction. Option 2 meditation: ok what am I going to respond? This, this or this. Ok this.

Joe Dispenza

I bought his book but could not read it. There was too much gibberish. Just flipping through the pages was not making we want to read it. There could be some golden nuggets in his stuff, though. I don't know.

I think these are good signs one will get lots of benefits from it:

  1. Hyperactive mind (you know who you are)
  2. Anxiety, Stress, Anger, Sadness, etc. any bottled emotions from recent or not-so-recent past
  3. Traumas/hurt to heal from
  4. Need for clarity in one's life.

To me, these are where meditation had the most benefits. Meditation is like brushing your teeth for your mind. That's how I view it.

Transitioned has reacted to this post.
Transitioned

Yeah, the act of meditating is indeed simple.

Maybe we can strip away all the marketing perceptions through a simple definition.
It is true that marketers are excellent at making money from the simplest things in life.

I propose this way of looking at meditation

The act of meditation is practising how to control your focus.

The other benefits you mentioned come about because, when we are able to discern what we focus on better, we can

  1. Having the freedom of where to place your focus - for me, this is one of the biggest benefits
  2. Focus longer on what you want to focus on
  3. Separate emotions from events - we choose what to focus on during the event; emotion, another person's emotion, happenings, etc
  4. Separate this moment from the past

In the past, when I remind myself of emotional memories, I conflated everything together.
My emotions, the actions of the other people, things moving in the background, etc.
What happens is that I subconsciously directly associate a person's actions with my emotions.

Additionally, because of these past memories, I wrongly draw patterns of my thoughts and emotions at future moments with these memories.
If we do this analytically and with critical thinking, it is excellent. We learn from history.
Subconsciously, that is where the biases, false conclusions, and false analogies come in.

Candlelight, breathing, guided meditations, etc are all just ways of practising how to control your focus.
We can do this in our day-to-day tasks.
But the above methods of practising are designed specifically to hone this skill.
It is deliberate practice in a sense.
The same reason why basketball players don't just keep playing basketball matches.
They have specific drills to practise specific skills.

This is one way I see life:
"Life is a series of where we choose to place our focus on."

Personally, I can only speak for myself because what happens in the mind is a very personal thing.
At the same time, I believe we have major similarities and can benefit from exploring this topic together.

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano

I was listening to Atomic Habits.
There is another way of looking at meditation.
It is a way of breaking bad habits and forming good habits in the mind.

Looking into thinking habits seems to have parallels with cognitive-behavioural techniques (CBT).
Both include recurring thinking patterns and how to morph these thoughts into another way of thinking regularly.

Let's use the Cue, Craving, Response, Reward cycle to illustrate this point.

How You Get Distracted By Thoughts?
Some people call this internal distraction as opposed to external distraction which are noises, smells, etc.

Cue: Thought
Craving: Fear of missing out on an important thought, curiosity of the thought
Response: Focus on the thought
Reward: Satisfaction from understanding and evaluating the thought

What the act of meditating does is break the step from craving to response.
When a thought comes into your mind, you crave to entertain the thought.
Our default behaviour since young is to entertain the thought because it is satisfying to entertain our thoughts.

I enter a state where it is no longer a struggle to continue.

Wow, that sounds quite advanced.

What I realised from Atomic Habits is that I have formed strong habits. That's all.
Let me explain this in 2 phases.
It is quite challenging to explain what happens in the mind exactly, so here is a rough description.

Phase 1: Entering the Meditative State

Cue: Getting out the candle, lighting the candle, smelling the scent - a combination of cues is effective to kick start a habit
Craving: Wanting to feel relaxed
Response: Sitting down and staring at the candle flame
Reward: Entering a more relaxed, calm state

Phase 2: Relaxed State - Image of Flame Fills My Mind

Cue: Image of Flame and Surrounding Thoughts
Craving: Going deeper into the surreal state
Response: Continue focusing on the flame and ignore thoughts
Reward: Enjoy the deeper surreal state of mind

We can look at this another way.
I get punished when I focus on my thoughts because I exit the meditative state.
This state becomes easier and easier when the anticipation of the reward of ignoring your thought feels better than that of entertaining your thought.

It is possible to enter an extremely surreal state of mind that the cycle of cue, craving, response, and reward disappears.

How This Habit of Training the Mind Goes Into Daily Life?

This is an educated guess.
Still thinking and exploring.

DEEP WORK

You need 2 cues.

The first cue is for entering the meditative, focused state.
For me, this can be a cafe.
Cafes are awesome because you are leveraging the whole stimulus of the cafe as a cue to start working.
I find starting a task in a cafe inherently enjoyable.
The novelty of doing something new at a new place.

The second cue is the combination of your task at hand and the ambient surroundings of the cafe.
The ambient surroundings of the cafe act as the anchor.
Your mind finds the anticipation of staying in the task more motivating than that of focusing on any particular ambient noise.
The diffuse nature of the ambient noise makes pinpointing any particular stimuli challenging for your mind.
At the same time, the activity of the ambient noise is high enough to overwhelm the other background thoughts in your mind.

EMOTIONAL SELF-CONTROL

During meditation, we train to have the freedom of whether to focus on thoughts or emotions.
This is through breaking the bad habit of automatically focusing on any thought or emotion that pops up in your head.
As a result, whenever a thought or emotion pops up in your head in day-to-day life, the thought or emotion still appears in your mind, but you have broken the bad habit of automatically focusing on it. By not focusing on a thought or emotion, you do not allow it to overwhelm or fill up your mind.

For example, when I get disrespected, what happens is that a thought in my mind registers being disrespected.
There are associated emotions of anxiety, fear, and anger with this thought.
Before the practice of meditation, I would automatically focus on these negative emotions and let these emotions overwhelm me.
Now I can freely choose to focus on the thought to counter-act the power move.
At the same time, I do not give too much focus on these negative emotions.

 

NOTE:
I agree with Lucio that meditation needs more scientific ground.
A lot of the above is based on personal experience and drawing from concepts in books and other teachings.
I also write my thoughts when I am not completely sure because other people's perspectives may steer me in a better direction to explore.

Relevant Books I Read and Plan To Read

Psychology and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Books

  1. How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable
  2. How to Keep People from Pushing Your Buttons

Peak Performance and Deep Work Books

  1. Atomic Habits
  2. Deep Work
  3. Ultralearning: 9 Steps to Mastery (Scott Young)
  4. Peak