Mindfulness and My Attention Mini-Miracle

When I was 19-years-old I left college to do a five-month meditation retreat. For 152 days and nights, I did essentially nothing but notice. I noticed the breath as it entered and left the lungs. I noticed sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations. I noticed the river of thoughts and feelings.

Up until that point I had been a middling student. Good enough, but not great. Always running late on assignments. Slopping papers together at the last minute. A frustration to my high school teachers and a non-entity in college.

But something happened during that five months of noticing. When I came back to college, I was suddenly a budding scholar. My GPA went from a 3.1 to a 3.9 within a single semester. And it never fell below that point again.

 Image by Susa Talan

Image by Susa Talan

So what happened?

In short, I learned to focus. I went from being distractible, a little anxious, and highly ruminative, to being one of those kids who can sit in a library carrel for five hours reading James Joyce without a bathroom break.

There is, of course, research to support this attention mini-miracle. For instance, way back in 2009, two British scientists published a paper in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, in which they found that, lo and behold, meditators outperformed non-meditators in a range of attention tasks.

More recently, studies have shown that beginners trained in mindfulness over eight weeks show improved allocation of cognitive resources, that meditation training increases brain efficiency in attention tasks, and that mindfulness beats out relaxation training and other interventions for developing sustained focus.

Mindfulness has also been shown to reduce cognitive rigidity, boost cognitive processing, increase brain efficiency, and contribute to a host of other other salutary outcomes.

All this to say: if you're struggling to focus, mindfulness might be just the ticket. Or if you'd like more cognitive flexibility, or improved allocation of cognitive resources, or better brain efficiency, or any other number of brainy outcomes . . . well, you get the idea.