Strengthening Moment-to-Moment Awareness

A 15-minute breathing exercise to focus your attention.

If you recall my metaphor for the mind as an MP3 player, this is where we can consider mindfulness as keeping that “play” button continuously engaged. We’re not rewinding or fast-forwarding. Instead, we’re pressing the “play” button in order to be in the here and now and experience the moment-to-moment unfolding of our lives. 

Mindfulness is a very powerful tool and concept that’s important to understand. The way I’ve defined it is as a mental mode, a way of making the mind. And this is done by paying attention to present-moment experience without elaborating or telling a story about it, or having reactivity around it. Mindfulness is keeping the mind present, on “play,” and having curiosity and full engagement with what’s going on right now. 

As I’ve mentioned before, in my lab, we think about mindfulness not simply as a concept: we consider mindfulness training a cognitive training tool. To understand this more fully, we need to understand what the workout is—what the exercises are—that make it cognitive training. So today I want to review one foundational mindfulness practice with you: mindful breathing. This is what we call a focused-attention practice. 

Breathe In, Breathe Out

So, let me just describe it to you: We’ll ask you to sit in an upright, stable and alert posture, and for a period of time, we’ll do this short practice together. Of course, on your own, you can do it for whatever length of time you wish. Your job, if you will, in this practice is to pay attention to the sensations of breathing. That’s it: be very specific about how you pay attention to the breath. For the duration of this practice, pay attention to the coolness of the air moving in and out of your nostrils, the abdomen moving up or down, or some specific bodily sensations that are tied to your breathing. We’ll simply focus on that for this session. 

1. So, once you’re settled, have your eyes comfortably lowered or closed. You’re going to focus in on the sensation that’s most prominent to you that’s tied to your breathing. And that’s where I want you to really sustain your attention. You’re going to hold that as the focus for this period of time. 

2. After you’ve selected your focus and you’ve committed to maintaining your attention there, pay attention to what arises in the mind. Notice when mind-wandering occurs, and notice when your attention has moved off of your target—perhaps thoughts, sensations, or memories arise that aren’t about the breath at all—then simply return your attention back to the breath and its related sensations. There’s nothing more special to do here: just simply return the attention back to the breath. 

Let’s try this for a few moments. 

3. And in the next moment or two, feel free to open your eyes again and return your attention back to my voice. 

Now, even in that very short practice you got a sense of how attention may get a workout.

Explore session #4

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About the author

Amishi Jha

Amishi Jha is a neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Miami and author of a forthcoming book Peak Mind (2021, Harper One) on the science of attention. Her research focuses on the brain bases of attention, working memory, and mindfulness-based training. With grants from the US Department of Defense and several private foundations, her current projects investigate how to best promote resilience in high stress cohorts using contemplative/mind training techniques that strengthen the brain’s attention networks. She was selected as a Science and Public Leadership Fellow by PopTech, and serves on editorial review boards of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Frontiers in Cognitive Science, and Frontiers in Psychology.