The meditation cycle

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

So here’s the thing about meditation: It’s really really simple. And you should never feel bad that you can’t seem to be rid of the mental chatter. The chatter is an essential part of the meditation, and without it you wouldn’t make any progress!

But before I get in to that, I just want you to think about strengthening a muscle at the gym. It doesn’t matter whether it’s with a free weight, a resistance band, or a complicated machine, there are two things that have to be true for you to strengthen your muscle.

First, you need some sort of resistance pulling against the muscle. That’s what the weight or band is for. Without it, you’d just be moving your body against air, and that wouldn’t make you any stronger!

Second, you have to push/pull against the resistance many times over to build up strength. It’s the repetitions that actually build the muscle, whether you’re toning, bulking or strengthening. Nothing happens with only one rep!

OK, so meditation is like an exercise for your brain. It strengthens particular mental muscles. Now, there are different forms of meditation, and they can overlay different techniques like visualisation or mantras. But fundamentally, mindfulness meditation centres on a simple cycle of focusing your attention on something (often your breath), attempting to maintaining the focus, inevitably getting caught up in a train of thought, and noticing that you’ve gotten distracted and bringing your attention back to whatever you started on. This is the fundamental meditation cycle (see diagram). And each time round the loop is like one rep with a weight in the gym.


Hopefully, a couple of things are obvious from this. For one, anyone can do it. If you have the ability to pay attention to something even for just a few seconds, you can do meditation. Secondly, that mental chatter that always seems to interrupt your focus? That’s a necessary part of the cycle, and it will always happen (if it doesn’t, check whether you have a pulse.) And it’s a good thing, because without the thoughts that bubble up and distract you, you’d have no resistance for your muscle to work against. And just like working out in the gym, the more reps you do, the stronger you get. So getting distracted by a train of thought is a good thing. The more often you do it, notice it’s happened, and regain your focus, the stronger your mental muscle is getting.

What are these mental muscles I keep going on about? Well, that’s actually quite interesting. When you focus your attention on something, various networks in your brain’s frontal cortex are working together to give you that focus, and at the same time to block out other things – sounds in the background, feelings in your body and even unrelated thoughts. It turns out there’s a particular area, called the anterior cingulate cortex, whose job it is to monitor for conflicts between what you want to focus on and where your attention actually is. It’s like a red light / green light. When you want to focus on something, say your breath, and you are successfully doing that, the anterior cingulate shines green. But when you wanted to focus on your breath and you’re actually thinking about your latest Facebook update, it shines red. When you notice it’s red, you become aware that you’re not focusing where you wanted to, and you can then renew your focus. You can see this in the diagram following the  big arrows labelled ‘Focus’. From the moment you put (or return) your focus on to your breath (or whatever you’re focussing on) to the moment you get lost in thought, the anterior cingulate is shining green, like the arrow. When you become distracted by a train of thought, the anterior cingulate goes red, and stays red until you notice it and refocus your attention.

Fortunately, brains are very good at getting better at whatever we do a lot of. So, the anterior cingulate is strengthened by repetitions of the meditation cycle. Just like a muscle, the more often you use it, the stronger it gets – effectively the brighter the light shines red or green. As it gets brighter, you notice it sooner when it changes from green to red, which means you spend less time in each repetition of the cycle lost in thought.

The muscle analogy doesn’t just end there though. Just like how hard you can work out at the gym is affected by how well you’ve slept, how well nourished you are, and how much you’ve worked the muscle already, your anterior cingulate – in fact all your brain muscles – are affected by how frazzled/stressed/sleep-deprived/etc. you are. So some days you start to meditate and it seems effortless, and you get to the end and think yes, I’m definitely getting better at this. And then the next time you meditate, your thoughts are running rampant, and you start off focusing on your breath, only to get to the end of the session and realise you spent literally the whole session lost in thought. You didn’t even manage one rep! But that’s ok. Exactly like going to the gym, it’s not about seeing an improvement from one session to the next, every session. It’s about gradually seeing an improving trend.

So don’t get frustrated that the thoughts keep coming while you’re trying to meditate. Remember that that’s normal, and in fact you need them to give you the opportunity to go round the meditation cycle and strengthen your mental muscle.

In my next post, I’ll introduce you to two of the most harmful modes of thinking that we all do, and explain how they damage our mental, and physical, health.

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