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The Meditator’s Guide to a Distraction-Free Practice

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Meditation is a fantastic way to improve focus and concentration throughout the day. But what if you can’t focus while you’re meditating? Then consider yourself normal. “The mind was built to be distractible,” says Amishi Jha, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day. “We mind wander about 35 to 50 percent of our waking moments.”

Racing thoughts, however, aren’t the only interruptions that can impinge upon your daily practice. Whether it’s noisy neighbors, stomach gurgles, itchy skin, or blaring horns outside your window, distractions are everywhere.

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If you’re seeking a more peaceful and effective practice, these 5 expert tips can help calm the internal—and external—noise.

Time it right. A few quiet minutes of morning meditation are a great way to ground yourself before a busy day. But morning isn’t the ideal time for everyone. “For some people, meditating in the morning will create many distractions because they’re busy thinking about everything they need to accomplish during the day ahead,” says Jonathan Lehmann, a meditation instructor with Insight Timer and creator of The Happiness Cheatsheets. If that sounds familiar, consider meditating after you’ve checked off a few boxes on your to-do list or perhaps in the afternoon or evening.  

Pre prep. Creating a calm, serene space can go a long way toward minimizing distractions. “If you live with other people, let them know that you’ll be taking some time to meditate and that you’ll be unavailable for a while,” advises Lehmann. You may also want to dress for the occasion by wearing comfy clothes. Then, take a minute to set your thermostat so that it’s not too hot or too cold. If digestive sensations or sounds are an issue, consider meditating on an empty stomach or before drinking digestion-stimulating coffee or tea.

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Find the right position. You might have heard that the best way to practice is sitting cross-legged on the floor. Not if it’s torture for your back or knees. “The ideal position is one where you’re both alert and relaxed, so it helps to be upright,” says Lehmann. “But you also don’t want to be too stiff, so finding the right cushion or using a meditation bench can help.”

Be mindful. “It’s natural to want to push distracting thoughts out of your head but attempting to fight or ignore distractions is unlikely to be fruitful,” says Jha. “And it’s not part of mindfulness meditation, which aims to cultivate attention to the present moment experience without elaborating or reacting.” Instead of seeking to banish intrusive thoughts, briefly acknowledge the interruption and then redirect your focus back to your practice.

Enlist an anchor. An anchor is a point of focus where you can direct your attention. For example, the sensation of your breath flowing in and out of your nose, the movement of your belly when you inhale and exhale, or the sound of a flickering candle. Next time you can’t stop thinking about that big deadline or how you have to pick up the kids from school in 20 minutes, don’t stress about it. Simply bring your attention back to your anchor, says Lehmann.

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Finally, try to think about distractions from a fresh perspective. “Distractions are part of the exercise,” says Lehmann. “The whole process of meditation is to observe these thoughts without letting our attention get caught up in them.” 

Jha agrees. “When you notice that your mind is wandering, see it as a win instead of a failure,” she says. “You’ll never be able to get back on track if you don’t know when you’re off track.”

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