Reading, Mindfulness and Finding Focus in the Age of Distraction

The other day, someone commented on the book I was reading – a novel in the Game of Thrones series – and added that he would so much rather follow the show on HBO. When I asked him if he has ever given the books a chance, he said that he just cannot stay focused enough to read a book.

Of course this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this. Sometimes I feel like reading a book is such a lost art nowadays, that if I’m not reading at a book store or coffee shop, some people are actually caught of guard by the sight of it. When I mention a particular book or talk about reading, a lot of my friends will make admiring comments, saying how they wish they were better about reading books. I noticed that the people that I do discuss books with the most often are some of my personal training clients, aging from 30-70 years old. It’s not uncommon, but it is definitely something worth observing. We no longer live in time when you have to write letters to keep in contact with friends, we are living in the age of digital dependence. Technology and entertainment are so easily accessible at our fingertips and it’s affecting everyone; kids at school can’t concentrate and even adults seem to notice a lowered attention span.

I don’t consider this a lost cause, however, because while I recognize that this is the age of digital dependence, I think it’s also falling alongside another, more modern Age of Enlightenment. For every person that can’t go two minutes without looking at his phone, I believe there’s another person searching for an electronic detox. There are also more and more people interested in meditation and mindfulness. And you can’t have those things when you’re heavily addicted to your phone!

How do reading and mindfulness go hand in hand and why is this so important to me? I’ll admit, when I think about how few people my age read, I picture all the Barnes and Nobles closing and books becoming obsolete and it makes me really sad. I love books. I love holding them and flipping through the pages. Reading is important to me because it develops the mind and betters one’s understanding.  Reading incites your imagination, and having an active imagination is such a powerful quality. I’ve always thought it to be an extremely effective exercise for people looking to practice mindfulness; reading pretty much forces you to be mindful! If you’re reading a novel, for example, you’re setting up the scene, visualizing all the characters and reacting to different parts… you’re very much in the moment. When I’m at my bookstore, often times people I know will see me and come say hello as I’m reading a novel. On multiple occurrences, I’ve had people tell me, “wow, you look so angry right now,” or “were you just laughing to yourself?” I think that’s so cool. I’m so invested in my book that not only am I experiencing the different emotions, but people can actually see it on my face.

Focus and concentration are like muscles, and they need to be exercised. Personally, I crave the euphoria that meditation and mindfulness provides me and I consciously seek it out every day. Sometimes, it’s in the form of yoga and meditation, but often times I find it in my other hobbies, such as reading, writing, and painting. I’ve exercised my focusing abilities enough to be truly present during those actions. About a year ago, my brother told me he wish he could read more books, but every time he started, he would get sleepy and distracted. After reading a page, he would forget what he just read and would have to go back and read it again. I told him I was willing to bet that after that, he just gave up and stopped reading, and you can’t expect change after only a couple of attempts. My advice to him was to just keep reading and to sit at a desk so he was less likely to get sleepy like when you’re on a couch or in bed. “Just keep doing it” may sound a little dubious, but like anything else, you get better the more you do it… and he reads all the time now 😉

Whenever I am trying to progress at something, I maintain this “fake it ’til I make it” mentality. If you’re not use to it, reading a book probably feels like a couple minutes of hearing your voice in your head read the sentences out load and then all of a sudden you’re wondering when’s the last time you ate and what you should make for lunch. Then you’re wondering how you could possibly be reading words off a page and be thinking something entirely different at the same time. But if you make it a habit and push past the first few challenging attempts, your mind will stop racing and you’ll find yourself actually concentrating on the content. I once read somewhere that if you’re incapable of doing a single action for thirty minutes, you’re likely to have an inadequate attention span. I figure that’s a great place to start! Set your timer and read, work on homework, clean, do anything you want for thirty minutes without any distractions. Start with something you love. If you enjoy working out, create a playlist beforehand so you don’t have to keep picking music, silence your phone and focus solely on your work out.

In a world where we’re constantly moving, talking, texting or doing something, experiencing mindfulness in my passions is something I treasure so deeply. Imagine you are talking to a new love interest of yours. You’re out to eat, engaging in rich conversation. You notice your phone is buzzing but you don’t care; you’re having such a great time and you’re really invested in the moment spent together. Now imagine channeling that same sense of presence into everything that you do. What if you approached a book or a yoga class in that same way? Not only are you exercising your mind and your focus, but I also think you’ll find the experience more enjoyable and fulfilling that way.

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