THE BLOG
09/23/2013 11:58 am ET | Updated Nov 23, 2013

How Often Are You Fully Present?

Written by Jan Cloninger

People often say they have trouble focusing their minds. It's difficult to be in the moment -- especially when we're parenting and the demands of life also need our attention.

I recently read a post by Daniel Goleman, "What Helps Kids Focus Better -- and Why They Need Help," that prompted me to write this blog. If, as adults, we are having a difficult time managing the distractions that interfere with our ability to focus, it's not surprising that our children are struggling, too.

Why do so many people have trouble focusing and being fully present to what's at hand? Our increased use of technology can be a factor, as can the pressure to multitask. It's nearly impossible to be out in public today and not hear the constant dings and rings that are alerting people to their texts, social media posts, emails and incoming calls. While the convenience and freedom that mobile technology brings has many great benefits, it also brings with it a constant stream of interruptions and distractions.

Along with technology's development, multitasking was touted as the new way to get everything done. In the beginning, it was about being able to talk on the phone while responding to emails. But now, it's evolved into doing just about anything (including walking, driving, talking, dining) while engaging with an electronic device. Yet, countless YouTube videos of people walking into fountains or falling down holes in the sidewalk while focused on their smart phones and an increase in electronic-related accident statistics show that our brains aren't wired to do multiple things at once. In fact, scientific research is showing quite the opposite: if we want to be most effective, and fully experience life, we need to develop a greater sense of focus.

For me, it wasn't multitasking that prevented me from focusing or being fully present. It was all the chatter going on inside my head. I was constantly one (or sometimes 10) steps ahead of myself; worrying about the future; developing strategies to stay on top of everything; wondering how I would get everything done; thinking about what I should be doing instead of what I wanted to do; trying to figure out what others were thinking and how I should respond to them; judging myself; wishing circumstances were different than they were; wondering if ever I could survive feeling so overwhelmed... the list of distracting thoughts went on and on and on. I was a high-strung and often strung out, Type-A person, striving to have and do it all (at the same time)!

Almost 20 years ago, I was introduced to the concept of meditation and decided to give it a try. In a relatively short amount of time, I learned to focus my mind on my breath or a saying or an object and slow the chatter in my brain. Eventually, I built up my ability to focus so that my mind was quiet most of the time, allowing me to be present to the reality of what was at hand; noticing my feelings and reactions; listening to others more intently; and creating space for creative thinking, problem-solving, a sense of peace and spontaneous joy. I now describe myself as a "recovering Type-A" who is enjoying the many benefits a focused mind can bring.

I am so grateful that I learned this process when I did because I was also able to teach my son to utilize some of the techniques when he was in elementary and middle school. By high school, he had developed an ability to focus that served him well when it came to his academic and personal development. In fact, he recently sent a note saying,

I want to thank you for instilling in me the emotional and intellectual maturity to simply be mindful of my internal dialogue. It has saved me years, and possibly a lifetime, of being bogged down by the little but constant stressors of life. And it's given me the freedom to pursue my goals in life consciously and fully focused. That's probably the greatest gift you've ever given me.

If you didn't give yourself a very high rating in response to the title of this entry, maybe it's time to consider ways in which you can develop your skills.

Then take some time to determine if this may also be an issue in your children's lives and if it is, perhaps it can be a project you can work on together. Children can be encouraged to stop periodically, take a few deep breaths and focus their attention on breathing or being still and appreciating tiny moments of wonder. Playing memory or concentration games can help increase their focusing skills, and reducing distractions (i.e. when you're reading, read -- turn off the TV, go to a quiet place in the house) introduces a helpful tool they can utilize as they get older.

As they grow into adolescence, we can introduce and/or continue any of the above. Also think about limiting the number of electronics they can engage in at one time and consider having "electronic free" times, days, or zones in your house.

And no matter your children's ages, periodically check yourself to determine what you are modeling for them.

A focused mind can improve our effectiveness, performance, and overall experience of life.

You can contact Jan at http://www.aplacetoturnto.org