Have you noticed how often your mind wanders when you try mindfulness meditation? If you are new to this, that can be discouraging. Here is what to do about it.
The number one complaint I hear from those who have given up on meditation is that they cannot stop their mind from wandering. Like a curious toddler who has just learned how to run, the mind can zip off with amazing speed and stealth. Often you will never notice it has slipped away until minutes later when you finally realize it and return to your breath awareness.
Do not judge yourself, scold yourself, or think yourself a failure at meditation when this happens. Practising mindfulness meditation is a wonderful way to discover just how much your mind is a buzzing beehive.
Understand that it is the nature of mind to wander. The mind is a problem-solving tool. And where there are no immediate problems to solve, the mind is happy to make one up. And whatever problem it makes up will often reflect an aspect of what you want to work on about yourself.
So, when you notice the mind wandering during meditation, smile to yourself. Remember that you are carrying goodwill for yourself in meditation. Notice the thinking or ruminating, and label it “thinking.” And move back to the breath.
After enough episodes of this, you may start to notice patterns in the detours your mind makes. Because you are gazing down on your mind from the Golden Gallery of mindfulness, you are not judging these detours. You are stepping back from your mind to see what your mind habitually does. When you do not step back from the mind, it pulls you into the content of its wandering. You are back in the winding streets without the benefit of the bird’s eye view.
The difference between the two places (inside or outside the mind) is the difference between who you think you are in mind-memory, and who you really are in awareness.
The mind is the repository of all stories about yourself that you have fashioned from all its memories. Remove all those memories and you would not know who you are.
Does that sound alarming? It would be a terrifying experience. And yet even then there would be a somebody, a “you.” There would still be the original awareness. Awareness without the “filter” of all those memories.
During mindfulness meditation, you are building the skill to distinguish between you as awareness (connected to the present moment), and you as memory (connected to “the past”).
Every time your mind wanders during meditation, you can notice this difference. That is why you do not want to become discouraged by how often your mind wanders. It is the opportunity to notice how things shift when you go from being lost in your thoughts, to being fully aware and connected to Now. That is the difference between believing you are your stories and knowing that you are really awareness. You are awareness of those stories, as well as awareness of whatever you are experiencing.
What to do with the persistently chattering mind? What to do with repeated, intrusive thoughts?
First, the content of thought, especially intrusive thought, is best brought to psychotherapy, where you can process it.
Second, between therapy sessions, begin to see your mind, and those thoughts, as made up of parts, or members. The American teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff), calls this the “Committee of the Mind.” That committee has all sort of opinions, often conflicting, about how you should do this or that. Whether you are doing it right. Whether you are doing anything right. What happiness is or is not. Why you should think about dinner plans now, rather than after, meditation. And so on.
The Committee is partly responsible for forming your dream of what reality is. And it really is a dream because it is entirely mental activity. Connecting to the here-and-now in awareness is the process of waking up from the dream as often as you can. And when the mind is a buzzing beehive, it is more than enough at first to let go of the buzzing. Label it all as “thought.” The mind doing its thing. Pulling yourself out of the river of thinking and watching it flow by from the bank.
This is challenging. We are accustomed to living entirely in the doing mode and looking for as much control and certainty as we can grab. And yet, certainty is an illusion, and everything is in flux. So, with meditation, we are cultivating our ability be comfortable with that uncertainty.
To tame the stubborn, certainty-craving mind, you want to bring three intentions to meditation:
1. Be alert: if you find yourself constantly falling asleep when you meditate, note what your body is telling you. Otherwise, meditation is not always about relaxation. It is certainly not about falling asleep. It is about falling awake. Bring an alertness to what is happening in your mind, and in your body, through the technique I outlined in my earlier blog post.
2. Sticking to it: you are not here to pass the time or escape from anything, although the mind will be tempted to make it about just that. You are not sitting for fifteen minutes to tune out or drop out. Commit yourself to the exercise with positive energy and a sense of wanting to do good for yourself.
3. Remembering: mindfulness is a remembering practice. You are remembering to be mindful. You are remembering to stay with the breath. When the mind has wandered off, remember to come back. The more often you remember to be mindful, the less you forget to be mindful.
The more you practice mindfulness meditation in this way, the more you will learn what works and what does not. Part of growing self awareness involves developing your ability to perceive what is skillful and what is unskillful in thought and in action. That begins in mindfulness meditation, where you begin to learn what is skillful and unskillful in practice.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, bring “beginner’s mind” to every sitting. That is the ability to be open, curious, humble, and non-judging about what you notice arising as you sit. That is what helps you to perceive what is skillful outside of meditation and helps you to become skillful at being habitually mindful in everyday life.
There is so much more to write about this, of course. So, it is no surprise that there are many books and articles about meditation, written from different angles, as well as online resources and apps. Here are four sources which might be of help:
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Hyperion Books, 1994)
Meditation: The Simple and Practical Way to Begin Meditating by Patrick J. Harbula (St. Martin’s, 2019)
Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield (Sounds True, 2004)
Guided Meditation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu https://youtu.be/aDuLn-Kj93c
In my therapy practice, mindfulness is a tool for helping grow self-awareness. But it is only part of the broader process of fostering self-awareness and understanding, and of shifting how you relate to yourself. You may have been considering engaging in that process recently. And if you have, I invite you to reach out and contact me through the links below.
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