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Why a Wandering Mind Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Meditating

by | Sep 18, 2020 | 0 comments

Question:

I find that my mind wanders a lot during meditation, and it’s hard not to follow my thoughts. Am I doing something wrong?

Answer:

This is a common experience, even for the most seasoned meditators. Many of us experience our minds wandering during meditation, and it can be very difficult not to follow our thoughts.  

In response to a wandering mind, many of us conclude that we aren’t meditating, or aren’t meditating correctly. This is probably the greatest source of frustration and discouragement I encounter among meditators. 

But a wandering mind is not a problem in the way most of us imagine it to be. And it doesn’t mean you can’t make progress with your meditation practice.

Think about this: The moment you realize that you have gotten absorbed in your thoughts, you’re actually no longer lost in thought. As soon as you realize  “Oh, I’ve just been lost in a daydream,” you’ve stopped being lost in a daydream. In other words, the fact that you’ve noticed it means that you’ve woken back up. You had simply slipped off into a metaphorical sleep, but now you’re back. 

So every time you realize that you’ve gotten lost in a stream of thought, you can just continue with the practice right where you left off. Just keep meditating as though you’d never gotten lost. Don’t make a problem out of it. Don’t draw any conclusions about the fact that you’ve gotten lost in thought. Don’t assume that it means “you’re not doing it right” or that you’re not taking your meditation seriously. You don’t need to do any of that. Just notice what’s happening, refocus, and keep going.

This approach is different from what a lot of us do. Onecommon response to getting lost in thought is to get overly involved in what we’re thinking about. Then we keep going down the rabbit hole. If we’re thinking about a difficult project at work, for example, we try to solve the problem before moving on. Then it goes on from there, and we end up being distracted the whole time. It’s a completely different response than simply realizing you’re lost in thought, and refocusing.  

A lot of people think that if they’ve been distracted a lot during their meditation, then they weren’t really doing it. That’s not true. Even if your practice is punctuated by periods when you weren’t focused, it doesn’t matter.  Every time you were present, you were meditating. 

Let’s pretend that we had an instrument that would allow us to scientifically measure every time you were lost in thought. And let’s say that during a 30-minute session, this instrument indicated that you were meditating for a total of 17 minutes, and for the other 13 minutes you were lost in your thoughts. That’s actually not too bad. Even though you were distracted for 13 out of 30 minutes, you were actually meditating for the other 17. And even better, every time you had the chance to re-focus and become present, you did it. You didn’t give up. That’s good. It means you didn’t actually fail at all. 

So, if you can consistently refocus each time you get lost, no matter how often it happens, you’ll find that your focus begins to improve. Every time you get lost, add a little more focus and intensity. Tell yourself, “I’m really going to stay focused and present this time.” With practice, you might be able to steadily increase the percentage of time you’re actually meditating. 

But even if you don’t, and you keep getting distracted, you’re still getting in some good, solid meditation. And, if you can approach this in the way I’m describing here, you won’t be  giving yourself any room to conclude that you’re failing. You won’t be making a problem out of it or struggling with yourself over it. You’ll be content with the fact that even though you spent some of the time lost in thought, you meditated as much as you could. 

This approach strengthens your intention, your resolve, and your confidence that you can meditate, because you simply kept going, in spite of all the distraction. You didn’t give up. And that kind of resolve is ultimately more important to your awakening than whether or not you stayed perfectly focused throughout a given meditation session.

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