How to Train Your Attention and Tame The Wandering Mind
Do you think your mind is too busy or that you can’t sit still long enough to meditate? Maybe you feel like you’re trying too hard, expecting that you should feel a certain way (i.e., relaxed instead of stressed and agitated.)
If you’ve had any of these thoughts, you’re not alone. When you first start to meditate (and even for seasoned practitioners), your mind can feel like an out of control thought generator, leaving you frustrated and making practice a struggle. The frustration can even lead some to abandon the practice, thus robbing them of the great benefit of sticking with it.
When you first begin your mindfulness meditation journey, it is helpful to be aware of at least two common misconceptions to avoid any unnecessary struggle, namely:
1) Meditation is a “relaxation technique” and you should feel relaxed when practicing.
Though feeling relaxed and calm are often fruits of the practice, they are not the goal, and indeed it may not happen. Instead, it’s more about turning toward and being with whatever is arising in any moment, “the good, the bad and the ugly,” as Jon Kabat Zinn would say, and learning to relate to difficult moments in life with less reactivity and more ease.
2) It’s not about controlling your thoughts (i.e., getting rid of, stopping or blanking your mind.)
Instead, mindfulness practice recognizes the wandering as something that minds do often (see why this is below), so we learn to work with the mind, train it, and relate to it more wisely, rather than push away thoughts on the one hand, or get overly identified with them on the other.
How do we begin a mindfulness meditation practice?
A good place to begin meditation is to start with mindfulness of the body, such as breath awareness meditation. This meditation uses the breath as an anchor (or a primary object) to return to every time the mind wanders. This primary object for attention gives us a reference point to return to when the mind wanders away from the breath, which is bound to happen often.
Many choose the breath as an anchor because it’s convenient – portable, and readily available and it can be a pleasant place to rest your attention. However, it’s not the only anchor. For some people, the breath is not a neural or an easy place to rest the attention as it might be associated with past trauma or other experiences that make it challenging to stay with it. If this is true for you, you can pay attention to the sensation of the hands touching or feet touching the floor. Some people also like to focus on the sensations of the whole body sitting or even sounds.
This article will focus on breath awareness practice which invites the attention to connect with the sensation of the breathing; you don’t think about the breath or try to change it in any way (the way we might in yoga) but allow the attention to rest there and invite it back to the breath whenever the mind wanders. It doesn’t matter how often you do this, as each time you do it is a moment of mindfulness.
You might compare this to training a puppy. You set the puppy down on a piece of newspaper and tell it to “sit and stay,” and of course, within seconds, the puppy jumps up and starts running around, so we tell it again, firmly but kindly, “stay,” and eventually it understands what we’re asking it to do. If we weren’t kind to the puppy and instead gave it a wack every time it jumped up, it wouldn’t want to come back.
When you sit in meditation, you also want to be gentle but firm when you invite the attention back to the breath. You don’t need to give yourself a hard time when the mind wanders. Instead, you can remember that the mind’s nature to wander and bring it back to the anchor is an integral part of the practice.
As you continue to do this, the mind will slowly begin to calm and builds concentration, so that over time as your meditation practice progresses, you can begin to open up your attention to other aspects of your experience. For example, other sensations in the body, sounds, feelings, thoughts, emotions, mind states, and the ever changing flow of your experience.
The Benefits of Training Your Attention.
Some benefits of the breath awareness practice (or any practice that uses a primary object for attention) are that it helps stabilize the attention, builds greater concentration and focus, and can calm the mind over time.
Training your attention in this way can have other apparent benefits, particularly when viewed through the constant demands on our attention – we live in a world where our attention is constantly being hijacked, divided, or overstimulated. A study suggests that when we get distracted, it can take up to 23 minutes to get back on task. So, you get a sense of the benefits of this practice on your ability to be productive and efficient.
“Where your attention goes, your time goes” – Idowu Koyenikan
Also, when your mind wanders, you‘re living on autopilot; you’re not awake but unaware of your moment-to-moment experience. The more aware (mindful) you become with practice, the more in command of your attention and choices in your lives. It also has an impact on relationships. As what we put our attention on grows.
As mentioned above, the wandering mind (aka “monkey mind”) can be expected; it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. In fact, according to an oft-quoted Harvard University study, researchers Killingsworth and Gilbert found that, on average, minds wander 46.9% of the time and that “the wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
They found that the predictor of happiness is not related to what people are doing but whether they’re engaged or paying attention. So, in other words, you could be eating a piece of chocolate cake but not paying attention to it, therefore not enjoying it.
An interesting part of this study is that researchers found that when the mind wanders (i.e., when the mind is not engaged in any task), a specific network of regions in the brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN) becomes highly active. We can see the DMN light up on brain scans. And what do you think the DFM has become highly active when the mind is wandering?
The DMN becomes active doing three things:
- Thinking about the past and future
- It tends to look for problems thanks to our “negativity bias,” which is our tendency to focus on the negative.
- It creates a sense of self around those problems (i.e., the “story of me”).
Research has also revealed a correlation between a more active DMN and greater levels of perseverative thinking (rumination), depression and anxiety.
So, the next time you’re taking a shower, driving, or walking the dog and your mind is wandering, check in with yourself to see if you can identify those three aspects of the wandering mind: thinking about the past and future, looking for problems that tend to revolve around the story of me.
How does this all relate to the awareness of breath practice?
This research also showed that mindfulness meditation deactivates the brain’s default mode network in meditators, both while meditating and outside of meditation. So the more you practice (and flex this mindfulness muscle), the more you can get a reprieve from the wandering mind and its negative effects.
You might think of the awareness of breath meditation practice as weightlifting for your brain! The more you flex that mindfulness muscle, the more it grows, and the more you can reap the benefits associated with greater focus and attention and the many more benefits of mindfulness meditation.
Try this 15-minute Breath Awareness here: https://insighttimer.com/jen/guided-meditations/15-minute-awareness-of-breath.
And for a quick reference of the reasons to train your attention, see the diagram below. Not sure how to get started? Sign up for an introductory class or a mindfulness-based stress reduction program – considered the gold standard in modern mindfulness training, or have a look at our corporate programs.