In my early experiences with meditation, I found it frustrating that my mind would wander.
The “goal” of meditation, so I thought, was a calm, restful, empty mind; a wandering, busy mind was the opposite of what I hoped to achieve.
It was no consolation to be told that mind-wandering was perfectly OK, natural, and par for the course. This reassurance seemed like putting a happy face on failure. And the idea that meditation should have no “goal” – that it’s not something you can fail or succeed at – didn’t help me either, because we live in a goal-oriented world. Why would I dedicate hours to doing something without expecting or wanting any specific benefit?
In the years since my first attempts, I have not relinquished all traces of linear, results-oriented thinking from my approach to meditation: I still have a goal in mind. The key has been to reframe the goal, and here’s the reframing that works for me:
When I meditate, I’m not trying to achieve perfect calm. I’m just trying to make my mind a little calmer than when I started. I’m trying to make a small difference. That’s the reframed goal.
And when you think of it, the ability to make a subtle, positive change in one’s own condition — without the aid of anything external to the self — is a remarkable ability. Take a person who’s full of worries and concerns and give them 20 minutes to sit alone in silence. It’s quite possible they’ll come away feeling worse, because the worries might echo and magnify in their mind throughout those 20 minutes. The skill of self-calming, even if it operates in small degrees, is a superpower.
Start in an agitated state, take 20 minutes of silence, and emerge a little bit more relaxed? It is far from assured that this relaxation will occur. If you know how to coax it into occurring, that’s really useful.
The idea of meditation is if I’m having 10 anxious thoughts a minute and I can nudge that down to 9, I’m better off, so it’s good to practice the nudging. Ditto if I’m having 100 and I can nudge it down to 99. What matters is the direction I’m moving in. Am I becoming a little calmer relative to where I began? Success.
But what if I sit down to meditate, aiming to move my mind in a direction from active to calm, restless to restful, just a little bit – and even that little bit proves elusive? What if I don’t feel better at all — have I failed?
Of course, when I meditate, I’m practicing a skill. The true goal is to strengthen that skill rather than to achieve a specific outcome from that skill in my present attempt at using it. When we make a long-term investment in a skill we have to accept fluctuating outcomes as we apply the skill day to day. The most important thing is to maintain the investment.
Mind-wandering is only frustrating when you realize it has happened. As your mind is following tangents here and there, you might feel troubled by the content of a tangent, but you’re not troubled about mind-wandering because you’re not even aware that it’s happening. You’re oblivious. The frustration comes in the return to awareness, when you notice that your focus has strayed: “Oh! I’ve been thinking about bills for the past 5 minutes!” or “Oh! I’ve been imagining a conversation with the dentist!”
But this realization – this “Oh!” — this meta-cognitive interrupt – is the very thing that allows you to keep practicing. This interrupt – this act of noticing that your mind has wandered – is the gift that allows you to return to your point of focus: your breathing or mantra.
You couldn’t meditate without these interrupts – mind-wandering would then be unstoppable. So these interrupts are precious – you want to cultivate them. It’s actually good to have some mind-wandering to work with, so you can practice experiencing and valuing these interrupts, or off-ramps, or escape hatches from endless thought.
If you feel frustrated when you notice that your mind has wandered, see if you can also feel thankful that you noticed the wandering: the digression was curtailed — lucky! You were given a path out of the wilderness; now you can return to the focal point.
At the moment of awareness, you might think “Oh! I’ve wasted 10 minutes. Meditation isn’t working for me.” But you can also think, “Oh! A chance to refocus. Good fortune! I’ll take it.”
Cultivating that thankful response to the interrupt – that’s meditation.
When you meditate, you can practice releasing your attachment to regret — starting with regret for mind-wandering and the time it consumes — and you can practice accepting every opportunity for recovery that comes your way.
When your mind wanders, your mind is revealing its power — the power to imagine, hypothesize, and reason. You can learn to acknowledge that power without letting it dominate you.
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