When my mind wanders as I’m trying to meditate, where is it going, precisely? Often it’s making anxious noise, thinking of an item on my task list, remembering a difficult conversation, fretting about something that could go wrong. Much of this is “useless” low-grade worry and it’s clear to me that I’d rather be rid of it. Meditation makes sense to me as a process of clearing my mind of something undesirable.
But mind-wandering can take a productive form too, or a pleasing form, and this can make meditation seem almost counter-productive in its effort to relinquish something “good.”
The other morning I was composing an email in my mind. It was an important email and I was making progress! Meditation was about not composing the email. I’d succeed at not composing it for a few moments, but then a few moments later – damn! – I’d realize I’d gone back to planning what I’d write, a sentence here, a sentence there.
The morning after that, I was reminiscing about the email I had sent, and how it had started a pleasant exchange with the person at the other end. Meditation was about letting go of the reminiscence, for the moment. But the reminiscence would come back and make me smile. I’d think of what I’d said, and what they had said, and how we’d connected and exchanged jokes, and I’d laugh again, until I remembered: meditation!
On these two mornings, if I’d been doing productive work in my mind, or if I’d been enjoying a pleasant memory, was there any value in letting go of these positive things, releasing them, returning to my breathing, seeking an empty mind?
Yes, there’s value in practicing control — delaying the work or the pleasure for just a moment. To really learn what meditation can teach, we need to release our attachment to positive thoughts as well as negative ones.
On the third morning in this sequence, meditation seemed almost impossible. The anxious noise returned and I could not seem to keep my focus on breathing for more than moment. But the moment of awareness did occur, more than once — the moment when I noticed that my focus had strayed, the moment that gave me a chance to continue practicing.
I thought of it like this: today’s meditation session is a thing in my life that I’ve tried to do. It’s a thing in my life that I had high hopes for and that I aimed to do well, but it’s a thing that hasn’t turned out like I wanted. Now I’m ready to draw conclusions about how I’m bad at this thing and how it’s all gone wrong and I’ve wasted my time. Now I’m ready to say that I haven’t even been meditating at all.
But this is my chance to practice picking up the pieces. This is my chance to practice grit, resilience, stoicism, detachment, whatever you want to call it. Yes, I’ve utterly failed to keep my attention in one place for the better part of an hour, and I’m feeling more stressed out than when I first sat down, and I’m nearly convinced the effort has been counterproductive, but instead of focusing on these ideas, I’m going to focus on my next breath. I’m going to keep meditating.
And if it took an hour of mind-wandering – a stressful failure to focus – in order for me to now have one opportunity to practice recovering from that, one opportunity to habituate letting go of my attachment to a negative conclusion, one opportunity to build resilience in the safe and comfortable environment of my favorite chair at home, well, it was worth it.
We can’t always have a joyful practice where it feels like we’re making progress at every step. But we can always take whatever happens in practice and explore what the experience has to teach us.
When the pain of a failure is raw, especially when the failure occurs in the thick of chaotic life, it can be hard to take a positive perspective. But in meditation we’re just sitting in a chair breathing. Nothing so bad could have happened. So meditation is the perfect situation — a controlled, safe environment with low stakes — to take whatever happens and find the good in it.
See also: Part I