The Wandering Mind
As you develop a practice, it may be difficult to sit with a wandering mind. At this early stage, simply committing to a practice whether 5 or 20 minutes each day cultivates discipline and strengthens your intention to familiarize yourself with your own mind. Structure may be necessary in the beginning. You may find it helpful to set aside a time every day to practice. For me, it's first thing in the morning and last thing before going to bed. By regimenting my day in this way, I find it easier to maintain my practice. In my day's agenda, I prioritize peace of mind, for when I'm calm, I'm at my best. I'm more compassionate, more lucid, more open, more flexible, more engaged, more present. Conversely, when I'm stressed and frazzled, I'm more irritable, more anxious, more scattered, more defensive, more constricted. Moreover, I reason that if I can adjust my schedule to account for traffic, weather, meetings, appointments and other events that are of lesser importance, how much more important is it to set aside a few minutes to attend to that which will color my mood, influence my decisions, affect my interactions with others, and underscore my sense of well-being? My state of mind, more than external conditions, sets the tone for the rest of the day. Once you establish the habit, you may find sitting down to explore and observe and quiet the mind as the most valuable use of the precious (and limited) time you have.
Do not be disheartened if you cannot keep to your established schedule. There may be a temptation to quit. Neither be dismayed if the mind seems too strong to discipline. Your power of will is stronger. Attention Training Attention training works different neural networks. When we realize our mind's have wandered, we quickly and gently return our attention to the object of focus (whether it be the breath, a word, a sound, or a sensation). At the point we realize our mind's have wandered, we activate the salience network (which is associated with error processing and correction). Next, we choose to let go of the distraction, whatever it is, regardless of its content, its emotional charge, or intensity. When we disengage and reorient our attention back to the breath, we activate the executive network. In attention training, we trust the mind to find its equilibrium, without interference or resistance. The mind may be busy clearing out stuff. We let it work its cycle. Its cycle may include mental noise, thoughts, emotions, or images. This restorative process occurs during the sleep cycle. In meditation, we allow these processes to occur during the waking state without interference. In the focused attention technique, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, we sit and do nothing- analyzing nothing, resisting nothing, censuring nothing, judging nothing, expecting nothing, encouraging nothing. The mind may be quite busy, but we remain disengaged. It's important to understand this difference between having thoughts -which is the mind's activity- and being engaged with thoughts- which is your activity. When you find you have been engaged in thinking whether for a few seconds or for some time (salience), simply and effortlessly let go (executive), and reorient your attention back to your chosen object of focus (executive). Mind wandering can be a hindrance if not properly understood as a spontaneous and natural epiphenomena of mind. The reactive, conditioned mind can remain resistant to change of any kind. Properly understood, however, a wandering mind offers the resistance you need to train in the same way gravity offers resistance for a weight lifter. As a weight lifter may groan and grunt and strain against the heavy load, you, too, may find yourself groaning and grunting and straining against the resistance offered by your own mind. Keep letting go. By making exercise a habit, the weight lifter conditions his or her body and grows in strength. By training your mind, you strengthen the neural networks underpinning attention. Gradually, the structure of the brain changes- as does the body with exercise- and you will find it easier to sustain attention, to disengage from emotionally charged thoughts, to bring the mind and body to a state of ease.