It’s a frustration that crops up a lot when practising mindfulness and one I have often asked myself. ‘I can’t stop my mind wandering off. I come back to my breath but it just wanders off again.’
It’s a common misconception that a wandering mind during mindfulness practice means you must be doing it wrong. And even if you accept that it’s supposed to happen and most likely to happen, you still get frustrated when it does.
Mindfulness practice is not about ‘clearing your mind’. The mind is not designed to stay focussed on one thing, wandering is what it does. In fact, according to Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing… Indeed, mind wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation.
Our problem solving brain
So why do we practice the central premise of mindfulness, staying present, if it’s not what our brain’s are programmed to do?
Well, the fact that our brains have evolved and catapulted us right to the top of the food chain, does not come without an emotional cost. Because unlike any other animal on the planet we spend a lot of our time thinking about what has happened, what might happen and what will probably never happen. And in fact when involved in these internalised thought processes, these patterns often do not serve us well.
And the mind wandering that serves us least well is when we are caught up in cycles of over-analysing, fretting about a future event or worrying about past situations – our brains try to problem solve by mulling a situation over and over, and when there isn’t a solution, when the situation just is as it is – the result … it gets us nowhere! And we end up in a state of constant threat. It triggers our stress response, which as our body’s alarm system, works beautifully, but not so good when constantly set off by daily ‘panics’ which are not actually life threatening.
Did I lock the front door? I’ve got a headache… it’s most definitely a brain tumour? I didn’t get a text reply… she must hate me! We end up with anxiety levels simmering just below the surface, continually releasing chemicals into our system reserved for our fight, flight, freeze response, thus remaining in a state of heightened anxiety.
And the cycle continues.
Don’t get me wrong, mind wandering can be useful and a positive experience. It helps us with creative thought. It can build beautiful images and memories for us to treasure. And it can help with problem solving when the problem can actually be solved. That’s where mindfulness comes in. It teaches us to take a pause between stimulus and response to assess the situation and distinguish when to act and when to let go.
The cycle of anxiety
When I struggled with anxiety my mind would take any situation, however small, magnify it, put my own negative slant on it (thoughts aren’t facts – another blog for another time) and ruminate on it for hours and hours. I’d then wait until the next situation arose, drop the last one and pin my anxiety on the new one.
I’ll give you an example:
Being awake for half the night as I’d convinced myself I’d left the loo door wide open at work whilst on the toilet!!! … God, everyone will have seen me on the loo, they’ll all be laughing at me, what was I thinking!!!
I spent hours driving myself mad trying to remember walking into the loo and locking the door – a memory I could not recall. And probably for 2 reasons:
- My threat response had kicked in and was inhibiting my memory recall part of the brain (the hippocampus).
- I was undoubtedly caught up in my head, in auto pilot, ruminating about something else. So I had nothing notable to ‘pin’ that memory on. It’s like flicking on the kettle – you don’t necessarily remember doing it as you’re not thinking about it.
Sounds extreme right? I’m actually laughing as I type this at how ridiculous it sounds. But at the same time it’s upsetting to look back on how bad it was. On the flip side I’m able to feel proud at how far I am from this now.
A happy mind
It’s therefore not surprising to find that research found that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Living in the moment not only acts as a counterweight to spiralling negative thought patterns but it wakes us up to everyday existence. The beauty to be found in everyday experiences which can so easily be missed by living in our heads.
So our mindfulness practice in this scenario is two-fold.
Firstly, it helps us unhook from those negative thought patterns of rumination and catastrophising by bringing us present through breathing techniques. Whilst we are concentrating on our breathing, we aren’t concentrating on that other stuff. It may push it’s way back up again, but we acknowledge it – kindly (like doffing our caps to it) and then move it aside by going back to our breath.
Secondly, when mind wandering occurs and causes anxious thought, we can use our breath to help self sooth and reduce stress levels. By learning to self regulate we shift the focus of our brains from the ‘panic area’ (the sympathetic nervous system) to the side that brings us back to normal and ‘nothing to be afraid of mode’ (the parasympathetic nervous system).
Starting a practice
Want to start cultivating a practice but not sure where to begin? Maybe start small by taking 5 minutes out of your day. Try this simple exercise to open up your senses. It may surprise you what you notice and what you’ve been missing. Do this exercise when you’re not feeling stressed so you know how to use it when you need it the most.
- Sit in a comfortable upright position with your feet planted flat on the ground. Rest your hands on your thighs.
- Notice your breath. No need to breathe in any particular way. Just bring attention to each part of the breath – the inhale, exhale, and space in between.
- Bring awareness to each of your 5 senses. One at a time, for about one minute each. The point here is to focus on the present moment and how each sense is being activated in that moment. The order in which you pay attention to each sense does not matter.
Hear: Begin to notice all of the sounds around you. Try not to judge the sounds- just notice them. They are not good or bad, they just are. Sounds might be internal, like breathing or digestion. Sounds might be close by or more distant like the sound of traffic. Are you now hearing more than you were before you started? You may begin to notice subtle sounds you did not hear before. Can you hear them now?
Smell: Now shift your attention to notice the smells of your environment. Maybe you smell food. You might become aware of the smell of trees or plants if you are outside. You might notice the smell of books or paper. Sometimes closing your eyes can help sharpen your attention.
See: Observe your surroundings and notice the colours, shapes and textures. If you really look, you may notice things that have gone unnoticed.
Taste: You can do this one even if you have food in your mouth. You may notice an aftertaste of a previous drink or meal. You can just notice your tongue in your mouth, your saliva, and your breath as you exhale. We have tastes in our mouth that often go unnoticed. You can run your tongue over your teeth and cheeks to help you become more aware.
Touch: Last one. Bring your attention to the sensations of skin contact with your chair, clothing, and feet on the floor. You can notice the pressure between your feet and the floor or your body and the chair. You can observe temperature like the warmth or coolness of your hands or feet. You might take time to feel the textures that you noticed by sight a moment ago.
When finished, pause to notice how your body feels in this moment. Compare how you feel now with how you felt 5 minutes ago – what has changed?
from Clayton State University, Counseling and Psychological Services.
For more insight into the wandering mind research visit:
Illustration by Charlie Taylor @c.e.b.t