What to Do When Your Mind Wanders

Cory Muscara
January 26, 2024
A goldfish

If you’ve ever meditated, you may have noticed that your mind likes to wander. In fact, many people who subscribe to this very newsletter tell us that they can’t meditate because their mind is always wandering.

But this is a myth! And if it’s keeping you from meditation, please read on.

The fact is, everyone’s mind wanders. This is normal. What’s not normal? People who say that to meditate, you have to stop your thoughts. This is just not true. Your thoughts may slow down, you may get better at catching them, and you may learn how to not take them so seriously. But stopping them entirely? That only happens after a lot of practice, and it’s not at all necessary to get the benefits of meditation.

In fact, the opposite may be the case. As your meditation practice deepens, you might notice more mind-wandering, as your increased concentration and awareness illuminate thoughts that were previously subconscious.

So what do you do? Here are two bits of advice.

1. Train the Puppy

First, to work with the wandering mind, imagine you’re training a puppy. When you first tell a puppy to sit, what happens? It usually runs off into the other room and licks its butt. So, you gently go get the puppy, bring it back, and try again.

One thing you don’t do? You don’t yell at the puppy, or harm it. It would be terrified of you and never want to come back. And even if it does do what you say, it will only be out of fear.

So, instead, you try again and say, “Sit.” You try again and again and again, as patiently as you can. Eventually, the message will get through.

And then, when the puppy does finally sit, you make the puppy feel like it just won Wheel of Fortune and you scream, “Oh my gosh, you’re the best puppy ever! I love you so much!” feeding it a treat and smothering it with kisses. Eventually, the puppy gets better and better at sitting when we ask it because it associates joy with sitting.

Likewise, instead of berating yourself when the mind wanders, try saying something like, “Hey, mind, remember what we’re doing, we’re meditating! Can you come back?” And after you’ve managed to stay focused for a whole minute, try some positive reinforcement. You can even reward it with, “Oh, you’re the best mind ever! You’re so cute and wonderful!” and on and on.

This might sound a little ridiculous. And of course, you don’t have to go through that whole  process every time your mind wanders. It’s the attitude behind the thought process that I’m most interested in. One of the best things you can do for yourself, especially when you’re just starting out, is to cultivate a playful relationship with the chaos in your mind. If you take what’s happening in your mind too seriously, both your meditation and your life are going to be a very bumpy ride.

2. Embrace the Wander

There’s a second bit of advice I want to share with you: the wandering mind is the whole point.

Suppose you’re focusing on your breath. The mind wanders – and now you notice the mind is wandering, and return your attention back to the breath. Those last two parts – noticing and returning – are actually the most valuable part of your meditation. Together, they’re like a bicep curl for your brain: building your ability to be aware of thoughts, to let them go, and to resettle back in the present.

If your mind didn’t wander, you wouldn’t be able to notice it wandering and bring it back, and you wouldn’t build the meta-cognitive mental ‘muscles’ that lead to all the benefits of meditation.

Now, I know it may feel more pleasant to have no thoughts disturb your bliss. But meditation is not about what experiences arise, but rather how you relate to them. I’ve had meditation sessions where I felt like I was floating on a cloud, and other meditations where I felt restlessness, pain, and frustration. One was not “better” than the other, although one certainly felt more pleasant. Both were opportunities to practice being with the never-ending flow of different experiences, not attaching too strongly to the ones I wanted or pushing away the ones I didn’t want, but instead finding a new kind of peace that wasn’t dependent on the moment being perfectly manufactured to my liking.

This is the point of mindfulness: being with our experience rather than in our experience, and doing so in a way that is spacious, curious, and heartfelt. The mind may still wander, the puppy may still run back and forth, but we notice it and don’t freak out. We gently bring it back. This is how we grow. 

Cory Muscara is a former monk and bestselling author of Stop Missing Your Life. He has taught Mindful Leadership at Columbia University, is an instructor of Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. For the last ten years has offered mindfulness workshops and retreats around the world.

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