In mindfulness we aim to stay focused on the present moment: it sounds simple but it’s not easy and we usually have to repeat the task of noticing that the mind has wandered off to think about something else and draw it back to experiencing the present moment. Mind wandering is natural and universally experienced!
A “beginner” at a meditation retreat day asked me “If it’s natural for the mind to wander why do we try to stop it?” What a great question!
When we are not focused on something specific the mind starts to roam. It also roams even when we are trying to focus! The wandering mind makes links between past and present and future and sometimes makes creative leaps of lateral thinking and association. It finds patterns, makes maps, and generally organizes our experience creating our sense of self. All pretty useful stuff so why not let it just wander?
Well, the mind is not necessarily wandering in a benign landscape of experience. Like collecting mushrooms in the woods it is possible to gather the poisonous kind as well as the edible and nutritious.
So as soon as we stop focusing on something the mind enters a different “not-concentrating” state. Neuroscientists have identified certain regions of the brain that become active when we are no longer focused and given them the name “the default mode network”, a kind of “standby” functioning if you like. It is not yet understood what this default mode does but it is quite likely to include monitoring of the environment for threat and opportunity to ensure your survival. Therefore in this mode it is possible for the mind to get very caught up with the possibility of danger or desire and for the fight or flight response to be triggered or cravings to develop. Many of us know the way that boredom can trigger cravings for food, or the way an unfamiliar sound can, with the help of the imagination, become a reason to feel nervous or fearful. Often these feelings appear without us really understanding why; this is because the rational, analytical mind was “offline” while the mind wandered in default mode.
When the mind wanders it is also likely to retread familiar, well-worn paths: old ruminations, memories, pre-occupations and concerns. The associations the mind makes then can fuel thoughts and emotions not of the moment but of the past or the future. The mind starts to make “stories” about our life. This is when worries and anxieties are most likely to surface and affect our mood negatively. Depression often presents as a cycle of negative, pessimistic, self-critical thoughts about the past or future. Through the lens of depression the world, self and life can often look as distorted as images in a fairground mirror. Unfortunately it seems to be the case that once we have had an episode of depression we are more susceptible to further depression at a later date. This may be because the mind recognizes sensations and experiences which remind it of the depressive episode and starts to fill in the blanks: to associate and generate feeling. Letting our mind explore unguided in such a distorted way usually makes things worse.
In mindfulness we are not actually attempting to stop the mind wandering; it is the nature of the mind to wander, it is more that we are noticing it has wandered and guiding it back to an anchor such as the breath or the body. This means we can wake up to what the mind is up to and can choose where out thoughts go. This practice is especially helpful for people suffering from excessive worry and anxiety, stress and depression because so much of what maintains these conditions is the unhelpful and often untrue thoughts that are common in depression and anxiety.
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