The mind knows its own way home
When we’re first learning to meditate, one of the things we have to get used to is that the mind wanders much more than we might expect.
We discover, perhaps, that we can’t go more than two or three breaths without the mind latching on to some thought that’s appeared and going for a long trek through our memories, fantasies, expectations about the future, and so on.
At first this might be frustrating. We get annoyed with ourselves, or with our minds, for being so distractible. We perhaps blame ourselves, and suspect that we’re not cut out for meditation, or worse at it than other people. Meditation seems a bit like hard work.
We learn, though, that this level of distraction is common. In fact, research shows that while doing activities with low objective demands on our attention (things like showering, waiting for an appointment, or driving a route we know well) we might expect to be distracted up to 80 percent of the time. And meditation is in this category: there is no compelling external task for us to be engaged with.
It’s not a personal flaw that results in our distractibility, but the way the nervous system has evolved. The mind likes having input. In the absence of stimulation, the mind will create stimulation for itself, in the form of memories, fantasizing, etc.
We learn to be more patient, and to simply let go of distracted thinking when we realize it’s been arising. We stop reacting so much. Distractedness becomes just a fact — something neutral that we don’t place any negative value upon.
But I think we can do better than that. Even though we may no longer react emotionally when we realize we’ve been distracted, we may still carry around a chronic sense that our minds aren’t “good enough.” That they have this regrettable tendency, this bad habit, of going off wandering.
We don’t ask our minds to get distracted. We don’t decide to get lost in thought. That’s out of our control. And I think that on some level we often find it uncomfortable to have “a mind that has a mind of its own.”
Here’s the thing, though. Every time the mind goes wandering, it comes back home again. Sure, we don’t ask our minds to go wandering. It just happens. But we also don’t ask our minds to come home to mindful awareness again. That just happens too!
Think about it. How do you come back to mindful awareness after a period of distraction? You don’t really know, do you? It just happens. One minute you’re on automatic pilot, lost in a daydream, with no awareness of where you really are and no ability to choose what you’re doing. You’re not even capable of deciding to be mindful again. Then the next minute you’re back in mindful awareness, knowing that you’re sitting on your meditation cushion, free to choose what you pay attention to and how you’re going to pay attention to it, free to choose to be kinder and more patient with yourself.
Your attention simply returns to mindfulness, over and over again. And you don’t have to make this happen. It happens all on its own. Isn’t that encouraging? Your mind knows its own way home. It will always come home to mindful attention. Focus on that automatic success, not on the supposed “failure” of the mind’s wandering.
Maybe we could think of the mind as being like a cat. It likes to go roaming, but it also likes to come home. What kind of welcome do you give it when it walks back through the door again? Maybe you don’t get annoyed. Maybe you just treat the return home as a neutral event. But how would it be if you were to give the house cat of your mind a warm reception when it comes home again? Do you think it would feel more at home, more welcomed? Do you think it might be more inclined to stick around?
Give it a try. When you find yourself emerging from a period of distractedness, welcome your attention back home again. Regard it with affection. Let it feel the warmth of your heart. Let it know it’s valued, cherished. Maybe, just maybe, your attention will feel like sticking around more, instead of wandering so much. And maybe your meditation will feel less like hard work and more like an act of love.