An essential part of being human (and in fact of being a primate) is what psychologists call “theory of mind,” which is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intentions, desires, plans, knowledge, thoughts, and so on—to others. When you have to give bad news to someone, for example, you know that they may become upset, and you take this into account in the way you talk to them. If you’re explaining something to another person you may anticipate certain questions they might ask. This is you employing a theory of mind.
This is such a basic part of our lives that we don’t give it a second thought, but that in itself can become a … Read more »
Are you one of those people who think, “Oh, I could never meditate. My mind’s too busy!”?
I’m here to tell you that having a busy mind is the very best reason to meditate, not a reason to avoid it! After all we start going to the gym because we’re out of shape, not because we’re already fit. Meditating helps our busy minds become calmer.
Of course, just as when you start going to the gym the first thing you notice is how out of condition you are, it’s often a shock when we first meditate to discover just how unruly our minds are. But that’s OK. That’s something we just learn to accept.… Read more »
We can experience different kinds of distracted thinking in meditation.
There are obvious, compelling, and “in your face” thoughts in which we tend to become completely immersed. These are the full-blown distractions where we completely forget that we’re meant to be meditating, and instead become submerged in our inner dramas. We dip in and out of these all the time in meditation, returning to the practice every time mindful awareness reappears.
Then there are lighter background thoughts that babble on in the background, even as we continue to pay attention to the meditation practice. So we’ll be following the breathing, for example, while random thoughts keep popping up. Perhaps these thoughts take the form of … Read more »
The problem with distractions is that they’re compelling. They make us think that they’re important. They draw us into their stories. It’s as if they’re saying, “This is what you need to be thinking about right now.”
And so, over and over, we end up immersed in stories driven by anxiety, anger, desire, and self-doubt.
These distractions come from relatively primitive parts of our programming, which evolved as protective mechanisms. As mammals who suffered from predation, we needed to be anxious and alert for potential physical threats to our wellbeing. When such threats became actual—a stranger approaching our camp, for example—we might respond with displays of anger in order to invoke respect or fear … Read more »
The moment when we realize that we’ve been caught up in a distracted train of thought is a valuable opportunity to bring skillful qualities into the mind, and to cultivate insight.
This is something that’s very familiar to anyone who’s meditated. We’ll start by following the breathing, or some other object of attention, but then without our making any conscious choice to shift our focus we slip into a dream-like state in which we’re rehashing a dispute, or fantasizing about something pleasant, or worrying about some situation in our lives.
These periods of distraction can be so intense that they are like hypnotic states. They’re like dreams. They’re like mental bubbles of an internal virtual … Read more »
Beginners to meditation are often disappointed, annoyed, or despondent about many thoughts arise in meditation. They want to get rid of these thoughts, especially since many of them are emotionally troubling and cause stress, anxiety, and other forms of suffering.
Long-term meditators, of course, learn to accept the arising of thoughts, and so they don’t get upset about them.
Something that can benefit not just beginners, but people with many years of experience of meditation, is that we don’t need to do anything to get rid of our thoughts!
That may sound a bit puzzling. Here’s a bit of context to help you make sense of what I mean.
We tend to be very focused … Read more »
Your ability to stick with something varies from activity to activity. For example, when playing Scrabble or a computer game, or watching a movie, you no doubt have thoughts about unrelated things, but you keep coming back to the activity. But in other things, like meditation, you find it more difficult to stay focused, and may even give up.
This all suggests that “attention span” is a question of how you relate to distraction, rather than some intrinsic quality of the mind.
The difference is often to do with rewards: in Scrabble, you naturally get a reward when you’ve completed a word and score points. That gives you a little dopamine hit—not just when you … Read more »
I was teaching a class the other night and after a guided meditation one woman said she’d found it hard because lots of thoughts came up, and she’d get absorbed in them. Then she had to keep letting go of the thoughts and returning to the breathing. Of course I reassured her that that’s absolutely normal. In fact, noticing that we’ve been caught up in the mind’s stories and returning to our present-moment experience (whether of the breathing or something else) is what meditation is about.
Once you accept that fact, you’re less likely to think of yourself as being a “bad meditator” or to think that your meditation practice isn’t going well just … Read more »
Someone recently asked me about how to deal with useful distractions:
As a creative writer, I think I get some of my best ideas while in a meditative state such as when showering or shaving. My question is what I should do when a ‘useful’ or ‘epiphany moment’ happens while meditating. My instinct is to get up and write my idea down and my fear is that if I go back to my breathing I will lose this idea which has bubbled up from my subconscious. I don’t really see my wandering mind as a thing to avoid but a thing to embrace – which confuses me regarding the practice of meditation.
Mind-wandering is partly … Read more »
Someone wrote to me the other day, asking for advice:
I just started regularly meditating about a month ago. I’m scared to continue now though. I had a sudden feeling of self resentment and I felt it so deeply. I remembered the bad choices I have made in my life and felt so unworthy of love and compassion. I felt unworthy of the meditation itself. I felt like I was the most selfish person in the world. I can’t even begin to describe how painful it was.
What she’d described is what we call the “hindrance of doubt.” There are five of these hindrances, which are mental patterns that stop us from being at ease … Read more »