Too Many Wandering Thoughts, How to Make Progress in Meditation?

thoughts-compressor

Question: How can I empty the mind or how can I clear the chatter in my mind?

Answer: The best way to deal with mental chatter is to not want it to stop or go away!!

Sounds nonsensical? Let us see whether it really makes sense.

People often also ask:

  • How can I stop the thoughts, or find space between my thoughts?
  • How can I stop or reduce wandering thoughts during meditation?

Meditation is not clearing the mind or space between the thoughts

Behind all of these questions there is an assumption that the goal of meditation is to clear the mind or empty the mind. Hence if you get wandering thoughts during meditation it is not good.

This is an incorrect assumption.

Before we further discuss this topic, let us first establish what meditation is NOT.

  • Meditation is not about emptying the mind.
  • It is not clearing the mind of thoughts or clearing the chatter in the mind.
  • Meditation is not the space between thoughts.

You may ask then, what is it then?

We saw in the earlier post about how to practice meditation. There we learned that meditation is all about paying attention.

It is not about not having thoughts, but it is about paying attention to thoughts when thoughts are present!!

The biggest misconception about meditation is that it is clearing the mind. Some people define meditation, as the space between the thoughts.

Unfortunately, that is not the correct definition of meditation either.

At a beginning and the intermediate stage, meditation is all about paying attention. Meditation is an intensive training in

  1. Remembering to pay attention.
  2. Continuing to pay attention.

But it is not clearing the mind neither it is the space between thoughts.

Thoughts during meditation are completely okay. In fact, wandering thoughts during meditation are good. Please repeat this with me.

thoughts

Wandering thoughts during meditation are good!

Am I being just silly? No. Thoughts are an integral part of any attention training, hence thoughts are good.

If you never got wandering thoughts during meditation, you would never learn to remember to bring yourself back. It is essential that you get ample practice dealing with wandering thoughts in order to meditate correctly.

Here is one of the ways to understand this approach.

The real goal of the meditation practice is to bring the attitude of paying attention (meditative attitude) to the daily life.

And the daily life is full of wanderings and getting lost in thoughts and reactions.

Those of you familiar with a type of Buddhist meditation called ‘Shamatha’ may bring up objections to my claim.

Shamatha is defined as settling the mind in its natural state, which is a state of no thought activity. Which is pretty much empty mind.

I would argue that, even if your ultimate goal is to settle the mind in a thoughtless state, it is still not helpful to start out clearing the mind by trying to push away or stop the thoughts.

We will cover the discuss about ‘Shamatha’ in a separate blog post.

Knowing the True Nature of Your Mind

The motivation behind clearing the mind of thoughts is a very worthy and understandable motivation. At times your thoughts give you really hard time.

They can bring a tremendous amount of suffering for you. You can get so tired of your thoughts that the only thing you want is for them to stop or go away.

If somehow magically you can empty your mind of thoughts that would really be a great relief. Unfortunately, your mind has a mind of its own.

Your mind can really not be emptied. The nature of your mind is to generate thoughts.

And that at its own will. You do not control what kind of thoughts, how many of them and exactly when you get them.

Your mind decides on its own when and how many and what kind of thoughts it gets.

Meditation is a very practical exercise firmly rooted in the mundane realities of daily living. There is nothing magical and mystical about it.

In meditation, you do not try to control what is beyond your control. In meditation you practice and learn to pay attention to your thoughts rather than stop them.

If you try to stop your thoughts, you are just setting yourself up for additional struggle. Even if you try to minimize the wandering thoughts you are setting yourself up for an unnecessary struggle.

The Wisdom Dimension of Being

Because of the misconception about meditation, the majority of people when they start out, the default measure they hold themselves against is the amount of time they don’t get wandering thoughts.

People think that if the amount of time they spend in meditation when they don’t get wandering thought is the direct measure of their meditative success.

This cannot be more untrue.

Question: Even after many months of regular practice, my mind wanders a lot, am I making progress in my meditation?

Answer: Yes.

Progress in meditation is an oxymoron. Although it is going to be a tough buy for your mind, but meditation is all about realizing a different dimension of your being where there is no preoccupation with wanting things to be different.

There is no preoccupation with progress or striving. This is the wisdom dimension of your being, where there is more insight and acceptance about the reality as it is.

It it not about being a pushover or becoming careless. But it is all about cultivating wisdom. Where you come to terms with things as they are.  And not fighting a battle which cannot be won.

What is the Best and Wisest Way to Train Attention?

More practically, meditation is training your attention in a practical, rational and wise way.

Let me elaborate what I mean.

Remember the objective? It is to train attention. Training to remember to pay attention and to sustain the attention.

And how do you do that? By practicing paying attention.

What is a practical way of remembering to pay attention and sustaining the attention?

A practical way of training attention in this fashion is the formal practice.

You choose to practice formally. For that you always make a chunk of time. It can be a chunk that suits you, as short as a minute.

You pick an object of attention. Like your breath or an image or a candle flame.

Minimize Distractions to Meditate or Train Attention

Most importantly you also make sure that you try and minimize the distractions.Because you can’t effectively train attention in a chaotic environment where there is a lot of stimuli impinging upon your senses.

So how can you do that? How to minimize the distractions?

Following are the steps for minimizing distractions during meditation.

  • Minimize the sound distractions.

    • You pick a location for your formal meditation such that there is the minimum amount of noise that is present around you.
  • Minimize the visual distractions.

    • You also pick the location such that there is minimum visual distraction.
    • Visual distraction is something you can easily take care, if you can close your eyes.
    • But not all of us can close our eyes easily. What can you do if you cannot close your eyes easily?
    • In that case you select a location and time when there is the minimum amount of activity happening around you.
      • Less the number of things moving around you, less the visually distracting it is.
    • Also, it is better to focus your eyes on plain surfaces, e.g. plain wall, floor or ceiling.
      • You don’t want to choose to focus on a surface where there is a lot of visual variety.
      • Because visual variety could be distracting as it could give rise to a lot of thoughts about those objects.
  • Minimize the smell (olfactory) distractions.

    • When you meditate upon a sensory channel other than the smell, you try to stay away from strong or changing smells.
  • Minimize the taste (gustatory) distractions.

    • When you meditate upon a sensory channel other than the taste, you try to stay away from eating food while meditating because the stimulus of taste or change in taste can distract you.
  • Minimize the touch (tactile) distractions.

    • When you meditate upon a sensory channel other than the sense of touch, you try to minimize touching stimulus.
    • You can’t completely avoid touching while meditating. Because you touch either your feet or your bottom or parts of the body no matter what.
    • When you constantly touch to an object, your mind tunes out that sensations. Hence it is important to not move a lot while meditating to reduce the stimulus from the sense of touch.
  • What about thoughts? Now read this very carefully.

Yes, ideally if you get too many thoughts it could derail your attention training as well.

Also you can train paying attention using thoughts as the object of attention ( literally watching your thoughts) you don’t generally start there.

Because thoughts are the most difficult when it comes to paying attention.

There are other sensory channels which are much easier to pay attention to. Hence we start there.

So what can you do? If it were possible to minimize the number of thoughts you get, it would help attention training.

Pissed That You Had Thoughts Again?

Normally what happens during the meditation, is that you start paying attention to your chosen object, like your breath or a visual image or chanting a mantra.

Very soon you will realize you mind will sneak into thinking. This shift is very subtle and you don’t even realize when it actually happens. And you really do NOT control the onset.

At some point in time in the future, you will realize that you are not focused on the object of attention, but are lost in thoughts.

When you make this discovery the best that you can do is to acknowledge the thought that is crossing your mind. You let the thought be as best as you can.

And gently bring yourself back to paying attention to your breath, or watching the image, or chanting the mantra, whatever the object of your attention happens to be for that formal session.

You can fight the fact that you had wandering thoughts again. That won’t help.

All it would do, is further condition the mental attitude of resisting and fighting with what has already unfolded.

How to minimize thought wandering

Although you cannot control how often and when your mind starts wandering, there are things that you can do so that you minimize the time spent in wandering thoughts.

  • You can use guided meditation where the guidance periodically reminds you to bring yourself back to paying attention from the wandering thoughts.
  • You can use some type of a chime or bell through one of the meditation apps to remind yourself to go back to paying attention.

Having given you these options lets ask the following question.

Question: Is it better to meditation with guidance because you are likely to spend less time lost in thoughts?

Answer: No.

Why? Because we learned earlier that meditation is about

  1. Remembering to pay attention.
  2. Continuing to pay attention.

When you use guidance, you end up spending less time lost in thoughts. But then you don’t have that many opportunities to learn to remember to pay attention yourself. Because now you are relying on an external agency to remind you.

When you don’t use guidance, you are likely to be lost in thoughts more and hence practicing paying attention less. But here you practice remembering to bring yourself back more often.

Both choices have their pros and cons. No one choice is better than the other.

The guidance or the reminder is a tool. You can use the tool as long as it is helpful.

Conclusion

It is okay to get thoughts during meditation. There is nothing wrong with wandering thoughts. Wandering thoughts during meditation can be good unless you just wandering and do nothing else.

There are ways to minimize thought wandering. But it doesn’t necessarily lead you to make faster progress along your meditation journey.

The key is to not bother about reducing or stopping the wandering thoughts. Just let go of the whole idea of clearing the mind.

See if you can cultivate the attitude of being okay with having thoughts during meditation. Be grateful for thoughts as each thought is an opportunity to learn to remember to pay attention.

 

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