The Power of the Wandering Mind: Mindfulness Turned on its Head?

If you have attended a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course you may have been introduced to the concept of the “wandering mind”. This means that the mind tends to wander from thought to thought to the extent it makes concentrated thought difficult. What the basic MBSR course tries to impart is that by you focusing on the breath you can finally feel at ease as these wandering thoughts have been repeatedly shunted aside so it is just you and your breath in the present moment.

Sounds simple doesn’t it. It takes many attempts before you can anchor yourself in your breath and simply be left as a whole human being breathing in and out. How basic but how difficult. Just shut your eyes and try to focus solely on your breath as it goes in and out. I bet you will have a bunch of wandering thoughts grabbing your attention. It is your brain multitasking to the extent you have no inner peace. Wandering minds may cause a series of negative thoughts criticizing you and clamouring for attention. This is what one might call stress as you are trying to accomplish a task but a whole series of intervening tasks and thoughts about them makes it difficult to complete the original task. Manage these wandering thoughts by focusing on your breath brings inner peace. Practitioners of mindfulness often take brief mindful pauses throughout the day where the breath is focused on. This slows down the thought process and brings greater calmness thereby reducing your stress.

I had 14 weeks of MBSR training at a local hospital where mindful meditation was practiced and taught. In addition, that that I have taken a certification course with many mindfulness meditation sessions at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and am moving toward further mindfulness certification at the University of Toronto. There seems to be a common thread running through all three institutions particularly at the hospital MBSR training about the wandering mind and the need to recognize it but be able to shunt it aside or manage it by focusing on your breath in a mindfulness meditation. I give full kudos to this as what it is in my view is training you to focus on you in the present moment which I have said is no easy task.

So are wandering thoughts bad? If you are seeking to focus on breathing and sit firm in the present moment one may get the impression the wandering mind is bad or it is not inherently bad but something to manage particularly if the thoughts are negative thoughts about yourself i.e. I messed up again, why did I say that stupid thing at the meeting, what am I cooking for dinner tonight, why is my relationship with my daughter so screwed up or a whole litany of thoughts that can be based on fear or unworthiness. If you have the power to recognize these wandering thoughts you have the power to manage them by several tools one of the most powerful one being simply because they are thoughts does not make them true. So in many sessions you’ll hear that the wandering thoughts should be gently nudged away by breathing and being in the present moment. Isn’t the present moment that counts most?

But the wandering mind if managed can be a powerful tool of creativity and for problem solving. I recall one meditation practice I encountered was “meditating through difficulty”. In which you were encouraged to focus on your breath and control/manage discordant wandering thoughts and focus on a difficult situation you were encountering. So in fact you were absorbed by one thought in your wandering mind which was the difficulty you were encountering and devise the best strategy to deal with it. But note the concentration required to focus on one thought which in fact is very similar to simply focusing on your breath.

So at the end of the day can we say proper management of wandering thoughts can be beneficial and need not be shooed away by returning to the breath? Is my musing capable of falling within the definition of the godfather of secular mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zin “It is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”. If you are meditating with difficulty, I think you can fairly fall within Kabat-Zin’s definition except that in dealing with a difficult situation one is compelled to make judgements!

Sometimes mindfulness can be so complicated yet so exciting!

Published by Robert K Stephen (CSW)

Robert K Stephen writes about food and drink, travel, and lifestyle issues. He is one of the few non-national writers to be certified as a wine specialist by the Society of Wine Educators, in Washington, DC. Robert was the first associate member of the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada. He also holds a Mindfulness Certification from the University of Leiden and the University of Toronto. Be it Spanish cured meat, dried fruit, BBQ, or recycled bamboo place mats, Robert endeavours to escape the mundane, which is why he has established this publication. His motto is, "Have Story, Will Write."

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