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How to Stop Your Mind From Wandering During Meditation

Active meditation can prevent intrusive thoughts from sabotaging your practice.

Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

The virtues of meditation and mindfulness are being extolled almost everywhere. Research has shown the practice of meditation can have positive benefits on emotional well-being and physical health and has been indicated for managing serious conditions such as depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep problems, and chronic pain. Getting people to try meditation, however, can sometimes be a challenge, particularly for people who have very active minds. They will often say things like: I just can’t sit still. Meditating makes me anxious. I can’t turn off my brain. I’m just bad at it.

Most meditation teachers will tell you that having your mind wander during meditation is perfectly normal and that bringing your attention back to your meditation every time you notice it wandering is simply part of the process. While mind-wandering is indeed quite normal for beginning meditators and even some experienced ones, it can be very frustrating and can result in people giving up before they get to experience the benefits of meditation that they are seeking. There are also times when stopping certain thoughts is the goal of the practice itself. This is particularly true if you are caught up in a spiral of negative thinking and would like to use meditation to alleviate the ruminative process. When you stop flooding your brain with fear and worry about the future or resentments from the past, this has a profoundly positive effect of resetting your emotional state to calm and peaceful. Luckily, there is something you can do to substantially reduce your mind from wandering. It’s called active meditation or focused meditation.

The brain has a limited attentional capacity. This means that you can only think about a certain number of things at any one given time. One of the challenges with meditation is that as you are clearing your mind, you are creating an open space that wants to be filled. Sometimes when people are coping with stressful events, they turn to meditation to calm their mind and find that their mind floods with even more thoughts of what they are trying not to think about. Active meditation helps this problem by giving you a task to do that takes up all of your attention and occupies its working capacity, so that there is much less room for other thoughts to creep in.

Here is an example of an active meditation:

  1. Pick one word from the list below that describes an emotion you would like to feel more of: Joy, Love, Happy, Peace, Calm, Hope.
  2. Close your eyes and visualize the word in your head.
  3. Pick a color that goes with the word and visualize the word in that color.
  4. Fill the background with another color.
  5. Now, with your eyes closed and writing in your head, write the word one letter at a time.
  6. As you are writing the word, say the letters quietly to yourself in your head.
  7. Write the colored word on the colored background over and over in your head while you say the letters quietly to yourself.
  8. Set a timer for 10 minutes and keep doing the exercise until the timer goes off.

If you find it challenging to do all the steps at once, do as many as possible to take up all of your focus. Most people report the activity fills their mind so that they have few intrusive thoughts, but if your mind does wander, don’t judge yourself or label yourself as doing it wrong, simply go back to the activity and focus on the vividness of the colors and seeing the word in your head. You can also add in more steps if you need to occupy more of your attention. For example, you can add the step of trying to feel the emotion of the word as you are writing it in your head.

Once you have done an active meditation a few times, you may find it easier to try a more traditional mind-clearing meditation. There are wonderful benefits to both, though in order to experience the benefits you must practice on a regular basis. Once a week won’t get you there, but 10 minutes a day is enough to start to feel the benefit in a matter of a few days. You should subtly start to notice you feel calmer and less stressed; within a week or two things that used to upset you may not bother you so much anymore. You will feel greater clarity in your thinking and ability to focus.

To add a meditation practice into your routine, it is best to set aside a regular time to do it every day. First thing in the morning is a great way to start your day off on a positive note; however, for some, mid-day is a time that offers a needed break, and right before bed can have a calming effect. You can also break it up into small brief meditations throughout the day, three to four minutes in the morning, three to four minutes mid-day, and three to four minutes in the evening can really add up. What is most important to know is that there isn’t a wrong way to meditate, it’s a matter of finding what works best for you.

More from Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D.
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