- It's natural for the mind to wander during meditation, especially for beginners.
- Meditation novices will benefit from clear expectations about losing attention and how it's OK.
- Those who practice meditation can learn from how they lose and regain attention, and what may trigger the loss.
In working with folks who are interested in starting a meditation practice, here's a common but wayward instruction often given. It's a surefire path to an agonizing initial sitting or two, and then, so long:
"So, sit and watch your breath go in and out, and then your mind will become quiet."
Good luck with that. Minds never truly empty out, but by their very nature, pump out phenomena. Behold:
- They percolate thoughts.
- They adhere additional ideas to the flood of sensory information that comes in.
- They identify patterns of physical and cognitive stuff as emotional states.
- They generate additional judgments about all of the above.
- ...And a bazillion other wondrous but noisy operations.
Expecting our minds to stand still and peaceful for long stretches of time... um, no.
So, in our initial prepping of the mindfulness-uninitiated to this first "pulling back of the curtain" to observe one's own mind in action, there's a more helpful direction to include. Besides the basic how-to's of sitting posture, timers, particular hand placements, and the rest, I emphasize an initial expectation.
Getting lost is inevitable.
Like most winded academic types, I have my go-to punchlines about some familiar aspects of the basic curriculum. This one? "Getting lost is not a bug; it's a feature." (I live in Northern California—technobabble ground zero.)
A sunny aspiration for improving the clarity and stability of awareness is a laudable longer-term goal, whether on a single target such as the experience of breathing or on the deep complexity of "whatever arises in the landscape of the moment." But the near-term forecast for that landscape is usually partly cloudy, at least. And if one's judgment about that inevitable cloudiness is not addressed, there's a good chance of rain.
Yet, no worries about getting a little wet; the moistening has its very own benefits to start attending to. While the lovely interludes of calm attention to body, heart, and head can be blissful, the losses of those moments have their own potent utility.
We can get more "granular" about observing our minds whipping up into chatter or slipping off into dullness by practice. That starts with observing quick-onset thought blizzards or out-of-nowhere, "lights out" experiences to gradually become more tuned into.
The "on/off" of losing attention gradually becomes an inkling of a transition, then a more indelible, identifiable flow of how our own awareness changes. But these pearls of self-knowledge are uncovered only with the lather-rinse-repeat of gaining and losing and then regaining attention with some grace, over and over again.
There's another gain in all that losing: It can be a diagnostic goldmine, useful in our own contemplative paths and in psychotherapy work. Losses of attention can be "Snagglepussian" (?), "exit stage left," defensive strategies of the protective mind. Heavens to Mergatroid, even... that's stuff to identify and make safer to observe and adapt to.
Does the mind keep atomizing into angry chatter whenever the thought of a co-worker pops up? Reset and run that one again. Does awareness go black hole when I feel a pain that reminds me of a traumatic past event? Careful, but yes, that's another attention loss to become better acquainted with.
Framing meditation only as a kind of "bliss-out" technique is not only a setup for inevitable frustration and disappointment. It also misunderstands the real power of the thing as a practice in curiosity, humility, and gradual self-learning, adaptation, and wisdom development. Prepping for the inherent "losing" sets up new meditators for a clearer, more authentic, more sustainable practice.
That's a win.