Mind-wandering – Useful or Not?

Have you noticed your mind wandering and how it loves time travelling to the past or the future?

It happens a lot – about half our time, apparently (Killingsworth, 2011). Mind-wandering can feel nice sometimes – daydreaming about a holiday or what we’ll do if we win the lotto… however, research shows that even pleasant mind-wandering actually reduces our happiness. Check out the fascinating video below from Matt Killingsworth:

Why don’t we stay present?

Because minds don’t work that way. Your mind’s job is to keep you (us, humans) alive. It does this through pattern recognition – by reflecting on the past and then using that data to anticipate the future. This requires imagination of circumstances that are not happening now. For example, a hunter-gatherer might have noticed that it is raining less than in the past. Being able to imagine potential starvation he decides to move to a different area in search of food. This time-travelling mind-wandering is one of the reasons you are alive today. How amazing?

This is also the reason that mindfulness feels difficult. In a sense, mindfulness goes against nature by challenging a characteristic that was fundamental to human survival. Yet, it is also radically natural because mindfulness techniques bring us back to our physical reality – by using the senses.

Harnessing the senses

Many types of meditation use sensory perception to bring you back to the present moment. This encompasses the five traditional senses, as well as the lesser known senses of proprioception, vestibular and interoception.

Different meditation practices direct the senses to different focal points, such as:

Type of practice Focal point
Mindfulness/ Zazen Breath
Vipassana Sensation (skin, body)
TM/ Art of Living Sound (as thought)
Mantra/ chanting Sound (uttered)
Yoga, tai chi, chi-gung Breath in movement
Contemplation Object/idea (vision)
mind wandering
Image from www.sensoryhabits.com

For example, in yoga we focus our awareness on the body as it moves through unusual postures. I might imagine sending my breath to soothe the tugging sensation deep inside my hip. This harnesses the senses of touch, proprioception, interoception and, if I am following instruction, sight and sound.

This works because, while the mind is made for time-travelling, the human body can only exist in the present moment. So, anchoring the mind in the body (through one of the senses) allows us to bring the wandering mind back to the present moment. Brilliant!

Don’t stress about picking the “right” focal point, because this is not the true source of power. It is actually your intention to return to the focal point, again and again, that drives your meditation; your intention to come back to attention. This intention is firm without being rigid; it allows some drift and wandering while consistently drawing us back to focal point, in the present moment.

But what if the present is boring or painful? More about that in the next post!

Yagesh is an actuary and yogini, devoted to building a wellbeing economy. Contact her for personalised lessons or corporate workshops.

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