top of page

you & your wandering mind

“My experience is what I agree to attend to.” -philosopher and psychologist William James

What does it mean to agree to attend to experience? We have choice around what we will pay attention to; how we pay attention will shape our experience.

The Buddha said,

All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind. Speak or act with a corrupted mind, And suffering follows As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox. All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind. Speak or act with a peaceful mind, And happiness follows, Like a never-departing shadow. The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdale

Our brains and bodies are responsible for taking in the raw information around us and turning it into meaning.The Buddha’s teachings tell us that we can shape this experience based on the state of our mind; that happiness is ours if we speak and act with “a peaceful mind.”

So how do we get there? Sit down and try to be peaceful? If only it were that easy. The truth is, it’s almost that easy– or, it is at least very simple.

Our brains, left to their own devices, operate in the “default network.” This is the state of mind we find ourselves in when we are daydreaming, ruminating, or otherwise holding together our life’s narrative. It’s what happens when we realize we’ve been reading a book and have no idea what it says, or when we are listening to someone speak but our minds are “a million miles away.” This default network is incredibly important to us– we need it to plan, or set goals, or organize our lives. It is, however, the opposite of mindfulness– and if it’s the only way we’re experiencing the world, we may be causing ourselves some suffering.

A 2010 study might help us to understand why we want to cultivate our sense of presence. Researchers texted participants the following three questions:

  • “How are you feeling right now?”

  • “What are you doing right now?

  • “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?

The data revealed the following facts:

  • People’s minds wander frequently, regardless of what they are doing. And, interestingly, “the nature of people’s activities had only a modest impact on whether their minds wandered and had almost no impact on the pleasantness of the topics to which their minds wandered.” In other ways, you can be doing something that you really enjoy, and at the same time be caught up in an unpleasant train of thought (has this ever happened to you?)

  • People are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are not.

  • Finally, what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing.

People are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are not.

The researchers concluded that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

What can we do with this information? We can train our minds not to wander. Luckily, our brains are highly trainable. The concept of neuroplasticity tells us that we can create new connections in our brain to shape the way that we see the world and respond to it. One of the ways to do this is through basic mindfulness meditation. This is is a simple form of retraining the mind to be aware of what is happening in th