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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 the present moment.

You can try this for yourself right now. If you lift your eyes from this screen and look around, what do you see? What do your eyes take in? Can you hear any sounds? Are there any smells? Can you feel yourself breathe? Take a moment or two to notice, and then see if you can feel for yourself how you feel mentally and physically. Did your mental or felt experience in your body change at all? Meditation– brain training– is a simple way to increase the joy and satisfaction you feel in your life. Even a few minutes a day of teaching your mind not to wander can make a significant difference.

But should we never think about what is not happening now? Let’s take another look at William James’ quote. “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” When you are worrying about the future or mindlessly flicking through Instagram, what are you agreeing to attend to? The wandering mind misses the joy of being truly present with life itself.

There are times, though, where we need to agree to attend to a future-based task– planning, strategizing, or even dreaming about the future in a creative way. When we do, we can bring the same mindful awareness to the task– and our meditation training will also make us better focused to do that work!

Mindfulness doesn’t ask that we ignore or push away our problems, or disregard the larger issues that affect our communities. Remember the second two takeaways from the 2010 study? We are happier when our minds are not wandering, and what we are thinking is a better predictor than what we are doing. We can find joy– the Buddha’s “peaceful mind”– when we are present with difficult situations, simply by bringing our attention to what we are experiencing in that moment. It’s okay to have a bad mood, or to notice that your mind has been wandering and you’re sad. Learn to notice what’s happening, and you may even feel a tiny bit better.

Your experience is what you agree to attend to. Cultivating present-moment awareness may improve your experience. If you experience regular anxiety or depression, your wandering mind may be partially to blame. You may find these techniques to be very helpful– I know that I have. But reading about them isn’t enough. In order to make them work, you have to put them into practice and do them regularly (even a few minutes a day). I recommend either of these two free resources:

  • The healthyminds program: is now offering their app for free, thanks to some generous donors. This program was started by Dr. Richard Davison, a neuroscience and meditation pioneer.

  • Tergar Meditation Community: offers free online meditation training and can connect you to a virtual meditation community near you.

And if you'd like to practice yoga, meditation, and other mindful movement with me, you can do that here for as little as $10/month.

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