If Your Mind Wanders While Meditating, an Expert Says to Follow This Technique to Refocus

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Every time one of my friends brings up their meditation practice, I quickly reply with something along the lines of, “I wish I could do it, but I can’t focus.” I know that meditation isn’t about perfection, but being type A, it’s hard for me to do something if I’m not “perfect” at it. Lately, meditation keeps popping up in my circle, from badass friends who are constantly hustling to my sheroes like Robin Roberts meditating every day at three-something in the morning, according to an interview with The Cut.

I figured if Robin Roberts can wake up that early every morning and commit to a meditation practice, I, too, could wake up (a little later) and get my meditation on. I’m still a meditation rookie, but one thing I found helpful when my mind wanders, which is basically every minute, is mental noting. “Mental noting, or labeling, is a mindful awareness technique of noting and naming the thoughts and feelings that come up as you meditate,” Millana Snow, meditation teacher, energy healer, and founder of Wellness Official, told POPSUGAR.

“When your mind starts to go off into tangents, you can use mental noting to bring pause and awareness to those thoughts so that you can start to unidentify with them and become the observer of those thoughts and feelings.” If you find your mind wondering, make note of it — “I’m thinking about the big pitch I have on Friday” — then return to the present.

Every time my mind drifts and I find myself wondering what I’m going to eat later that day, thinking about how many clients I have to train, planning a trip to Colombia, combing my never-ending to-do list, and every other random thought that comes up, I revert back to mental noting. Some days, I have to do it a lot, but other days, I only have to do it once or twice during my practice.

If you’re already going, “Yeah, I still won’t be able to do this,” I promise you, you will. When I catch myself thinking about everything else instead of being in the present, I practice mental noting by focusing on my breath while thinking, “Breathing in, breathing out.” When Millana finds her mind drifting, she said she reminds herself to “‘come back to my breath’ or come back to noting what the moment contains: the sounds in the room, the smells, and the way my body feels. I find this helps me go deeper into awareness,” she explained.

The key word in “practice mental noting” is practice. “We must allow ourselves to be the observer of our thoughts, and to watch thoughts pass by like you would clouds in the sky,” Millana said. She also recommends noting and naming your thoughts “instead of identifying with them and making them distractions.” The key is to become more present and separate the thought from yourself.

If you gave up on your meditation practice before starting because you thought focus would be an issue, try introducing mental noting into your practice.

A Meditation on Observing Thoughts, Non-Judgmentally

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A Guided Meditation on Observing Thoughts

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  1. Take a few moments to settle into feeling the body as a whole, sitting and breathing, or lying down and breathing, riding the waves of the breath moment by moment, resting in awareness. An awareness that features the entirety of the body scape and the breath scape as they express themselves, moment by moment. Life unfolding here and now in the body, in awareness.
  2. And when you’re ready, if you care to, letting go of the breath and the body as a whole. Allowing them to recede into the background or rest in the wings, as we’ve been saying, still very much present but less featured while we invite the whole domain of thoughts and feelings and mood states to be center stage in the field of awareness.
  3. For a time attending to the stream of thought rather than being carried away by the content or emotional charge of individual thoughts, instead resting comfortably on the bank of the thoughts, river or the thought stream itself, allowing individual thoughts if and when they arise to be seen, felt, recognized and known, as thoughts as events in the field of awareness.
  4. Recognizing them as mental events, occurrences, secretions of the thinking mind, independent of their content and their emotional charge, even as that content and emotional charge are also seen and known.
  5. Seeing any and all of these fleeting thoughts as bubbles, eddies and currents within the stream, rather than as facts or as the truth of things, whatever the content, whatever the emotional charge, whatever their urgency or their tendency to reappear, whether they are pleasant or seductive, unpleasant or repulsive. Or neutral and therefore harder to detect at all.
  6. Expanding the metaphor, seeing any and all of these evanescent thought events more like clouds in the sky or bubbles coming off the bottom of a pot of boiling water. Or like writing on water, arising in a moment, lingering for the briefest of instances, and dissolving back into the formlessness from whence they came. Relating to their content as if it were of equal importance and relevance to say what you had for dinner three nights ago. Even if a thought is particularly compelling and insightful. Especially if it is particularly compelling and insightful.
  7. For now, just letting any and all thoughts come and go. Just let sounds come and go. Or sensations come and go. Not preferring some to others, nor pursuing some over others, not pursuing anything. Just resting in an awareness of thinking itself and the spaces between thoughts. Moment by moment, breath by breath, as we sit here or as we lie here.
  8. It might be helpful to be especially sensitive to the steady stream of commentary and advice you may be giving yourself as you sit here, and recognising it as such. As scaffolding. As running commentary, taking a position in relationship to it that resembles turning down the sound on a television set, so that you’re just watching the game and aren’t being sucked into the endless stream of commentary and interpretation and opinion that is so characteristic of televised sports events.
  9. Rather, you now detect the individual secretions of commentary on your moment to moment experience merely is more thinking as thoughts,, as judgments and rest in the recognizing of them in the economists attending to each event as it arises in the stream without being pulled into the past or into the future or into opinions or fears or desires, simply seeing them and knowing them as thoughts and as emotions as mental events, not as the truth and not as you watching them proliferate endlessly as they do watching the mind secrete them and throw them off.
  10. Watching how easily thoughts manufacture or fabricate views, opinions, ideas, beliefs, plans, memories, stories, and how easily they proliferate. If we feed them the one thought morphing into the next, then into the next, until we suddenly realize that we’ve been carried downstream and are no longer aware of the stream itself. The process of thinking and how in the noticing we are already back in the frame of attending to thinking, is thinking to thoughts, thoughts observing them, recognizing them, perhaps being carried away again.
  11. And if so over and over again coming back to this moment to this frame in this moment to the field of thought itself beyond all the content of the endless thinking and proliferating and fabricating and the emotions that accompany them springing from whether they are pleasant unpleasant or neutral and from what’s going on in your life in this moment.
  12. Allowing all of this to be held to bear attention in awareness moment on breath by breath as we sit here or live here resting in the awareness itself south taking up residence in awareness itself in the knowing of thoughts thoughts and feelings as feelings in the accepting of thoughts thoughts and feelings feelings whatever their content whatever their emotional charge just as an experiment in cultivating greater intimacy with your own interiority with what’s on your mind and in your heart. And with new dimensions of the possible.
  13. If we learn to observe carefully and rather than identifying with the content of thoughts and feelings to see them more impersonally as weather patterns as ripples and waves on the surface of the vast and deep ocean of the mind. As we inhabit the whole of the mind that boundless essence of mine that already knows before I thought underneath thought beyond thought that is bigger than thought. Bigger than any feeling however powerful that is capable of making use of thought and emotion without being caught and imprisoned by unwise and unexamined habit patterns developed over a lifetime of ignoring these aspects of the mindscape of the landscape of our own being of our lives unfolding.
  14. So for the remainder of our time together, until you hear the sound of the bells resting in an awareness of the arising and passing away of thoughts and feelings in the mindscape some overwhelmingly obvious, some quite subtle, some masquerading as commentary, others as scaffolding, others as neither, and simply returning over and over again to the frame, whenever the mind is carried off, not looking for thoughts or emotions or mood indicators, just resting in awareness and letting the mall come to you.
  15. Letting them arise on their own in the field of awareness to whatever degree they do. Moment by moment by moment, and breath by breath, as you sit here or as you live your life.

Will I Ever Enjoy Meditation?

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Woman sitting cross legged on the ground, looking into the distance.

Question: I’ve been meditating for a long time, but the truth is I don’t really like it. I meditate because I think I’m supposed to. It does help me in my life, but usually I find it boring and not enjoyable. Will I ever like meditating, or is that not the point?

Kate Lila Wheeler: Congratulations! Most people never feel like meditating. How great that you actually do it, and want to refine your abilities.

I bet you already have deeper motivations than “supposed to.” Before starting your meditation, try recalling a specific way you knew meditation has helped you (and others, no doubt) in life.

When you are meditating, grant yourself permission to be easy, simple, open for experiences. Feel your body. If you lack joy, let it be. Instead of fixing it, explore. What’s this like for your body? Check for attitudes. If there’s disliking or judging present, that’s OK. Don’t force yourself to be perfect. Breathe. Stay present and persist in gentle exploration. Bathe the whole mess in compassion or equanimity as needed. If you get overwhelmed, shift your attention or blink your eyes.

Finally, we all tend to import the obscurations of samsara into meditation. Samsara demands things to be a certain way. Can you know your own deepest heart, beyond techniques or measurements? Who’s that sweet being who persists, even though life gets hard? Can you rest with them?

Hope this helps.

How Meditation Can Make You Happier

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Despite many of us in the modern world enjoying a level of comfort and luxury that would be been unimaginable for most of human history, we still find it very hard to be happy. In fact, it seems that modern society is contributing to our fatigue and discontentment — with high-pressure working lives, decreased sense of community and a perceived lack of meaning all causing strain.

As much as we may struggle, however, the pursuit of happiness is still the primary goal for most people. While it would be trite to suggest that meditation can solve all our problems, there are reasons why it can help us achieve this goal.

Experiencing Less Stress

Our “fight or flight” response is continually triggered in day-to-day life by our “lizard brain” stress response system, which cannot differentiate between a true emergency and something routine — such as running late, or demands at work.

The stress response evolved in order for us to detect and face life-threatening situations, but because we have the capacity to think about our lives this response is no longer purely instinctive. Instead, we have the capacity to trigger our stress response simply by ruminating over fears and worries — especially if we struggle with anxiety.

During periods of relaxation, the hormones and physiological responses of stress naturally dissipate and do little harm, but unfortunately this isn’t the case if we’ve found ourselves on a relentless high-alert. In cases like this, the end result is exhaustion, vulnerability to illness and unhappiness.

Meditation has shown promise in various studies to reduce stress and increase “present moment awareness”, encouraging us to appreciate the moment rather than stewing over our concerns. Eventually we become calmer in general — our brains stop reacting so significantly to every trigger and our recovery time after a stressful event is improved.

In the long run, this increases our natural optimism and makes happiness easier to achieve. Consciously forcing ourselves to become more positive can be a real struggle, but because meditation appears to reduce stress on a physiological level, seeing the world in an optimistic light isn’t hampered by feelings of pressure.

Clarity

Living a hectic life full of anxiety and worry makes it nearly impossible to look at any situation with a good sense of perspective. We can overcomplicate our lives and get lost in a fog that lasts for years, never really looking up from the grindstone to appreciate what we have and enjoy ourselves.

Stress makes us think narrowly and hinders our ability to make good decisions, but, once it is eased, we can think much more clearly. This leads to more productivity and efficiency, allowing to work in a way which gets things done faster and with focus, further freeing our time and mental energy.

When we aren’t in “emergency mode” all the time, we can think about our lives without the panic, anger or irrationality that stress can bring. With this, we are more able to objectively assess what’s actually important, both in our relationships and our work lives.

Better Health

There are many health benefits of meditation, as stress can be the root cause of, or can aggravate, many illnesses. It directs energy away from normal functioning such as digestion and immune response, exacerbating ongoing issues such as IBS while leaving us more susceptible everyday coughs, colds and stomach upsets.

It also contributes to bad habits such as eating bad food, smoking and overindulging in alcohol. Those who are tired are more likely to choose high-fat, high-sugar options in their diet, while being chronically stressed increases our chances of looking for crutches such as a nicotine habit.

This further damages our health in the long term while also perpetuating the problems which make us feel bad in the short term (whether it’s just guilt or a vague hangover). Meditation tackles stress, the primary issue, putting us the best possible frame of mind for making good decisions regarding our health, whilst also improving our sleep.

Getting Started

There are many different forms of meditation and it can be worth doing a little research to see which kind most seems to resonate with you. Mindfulness is where most people begin — and with plenty of apps on the market to introduce you to this technique, it can be a good way to bring meditation into your life.

If you would prefer some guidance, it’s likely that there will be meditation teachers (or Buddhist centers) which will be happy to teach you how to meditate and offer support as you make it a daily habit.

Being the happiest we can be is one of the overriding aims of humanity, yet it is frustratingly elusive. It’s easy to think that happiness is something that will come later, if only we sacrifice our time and peace of mind now. Meditation can help us be happy wherever we are in life, and let us identify the changes we need to make in order to be truly content in the present moment.

10 Surprising Health Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

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As someone who strives daily to be the best I can be, to be present in the moment, minimize stress and appreciate the beauty and preciousness of life, I’m always keen to learn about scientifically-proven new health benefits of mindfulness meditation.

Get better sleep.

Anyone who’s suffered the lingering mental and physical effects of a poor night’s sleep on a regular basis, as I have on numerous occasions in the past, can appreciate this all-important benefit from mindfulness meditation: better sleep. In fact, research with older adults diagnosed with sleep disturbances found that the practice resulted in significant short-term improvement in sleep quality by remediating sleep problems. Researchers noted this improvement apparently carried over to “reducing sleep-related daytime impairment that has implications for quality of life.”

Make progress toward your weight-loss goals.

If you’ve struggled with yo-yo fluctuations in weight and tried many fad diets and weight-loss crazes, it might be motivating to learn that mindfulness meditation has been shown to be a good strategy to support weight-loss goals. A clinical study involving overweight and obese women found that mindfulness intervention for stress eating, while not designed to induce total weight loss, did stabilize weight among those who were obese. Researchers also found that greater frequency of eating meals mindfully was slightly related to weight loss, noting that, “Minimally, these techniques may support weight maintenance efforts, and actual weight loss might occur for those participants who eat a high proportion of meals mindfully.”

survey of American Psychological Association licensed psychologists by Consumer Reports found that mindfulness, along with cognitive therapy and problem-solving, are “excellent” or “good” weight loss strategies. That’s because the focus of dieters should be more on the role their emotions play in weight management, rather than solely on exercise and calorie control or eating less.

Lower your stress levels.

It’s a fast-paced society we live in, which contributes to and exacerbates everyday stress. Learning how to control or minimize the effects of stress on body and mind is important in overall health and well-being. So, it’s refreshing to know that a review of 47 clinical trials found that mindfulness meditation programs show “small improvements in stress/distress and the mental health component of health-related quality of life.” Another studyfound that focusing on the present through the practice of mindfulness can reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Decrease loneliness in seniors.

Getting older has its challenges, yet relationships can be deeply satisfying and personally enriching. For many older adults, however, loneliness due to the loss of a spouse or partner can be made worse when there are concurrent medical or psychological conditions or issues to deal with. One study found that an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program reduces loneliness and related pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults.

Banish temporary negative feelings.

Sitting all day at a desk or computer is not good for your overall health and well-being. The often-recommended advice to get up and move is well-founded in research.  A study assessing college students’ daily waking movement-based behaviors found less momentary negative affect from movement with mindfulness in mind and suggested that incorporating mindfulness into daily movement may lead to better overall health benefits.

Improve attention.

Researchers found that brief meditation training (four days) can lead to enhanced ability to sustain attention. Other improvements from brief meditation training included working memory, executive functioning, visuo-spatial processing, reductions in anxiety and fatigue, and increased mindfulness.

Manage chronic pain.

Millions of people suffer with chronic pain, some following an accident that leaves them with a long-term debilitating medical condition, some as a result of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) after serious injury during combat deployment, others due to diagnoses with cancer. Managing chronic pain in a healthier way is the focus of much current research. Indeed, the search for and clinical trials of alternatives to medication to help patient cope with chronic pain continues to gain momentum. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a therapy that combines mindfulness meditation and yoga, has been found to result in significant improvements in pain, anxiety, well-being and ability to participate in daily activities.

Help prevent depression relapse.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), according to a growing body of research, may prove beneficial in preventing depression relapse. A particular strength of the mind-body technique is how it shows participants how to disengage from the kind of highly dysfunctional and deeply felt thoughts that accompany depression. A 2011 study found that MBCT is an effective intervention for depression relapse in patient with at least three prior episodes of major depressive disorder (MDD). Another study found that MBCT provided significant relapse protection for participants with a history of childhood trauma that left them with increased vulnerability for depression.

Reduce anxiety.

Feeling anxious? Researchers have found that even a single session of mindfulness meditation can result in reduced anxiety. For the study, researchers focused on the effect of a single session of mindfulness meditation on participants with high levels of anxiety but normal blood pressure. They found measurable improvements in anxiety following the single mindfulness meditation session and further anxiety reduction one week later. Researchers suggested that a single mindfulness session may help to reduce cardiovascular risk in those with moderate anxiety.

Increase brain gray matter.

Along with the well-documented benefits of mindfulness meditation, another surprising finding of the mind-body practice is that it appears to increase gray matter in the brain. A controlled longitudinal study investigated pre- and post-changes to gray matter that could be attributed to participation in MBSR. Researchers found that increases in gray matter concentration occurred in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, and cerebellum. These are the regions involved in memory and learning processes, regulation of emotion, self-referential processing and taking perspective.