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A wandering mind

Here at Headspace, we frequently get messages from our users asking for help with one issue in particular: "My mind keeps wandering, no matter how much I practice. Why isn't this getting better?"

It’s an understandable question, particularly given most people’s belief that meditation is about achieving an elusive state of a totally clear, thoughtless mind. The thing is, a wandering mind is a human mind. And the roots of this lie in the evolutionary advantage it gave us as a species – one shared by no other species on the planet. You see, when our cognitive ability developed to the point where we could abstract our thoughts away from the present moment, we became able to anticipate future dangers and take preemptive steps to avoid them. At the same time we also developed the facility to be able to recall the past and learn from our previous experiences. There are structures in the brain which automatically check incoming information, comparing it to similar situations that we’ve experienced in the past, and prime us to optimize the current outcome by giving us a ‘gut feeling’ for what we should do. So far, so top of the evolutionary tree!

But what happens when the impending dangers that this cognitive ability evolved to handle (sabre-toothed tigers, unrecognized berries, extremes of weather when all you have for clothes are an animal pelt loin cloth) are no longer ever-present life threats? You know the answer: worrying about what you said in that meeting yesterday, imagining how the party next week is going to be a complete disaster, and so on. And our minds will go there again and again and again... usually focusing on the potential negative outcomes. This saved our lives for thousands of years! But, mindfulness isn’t about stopping these unique and remarkable cognitive processes through sheer force of will – that would be to vastly underestimate the power of our instincts. What mindfulness teaches you to do is spot when your mind has wandered off down one path or another, and be able to bring it back to the here and now. The more you practice doing this, the quicker you’ll notice when it’s wandered, and the easier it will become to get back to experiencing the present moment. The quicker you spot when your mind has wandered, the greater proportion of your time you’ll spend actually in the here and now, not because your mind wanders any less frequently, but just because you spend less time lost in the thoughts. And that’s what you’re aiming for. So, when your mind keeps wandering, don’t beat yourself up about not seeing any improvement – you are improving, precisely because you’re noticing that it’s happening. You’ve already taken the first step on the journey to a healthier happier life.

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