The Untrained Elephant

Our mind often wanders as we attempt to create a narrative of our lives, make meaning of our experiences, or find solutions to various challenges we face. In fact, intentional mind wandering or allowing ourselves to think openly and freely can be useful for problem solving and creativity. However, mind wandering can become problematic when we shift towards negative thoughts or circular, negative rumination.  

Mind wandering is very common. In fact, neuroscientists have referred to mind wandering as our ‘default setting’. A classic 2010 study on the experience of mind wandering found that our mind wanders for up to fifty percent of the day and that mind wandering is associated with greater unhappiness, regardless of what a person is doing.  

Mindfulness practice can help us learn how to intentionally bring our wandering mind back to the present moment. It is also helpful for developing the awareness necessary for noticing when our mind wanders and responding in a more flexible or adaptive manner. The more we practice noticing our mind or our thoughts, the better we can become at bringing our attention back to the present moment or deploying our attention in a more productive direction. With practice, we can develop greater agency around mind wandering and decide when it is or is not helpful.

Practice Taking a Pause

Meditation is a great way to practice mindfulness. Practice taking a moment to pause for one minute. Let yourself sit quietly and focus on your breathing. Focus on what it feels like to breath in and breath out. Notice what your body feels like as your chest or abdomen rises and falls. Practice this observation of your breath for just one minute. During this time notice the flow of your mind as it inevitably wanders off. Once you notice your mind wandering, gently bring your attention back to your breathing. 

What was your state of mind?

What was your emotional state?

Did you experience any negative thoughts or judgements?

How difficult was it to concentrate on your breathing?

Did you mind wander and where did it go?

What did it feel like to redirect your attention back to you breathing?

How do you feel now?

This basic meditation practice is what we could refer to as a mindfulness push-up. Each time you notice you mind wandering and bring it back to the present, you are building upon your present moment awareness and strengthening your ability to intentionally deploy your attention.  

You can also use everyday mindfulness strategies as mindfulness push-ups throughout your day.  

A wandering mind is part of our everyday experience. Mindfulness practice and brief mindfulness pushups can help us to better recognize mind wandering and train our attention by coming back to our breathing or grounding ourselves in our surrounding environment.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Psychologist

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Published by tlindquistpsyd

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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