Do you ever feel like your mind is a lot like Billy from the Family Circus? You plan to go from A straight to B, and then “Squirrel!” Without even realizing it, you’re way off track.
Many people find a wandering mind to be incredibly frustrating as they try to meditate (or do just about anything else). Once you learn how to manage mind-wandering, meditation practice is more enjoyable and productive. So let’s look at what causes the mind to wander and what to do about it.
The Default Mode Network
You probably already know that your brain is a natural at looking for problems. Just when you stop to smell an actual rose, or begin to meditate, or put your feet up at the end of the day, your Default Mode Network (DMN) jolts you out of the stillness and presents you with problems. Did you remember to charge your phone? What’s that sound coming from? Oh, and don’t forget to pick up the whatsit on the way home. And by the way, what’s a whatsit and how do you even know when you got a good one? Should you look up some online reviews first?
The DMN is actually useful when it functions the way it’s supposed to by periodically scanning for things that you truly need to respond to. Civilization would collapse if not for DMNs because we often do need to remember the whatsits. But brains grow better and better at doing the things that they are used to doing, so the more your brain scans for things to do, the more proficient it gets at doing that. The DMN muscle grows stronger, and soon you’re spending a lot of your waking hours scanning for things to do!
(The DMN is also sometimes called the Task-Negative brain network because when it’s active, we stop actually completing tasks and instead become preoccupied with worries about things that may need to be done. That can spiral into a cycle of unproductive mind-wandering that makes you feel even more unproductive, and yes that’s recursively recursive.)
An active DMN makes sustained focus difficult. When you’re trying to meditate, an active DMN can lead to a spiral of worry, preoccupation, and really ineffective meditation. Without a strategy for dealing with your DMN, your meditation practice is likely to fail. It’s like your mind is a little child or a puppy that keeps wandering away, distracted by all manner of things.
You might even find yourself in a Catch-22 situation where you need to meditate in order to gain control over DMN processes, but the DMN makes your meditation too DMN difficult!
Guide the Puppy Back
Let’s return to the metaphor because it may provide the solution you need. In a way, your mind is like a cute little puppy. It’s happy to please you and stay right where you want it, practicing focused meditation just like you want it to—that is, until it isn’t. Then it’s chasing butterflies, chewing on shoelaces, and sniffing around for a place to leave a deposit. But watch how things change when you relate to your mind like you would to a cute little innocent puppy. It’s not trying to annoy you or impede your progress as a meditator. It’s just off track because the DMN noticed that you were still and went looking for something else to think about.
Why not treat your cute little mind with kindness and just gently guide it back to where you want it? Treat it like an adorable little puppy and bring it back here, back to your meditation practice, back here again. And again. And again.
The Good News
The good news here is that with practice your puppy mind grows up and learns to sustain focus. Research shows that with ongoing meditation time, you get less and less distracted by your DMN. Your focus grows stronger and you function better—not just in your meditation practice, but in real life too!
Now that you understand your DMN is a normal function of your brain, and know what you can do to respond more effectively to it, why not practice some mindfulness with one of the recordings on my meditation page, consider taking an eight week Mindful Self-Compassion course, or schedule an appointment to explore deepening your meditation practice?