When the mind won’t stop thinking, just sit back and watch.
If you’re new to meditation, then you’ve probably noticed how difficult it can be to stay focussed on the here and now. The mind wanders off all too easily. An endless stream of thoughts can take your attention in any number of directions, which can leave you feeling restless and unable to relax.
If you are finding this a challenge, you are not alone. The wandering mind is normal and happens to everyone. As you keep practicing and learning the skills of mindfulness meditation, over time you’ll find that you can hold your attention for longer and longer stretches. Patience and non-judging are key ingredients to learning this new skill without giving up too quickly.
The following video offers some reflections about how to work with a busy mind during meditation. It is an excerpt from the 6 week online course A Mindful Way to Healthy Sleep.
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Dr Giselle Withers: When most people begin practicing mindfulness or any time of mediation for that matter, they can be really surprised, even shocked, by the sheer volume of thoughts going through one’s mind. It can feel overwhelming. This discovery can sometimes leave people feeling that they’ll never be able to meditate with so much going on upstairs.
Becoming more aware of the incessant thinking and rumination of the mind is actually a really good sign that your mindfulness practice is working. Your increased awareness and ability to observe the mind means you have begun to step out of thought stream. You’re learning to watch the mind from a place of awareness and knowing.
The Buddhists have a great name for this shared human experience of a crazy mind that jumps all over the place. They call it Monkey Mind. They liken the mind to a troop of monkeys, chattering away, jumping endlessly from one branch to the next.
“Taming the monkey mind” is a common term used in a meditation teachings, which refers to quieting down and steadying the focus of a busy distracted mind. But this is not easily done. If your try too hard to reign in a busy mind, you can end up in a battle with your thoughts, and you might think you’re failing when here are too many thoughts arising, or when you mind is jumping all over the place.
Rather than try to quieten thoughts, it is wiser to spend some time initially just getting to know your mind by watching it! Observe your thoughts as they jump around from topic to topic, not so much by going along with the thinking, but by standing apart from them and noticing the content or the thoughts and type of thoughts that are present, just as we practiced earlier.
When you practice observing thoughts It’s helpful to continue to bring your attention back to breath every now and then, to help you stay anchored and present, protecting you from getting lost in thoughts. As always, be patient and gentle with yourself when you practice and treat it with a light touch.