Taming the wandering mind

Dazed and in line

In the weeks since I attended a week-long partially-silent retreat, at which considerable time was spent meditating and honing our ability to just “rest in the stillness of awareness,” I’ve been distracted by noticing how much we distract ourselves. 

In the San Jose airport fresh off the mountain retreat and back into the real world, waiting through a gruelingly long security line, I purposely did not take out my cell phone so that I could test my freshly-honed mindfulness chops. Could I manage to stay present and in the moment (i.e., without my phone), even if I was extremely bored and pushing the limits of frustration? I did that, and what I had to look at was about 90% of everyone else doing this: necks craned down staring into their little screens, not talking to the people they were with, not noticing when the line moved, thumbs swiping and fingers texting away.

Notice for yourself next time you're in one of these situations: in line at the grocery store; driving by people who are waiting at a bus stop or crossing an intersection; watching people eating a restaurant with companions; noticing other occupants in the car next to you at a red light. How many of them are on their phones? Or an even better challenge – count the number of people not on their phones (it’ll take less time). 

The mind abhors a vacuum. And Steve Jobs and the march of technology have certainly filled that void in ways that are more extreme and pervasive than ever before. The most stimulating, vibrant, and capable technology can now travel with us anywhere we go and be used anytime—we are seemingly incapable of detaching ourselves from it. It’s not just the phones. But what they are doing to us—their sheer ubiquity in our minute-to-minute existence—is making it ever harder for our minds to develop sustained attention free from distractions in myriad other situations. We truly have become addicted to stimulus and distraction. Need it be said, this is not healthy.

Where and when are you?

How can you tell if this state of distraction affects you? If I asked to you to describe in vivid and precise detail your morning commute to work today, how much could you recall? And not just the particular path you took, which is doubtless etched into your memory, but what you experienced along the way and how you felt. Where was the sun in the sky? Was it obscured by any clouds? What color was the sky? Did you notice anything different about someone’s yard? Maybe different cars parked on the street than you’re used to seeing? Do you remember how many red lights you stopped at? What songs or programs were coming through your stereo? How long did it take? How did you feel at various points along the way, emotionally, physically?

Maybe you were in a sleepy fog. Maybe you were planning your day ahead, worried about some meeting or completing a project you’re working on. Maybe you were eagerly anticipating a lunch or dinner date later today. Maybe you were worried about a friend you emailed with yesterday who is having a hard time. Maybe you were replaying a spat you had last night with your partner and were replaying things you wish you’d said to defend yourself or to diffuse the conflict.

If you work from home or don’t work, then try this exercise about something else: what do you remember about your breakfast time today? What do you remember about your experience eating dinner recently with a loved one? What did you experience the last time you walked to take a bathroom break? The point is—were  you really “there” or were you distracted?

Why you are likely to be (avoidably) unhappy 50% of your life

Why is being distracted a bad thing? Because we are distracted so much of the time and it is a major contributor to unhappiness. A couple of studies—one that came out of Harvard in 2010 and one from 2011 by researchers from Yale and the University of Oregon—revealed this:

During 50% of our waking time, our minds are wandering. And regardless of whether our thoughts while wandering are pleasant or unpleasant, we report ourselves to be less happy whenever our mind is wandering.

The 2011 study refers to this regular state of mind-wandering as our brain’s “default-mode network,” a type of baseline for how we can expect it to operate. I find this both alarming and disheartening—this means that for half of our waking lives, we really aren’t “here.” We are thinking about what is NOT happening almost as much as what IS happening. Fifty percent of the time, we are thinking about something that happened in the past, or has yet to happen (and likely will not) in the future. Neither the past nor future are things we can control, but certainly ruminating about them brings us worry and even worse conditions that thwart our mental and physical well-being.

Why is this such a problem, and what can be done to remedy it? The authors provide answers (emphasis mine):

Mind-wandering is not only a common activity present in roughly 50% of our awake life, but is also associated with lower levels of happiness (1). Moreover, mind-wandering is known to correlate with neural activity in a network of brain areas that support self-referential processing, known as the default-mode network (DMN) (2–7). This network has been associated with processes ranging from attentional lapses to anxiety to clinical disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer's Disease (6, 8, 9). Given the interrelationship between the DMN, mind-wandering, and unhappiness, a question arises: Is it possible to change this default mode into one that is more present-centered, and possibly happier?

One potential way to reduce DMN activity is through the practice of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness, a core element of diverse forms of meditation, is thought to include two complementary components: (i) maintaining attention on the immediate experience, and (ii) maintaining an attitude of acceptance toward this experience (10)…”

The rest of this abstract is quite interesting and well worth the time to read.

Mind-body wellness: it’s all connected and within your power to change

The effects aren’t just that we’re bummed out a lot, and it doesn’t just apply to those of us living relatively privileged “first-world” lives. According to the World Health Organization:

  • 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression
  • Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease

Research has shown that there is a clear link between depression and physical health—for example, depression can lead to cardiovascular disease, and vice-versa. Science has also born out the benefits of mindfulness and meditation that millennia of meditators and monks have been trying to teach us: these techniques reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and enable us to think more calmly and rationally to difficult situations so that we make wise decisions about our words and our actions.

The antidote

Mindfulness and developing our attention is the alternative to mind-wandering. It is critical to achieving greater functioning and improved health and happiness in our day-to-day lives.

Here are just a few quick, everyday practices to try to help you along in this journey to taming your wandering mind:

  1. Disconnect (from technology)
    On your phone, log out of your apps for Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/whatever-you-check-when-you-have-idle-time. Resist the urge to distract yourself whenever you have spare moments and look at the world around you.

    Much of the software that runs our machines (lives?) now contain features to help reduce distractions and foster greater focus. See this about the iPhone’s features to help reduce distraction from apps and phone alerts, and this Washington Post article about Microsoft Windows 10’s Focus Assist feature, which resulted from the company looking into research showing that “switching tasks, even just to see a notification, can keep someone from regaining their focus for 23 minutes...”)

    Can you go an entire day without looking at your phone? Can you go all weekend without looking at email? Maybe participating in a National Day of Unplugging can help. See whether staying “unplugged” for an extended period of time enhances your ability to live in and savor the moment.
  2. Indulge in a hobby or activity that demands your focused attention, where you don’t think about yourself of form opinions/judgments about things. Any activity that gets you “in the flow” where you take yourself out of it; an activity that you enjoy for its own sake, not for any particular purpose or gain. Rollerblading, gardening, playing an instrument, playing with a child, etc. These things are all about helping you to stay in the now, not wander off to a past or future time. Doing more of these living-in-the moment things, you will probably find, makes you considerably happier. There’s a great exploration of exactly this concept and how to apply it in Lama Marut’s book “Be Nobody.
  3. Use everyday experiences as a chance to cultivate focus and practice mindfulness. Brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, folding laundry, waiting for the bus, walking to work, sitting at a red light, waiting in line at the grocery store, etc.
  4. And of course, cultivate a meditation practice! Try just sitting and breathing in a quiet place and see how it goes. You can go deeper from there. There are lots of apps that can help get you started, such as Headspace or 10% Happier. Check out local spiritual or community centers who frequently offer meditation instruction and group sits, or even mindfulness workshops. Most yoga classes features a few minutes of mindfulness at the beginning and/or end, and that's also great place to start. Or reach out to me. If you remain skeptical that a) meditation is beneficial, or b) that you can do it,  I suggest Dan Harris's hilarious, insightful, and convincing book, "Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics."

So now I offer a challenge for you. For the rest of today, anytime you find yourself with some idle time, just sit there. Don’t look at your phone, don’t think about past or future events, don’t plan or reminisce. Instead, just be.  Pay attention to what’s around you—what are you taking in through your five senses right now? What is happening in the body? Can you take some deep breaths and just observe—observe yourself and your condition, and observe what’s around you.

Try to be a present but casual observer without judging what you are experiencing (I hate that guy’s t-shirt, that car looks dirty, I wish I had that iced coffee she has, etc.), and instead just notice (I see 3 red cars in a row in front of me, the sky is a dark blue today, etc.).

Next time you’re waiting in a long security line at the airport, can you keep the phone in your bag, keep your head up and look around you, and strive to recall detailed things about what is happening all around you and how you feel?

You may not even realize it, but doing this is exercise for your mind. It’s keeping you healthy and preparing you to handle tougher situations in the future.

You just might find that your moment-to-moment reality is actually a lot better than you ever realized.