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The Good, Bad & Ugly of Mind Wandering & How to Tame It

Liz Merritt
April 10, 2017
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Do you ever feel as if you cannot relax? Try as you might, the simple act of sitting in stillness leaves you feeling fidgety. If mind wandering has you in its grips, then you’re in good company. Adults have an amazing capacity to overthink everything, which can result in the non-stop whirring of our busy minds like the spin cycle of a washing machine.

Overthinkers Anonymous

The good news is a Mayo Clinic study in 2016 finds people who have busy minds and remain intellectually stimulated throughout life may stave off Alzheimer’s Disease for as long as eight years.

The bad news is a 2010 Harvard University study reveals that most of us spend about 47% of our time “mind-wandering,” and this most definitely makes us unhappy campers.

The problem is we spend too much time thinking about what is not happening – ruminating on past events, worrying about the future, or thinking about stuff that may never happen at all. The Harvard researchers conclude that mind-wandering may just be the brain’s default mode and comes at a high emotional cost.

High Price of Mind Wandering

mind wandering

Even 2 hours of gonging and chanting couldn’t relax my wandering mind.

A recent personal experience demonstrates – beyond a doubt – that my busy mind is disruptive and needs reining in. Don’t judge. I opted in for a unique “concert” that consisted of two hours of chanting and gonging by two very talented and lovely performers.

Ever the optimist, I was sure this activity would lure my mind away from chronic over-activity and provide a relaxing respite from the hustle and bustle of life. Surrounded by peaceful souls decked out in flowy, white clothes, I took my place on a yoga mat in front of a wall of beautiful gongs and settled in for 2 hours of relaxation. Not so much.

Breathing turns to chanting and fills the room as we echo the leader who asks us to contemplate the experience of deeply, profoundly listening. Clearly, his mind is in a place of peaceful stillness. Mine, however, begins wandering within minutes.

Bring on the Gongs

The come the gongs. A full hour, laying on our backs, with the forewarning: “The instruments – in eight different octave ranges – will affect you in many different ways.” He goes on about how my audio cortex will light up, brain activity will slow down, and I will enter a meditative state.

mind wandering

Assured that the body would relax itself, I dug in for the gonging session.

OK, I’m giving this a shot. I lay perfectly still, eyes closed, and listen intently to the gonging. “Let the vibrations work through you. The body will begin to relax itself. Take the opportunity to release all tension. Feel free to be you,” he instructs.

You probably know where I’m going with this. Within 10 minutes, the mind wandering begins. And at 30 minutes, the real me flips over on my stomach. I hunch over my phone so no one else sees the light from the screen scroll mindlessly through Facebook. I even tried taking a video of the experience. But when the flash came on, I was horrified and quickly shoved the phone under my mat.

Calm Determination

So what’s a mind-wanderer to do? For those of us determined to fight this aggravating habit and invite some calm into our lives, there are some baby steps we can take to begin the process.

  1. Practicing meditation coaxes your mind to focus. It also trains a variety of aspects related to attention. Studies suggest that just 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks can deliver improvement.
  2. Our brains function better and remain in a more restful state with regular, aerobic exercise.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Bring your thoughts into a focused state in the present moment by focusing on your breathing. Tune in to what’s directly in front of you and objects in the room. Feel your body in that very moment.
  4. Lose track of time. One of the most effective ways to live in the moment is getting into a state of total absorption, or flow. You’re so focused on what you’re doing that you lose track of time.

Work in Progress

Mind wandering is something I battle regularly. In fact, I had a tattoo done on my wrist that says “now.” It is a continuous reminder whenever my mind wanders to return to a state of presence. Some days, I’m respectful of that reminder. And other days, I have to work harder at it.

While living a consistently mindful life takes a lot of practice, we always have to remember that mindfulness isn’t a goal. Because a goal suggests we’re focused on the future. Mindfulness requires that we live in the here and now, and it’s a great place to spend more time.

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