When I suggest mindfulness or meditation, I often hear from folks: “My mind wanders too much, it’s not relaxing.” Or “It was great, I focused on my breath the whole time, my mind went blank.”
Feeling relaxed and super focused sounds very pleasant. It also isn’t going to happen every time. And I’m glad for that! Because there’s a larger aim, a more important one, at least for my purposes in helping people who struggle with anxiety. Let’s come back to that.
For now, after reading this paragraph, take a moment to close or lower your eyes and pay attention to your breath. Don’t try to change it, just notice it. Pay attention to the air entering the nostrils, or what it feels like in the back of your throat or filling up your belly. Notice the pace, and the pause between the inhale and the exhale. Just be curious about the physical details. Go ahead and try that for a couple minutes.
Did the mind wander? Yes? OK! That’s what it’s there for, to generate thought. It’s really OK.
Now try again, and each time the mind wanders, just notice that, say to yourself “wandering” and gently, softly, quietly return your attention to your breath. It will wander again. If it wanders 100 times, shift 100 times. This moment of awareness followed by gentle shifting is the skill I’m most interested in. If you cultivate that, under less challenging conditions like sitting at your dining room table or on the meditation pillow, you will have a skill that is awfully handy when your mind does its thing off the meditating pillow. Because it will.
Cultivating mindfulness, especially for people who struggle with anxiety, is helpful, in part, because when the mind launches into a frenzy of catastrophic thinking or worry or intrusive thought, it can be useful to gently pause in awareness, with a compassionate “ah, there’s that thought” followed by a soft return to the present. A gentle shift. Maybe to your breath, or maybe the sounds, or your kid right in front of you, or the task you’re trying to complete. The present. And meditation gives you practice with that gentle shifting.
Headspace is a good app for guided meditations. Another I like is Insight Timer, because I prefer non guided, just the breath. Whichever you choose, give it a shot this week, even just 10 minutes a day, and see what you notice.