If You Believe You’re Practicing Mindfulness “Wrong,” Think Again.
“There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they’re necessary to reach the places we’ve chosen to go.”
— Richard Bach
The wandering mind is the often the most dominant experience when anyone first attempts to learn mindfulness practice. Although it is a natural characteristic of being human, most of us don’t realize how busy our minds are until someone asks us to pay attention to our experience, such as the breath, for an extended time; we are generally unaware that preoccupations about the future or the past have such a strong grip on us. Therefore, many people interpret that they are “doing the practice wrong” when they realize that their mind is wandering so frequently and that they are ensnared by those thoughts. They judge themselves as not being good at practicing mindfulness.
Instead, it is helpful to understand that you free yourself of the grip of your wandering mind by noticing when you are caught by it. It is in that moment of noticing that you are preoccupied by thoughts that you have the opportunity to bring your awareness back to the here and now. Ultimately, you foster the increasing ability to bring your mind into the present moment by noticing when it is not present, and learning to welcome it back, rather than punitively judging yourself when you are not paying attention. You are not “doing the practice wrong,” this is actually how you develop the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a process, like building a muscle that gets stronger with use over time. Physiologically, you are creating new neural pathways that support your ability to bring your awareness into the present, and each time you repeat that pattern, the neural pathway becomes stronger and the signal becomes faster. With greater use, that pathway is easier for you to access. So, to cultivate mindfulness, follow the advice of Saint Francis de Sales, “If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently …. And even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back …, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”
Carl Jung asserted, “Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.” Accordingly, knowing that your mind is not in the present moment, that it, instead, has been wandering, is a valuable experience. This helps you to learn to differentiate when your mind is actually present. Also enables you to develop insight about the patterns of thought that pull and preoccupy your attention. As counterintuitive as it may sound, learning more about your wandering mind, and your tendency to get seduced by it, helps you develop the capability to be present more often.
The same is true regarding any aspect of your experience, not merely your wandering mind. In her poem, Unconditional, Jennifer Paine Welwood suggests,
Willing to experience aloneness,
I discover connection everywhere;
Turning to face my fear,
I meet the warrior who lives within…
Opening to my loss,
I gain the embrace of the universe;
Surrendering into emptiness,
I find fullness without end.
For example, if you feel impatient, rather than fighting against that feeling and trying to force yourself to act patient, instead you may learn about patience by exploring and becoming more familiar with your experience of impatience – acknowledging it fully and getting to know it more intimately. Patience then comes from your ability to be free of impatience.
Similarly, rather than pushing away experiences of pain to try to minimize your discomfort, see what it is like to be willing to explore your experience of pain. By turning your awareness in towards it, taking a very close look at the pain, noticing how it feels in your body, separately from the thoughts that are triggered, you may at some point notice moments of being free of the grip the pain has upon you.
Instead of judging yourself, congratulate yourself for noticing when your mind has wandered, or that you feel impatient or what the experience of pain feels like. This is the heart of the mindfulness practice, insight, knowing what your experience truly is in the moment.