One of the benefits of a devoted mindfulness practice is that we develop stronger attentional control, become more adept at shifting focus intentionally and sustaining concentration through distraction when appropriate. This allows us to decide from where and how extensively we gather information for wiser responding.
Often the mind wanders. We find ourselves reviewing interactions and activities from the past, forecasting the future, or daydreaming about fanciful nonsense. Wandering is aimless and rambling – there is no particular point or destination. We are just browsing through thoughts and images. Mind wandering is often a form of self-entertainment and ultimately an attempt to avoid something perceived as unpleasant. Research shows this type of cognitive activity can actually be correlated with decreased happiness. However, there is also some research indicating mind wandering may play a role in creativity. I suspect that many times the mind wanders because it feels lost – it is very familiar with doing, but it casts about aimlessly in the unfamiliar territory of being.
At other times, the mind “travels”. When we travel, our actions are goal directed – we are moving from where we are toward some destination. An external stimulus (like a phone ringing) or an internal stimulus (like a body ache) pulls attention away from the intended focus. Mind traveling may not be particularly choiceful when we are on automatic pilot – we may just be reflexively following some sort of habit or pre-programmed conditioning. But, mind traveling can also be quite conscious and adaptive. If we are in an unfamiliar place and someone is approaching, it might be very helpful to shift our focus to this presence.
Both mind wandering and mind traveling can become obstacles to mindfulness practice. However, if we are aware when these mind states arise, pass away, and are not present, we better understand them and their consequences. Each time we realize the mind has wandered, we can gently guide it back to the intended focus. Each time the mind travels, we can decide whether we might now focus on the stimuli that pulled attention away or whether it makes better sense to shift it back to the original object of intention. It is a process of experimentation through which we awaken to our habits and patterns and learn new ways of relating to them. We begin to truly know the mind.
…it’s in the process of mastering the skill of mindful concentration that true insight arises. – Thanissaro Bhikkhu