My mind won’t be quiet

When we first learn to meditate, there are many obstacles we need to overcome. The first, I find, is the title of this post. We get stuck fighting with our mind to get it to shut up. Because that’s what meditation is, right? A quiet, serene mind? Well…not exactly.

We think the steps of meditation look like this:

  1. Set timer and sit down
  2. Focus on the breath
  3. Meditate blissfully for 20 or 30 minutes

But really it looks like this:

  1. Set timer and sit down
  2. Focus on the breath
  3. Notice attention has wandered to what’s for lunch
  4. Re-focus on the breath
  5. Notice attention has wandered to an itchy nose
  6. Re-focus on the breath
  7. Notice attention has wandered to why beavers build dams
  8. Re-focus on the breath
  9. Feel the mind settle down for 5-30 seconds
  10. Notice attention has wandered to whether the dog needs a diet
  11. Re-focus on the breath
  12. Notice attention has wandered to what “I should have said”….

You get the picture?

Mind wandering is normal. It is to be expected. It is part of the path.

Mind wandering isn’t a problem

Someone (I’m too tired to look up who just now) said that the mind makes thoughts like the mouth makes saliva. It is constant, and it is outside our control. You cannot order thoughts to stop. They might, if you get concentrated enough in meditation, but it’s better to think of this as a side effect. Psychology labs have done plenty of experiments showing that thought suppression has the opposite effect. The act of not thinking about something requires your mind to monitor for those thoughts, which basically keeps you thinking about the thing. Make sense?

But the good news is, meditation works even if your mind is wandering.

The practice, the real practice, is noticing that your mind is wandering. The point is to become conscious of what we’re doing as we’re doing it. This is a far cry from our usual mode, where we find ourselves in a room without remembering why we came in, or reacting to a single word someone speaks with anger or even rage. We spend our lives unconscious of what’s happening in our minds and bodies. Meditation aims to change that, but it won’t necessarily be a blissful or easy ride. Some meditation sessions will feel like wrestling an octopus. Enjoyment is not required for meditation to do its job.

I like to compare this to exercise. As a former marathon runner, I can tell you that runners don’t run because it always feels good. Sometimes it sucks, and it hurts, and it’s boring. But every run benefits your heart and lung function. Even if it rains or you take a lot of walking breaks or you legs just don’t have much gas. Similarly, every time you catch the mind wandering in meditation, this leads to greater attention. Celebrate!

Tools for success

There are some tricks that can help us stick to a meditation practice when it feels fruitless or too hard. First, know that doubt is actually part of the path, like hunger is part of life. It doesn’t mean anything bad about you or your meditation. Second, find some way to keep yourself accountable. Absolutely use a timer and perhaps a guided meditation. Find some meditative friends (online groups are all over the place) and sit together to practice. It’s always easier to show up for others who are expecting us. Third, ask questions of more experienced practitioners. Often we think what’s happening for us is wrong, bad or not good enough. Find someone further along the path to bounce these things off of. And fourth, be flexible. Your practice doesn’t have to look the way you think it does. If life is throwing a lot of stuff at you and all you can manage today is 2 minutes of meditation in the shower, let that be enough. You’ll do more when you have more to give. Consistency trumps quantity here. Two minutes a day is as good or better than 10 minutes every five days.

The last piece of advice I’d give is to read books about this stuff. My go-to list is as follows:

  1. Why Buddhism is True (Robert Wright)
  2. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (Jack Kornfield)
  3. Radical Acceptance (Tara Brach)
  4. When Things Fall Apart (Pema Chodron)
  5. Mastering the Hard-Core Teachings of the Buddha (Daniel Ingram)

What questions do you have? Feel free to email me or comment!

May you be well. May all beings be well.

3 thoughts on “My mind won’t be quiet

  1. This is a really good reminder to do meditation even if the mind strays. And another example of what my friend means when she says “don’t perfect be the enemy of good.” Thank you!


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