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Distracted When You Meditate? Here's Why You Should Do a Happy Dance

06/05/2015 05:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016
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Lately, in my morning meditation sessions, I've been doing a mental happy dance every time I notice myself absorbed in and distracted by thought.

Huh? Isn't the goal to focus on my breath and not let my mind run and wander?

No, in fact the goal is mindfulness, and guess what: when I notice that I'm thinking again, that is mindfulness in action.

That moment of noticing is not an opportunity to beat myself up for my monkey mind; that is the golden moment, because every time I notice myself thinking, I now have the opportunity to simply let that thought go, and return to my breath.

I wish someone had explained this to me decades ago.

Here's the really beautiful thing, though: this skill of noticing that I've become absorbed in thought is not just useful on my meditation cushion. Noticing what I'm doing, and mindfully redirecting myself, is exactly the same skill I need in the rest of my day:

  • To pull myself back to the task I really want to be doing, when I succumb to distractions (Facebook, anyone?)
  • To point myself toward the carrots when I find my hand reaching for an unhealthy snack.
  • To consciously stop eating when I feel sated (even when the food is so yummy, I want to gobble down more!)
In the examples above, the critical first step is noticing. Unless and until I notice that I've gotten sucked down a Facebook rabbit hole, or that I'm self-medicating with food, or simply that I'm full, my impulsive lizard brain will be in the driver's seat.

The ability to notice, and then redirect (the second step) -- otherwise known as willpower or self-control -- is like a muscle. One of the best ways humans have found to strengthen that muscle is mindfulness meditation. Every time I notice my mind absorbed in thought, and gently bring my attention back to my breath, I am flexing and strengthening that willpower muscle.

In fact, studies have shown that daily meditation actually grows your prefrontal cortex in as little as 8 weeks! Meditation literally makes your prefrontal cortex bigger and better connected.

And it does this while shrinking the amygdala, the "lizard brain" that's responsible for (among other things) urging you to only follow your impulses, rather than your long-term goals.

In addition, as this article in Scientific American says, meditation changes the "functional connectivity" between these two regions. "The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger."

Wow! That's some endorsement for meditation!

Unfortunately, for too many years, I thought my inability to "clear my mind" meant that I sucked at meditation and it wasn't for me. Now, thankfully, I understand that the goal isn't an empty mind, but mindfulness.

So instead of beating myself up for my monkey mind, when I notice my mind wandering -- yet again -- in a meditation session, I give a silent cheer for my prefrontal cortex.

I now know that the "worse" my meditation session is, in terms of my mind getting distracted by thought, as long as I notice myself thinking, and gently guide myself back to breath, the better practice I'm getting.

No wonder I look forward to my morning meditation now, after avoiding it for years! Who wants to meditate when they know they'll emerge psychically black and blue from beating themselves up over and over?

On the other hand, when you know you're going to spend ten or twenty minutes happydancing, meditation starts to become irresistible.

Do you meditate? If not, I encourage you to try it, with the self-direction to mentally celebrate each time you notice yourself absorbed in thinking, and gently, lovingly let go of your thought and guide your attention back to your breath. 

It's not an easy practice, but it's not supposed to be, and that's the point: you've got to work the muscle to strengthen it.

Have fun and namaste!

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This article was first posted at http://melissadinwiddie.com.