27 Jun 2021

[103] Interrupted Attention and Overcoming Mind-Wandering

Stage Two’s goal is to shorten the periods of mind-wandering and extend the periods of sustained attention to the meditation object 

  • Hold the intention to appreciate the “aha” moment that recognizes mind-wandering, while gently but firmly redirecting attention back to the breath 
  • Intend to engage with the breath as fully as possible without losing peripheral awareness 
  • Over time, periods of mind-wandering will become shorter, periods of attention to the breath will grow longer, and I’ll have achieved my goal 
  • I may feel meditation is making my mind more agitated 
    • In reality, I’m just becoming aware of what’s always been going on in the mind 
  • Meditations at this stage mostly consist of interrupted continuity of mind-wandering 
    • Most of my time is taken up by mind-wandering, interrupted by brief periods of attention to breath 
    • By the end of this stage, I’ll experience the opposite with most of my time attending to the breath with only brief periods of mind-wandering 
  • This stage is mastered when episodes of mind-wandering are brief, while my attention to the breath lasts much longer 

Stage Two Practice Goals 

  1. Shortening the periods of mind-wandering 
    • I will address mind-wandering with positive reinforcement 
    • Learning to try appreciate the moment I “wake up” to the fact that attention strayed 
    • Even though I were preoccupied with something else, some unconscious part of my mind made me consciously aware that I were supposed to be attending to the breath 
  2. Sustaining attention on the breath for longer periods 
    • I achieve longer intervals of sustained attention by learning to actively engage with the breath 

Stage Two Obstacles 

  • Forgetting 
    • I forget the meditation object 
    • I forget my intention to focus on the breath 
  • Mind-wandering 
    • Happens after I’ve forgotten what I was doing 
    • The mind will wander from thought to thought, often for a long time, before I “wake up” to what is happening 
  • Monkey-mind 
    • I place my attention on the breath, but the mind produces distractions 
    • Alternating attention scans these distractions for something more interesting, important, exciting, intense, or novel 
  • Impatience 
    • When attention tires of one distraction, it moves to another, usually through chains of association 
    • This kind of mind-wandering is the main obstacle I’ll work on at this stage 


  • When attention is accompanied by greater awareness, I have strong mindfulness, meaning I can refocus and stabilize my attention wherever and whenever it’s needed 

Directing and Redirecting Attention 

  • I want to continuously cultivate my ability to intentionally direct attention to any object I choose 
    • This is done by redirecting attention back to the meditation object whenever it wanders 
    • Doing so will lead directed attention to stable attention 
  • Intentionally redirecting attention, repeated often, trains my unconscious to do it automatically. Eventually, other things no longer capture my attention 

Sustaining Attention on the Meditation Object 

  • In order to increase the periods of sustained attention to the meditation object, I may use a technique called following the breath 
    • Try identifying the exact moment the in-breath starts and the exact moment it ends (repeat with the out-breath) 
    • Silently talk to myself and think about the breath as much as I want. If it’s helpful, I can note, “beginning, end, beginning, end.” 
    • If I am visually inclined, create a mental image such as a circle expanding and contracting with the breath 
    • If I am more kinesthetically inclined, imagine some type of motion corresponding to the breath cycle, such as my body expanding and contracting 
  • Remember that I am not trying to imagine what the breath looks like. Rather, I am using an image to help me follow the sensations 
    • The image should be driven by the sensations, not superimposed on them 

Focusing on the Meditation Object without Losing Peripheral Awareness 

  • Don’t try to stabilize attention by focusing intensely on the breath and pushing everything else out of awareness 
  • Instead of limiting peripheral awareness, allow sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings continue in the background 
    • Expect my awareness to alternate between these and the breath 
    • When this happens, the meditation object (the breath) will either slip into the background or drop out of awareness completely 
    • In either case, once I realize this has happened, simply return the focus of my attention to the meditation object 
  • It doesn’t matter whether the breath is the center of attention or in the background. Feel satisfied so long as the meditation object remains in the field of conscious awareness 

“I” am not in Control of “My” Mind 

  • Mind-wandering happens constantly. Rather than pass judgement, let my meditation practice illuminate what’s really going on: there is no self in control of the mind, and therefore nobody to blame 
  • Ultimately, meditation means training a complex, multi-part system (the mind) to work cooperatively, coherently, and consistently through a shared consensus toward common goals 

Calming the Monkey-Mind 

  • “Monkey-mind” describes an especially agitated state where attention jumps rapidly from one thing to the next, like an excited monkey 
    • This is different than mind-wandering, which happens at a slower pace 
    • This makes me feel restless and must be dealt with differently than ordinary mind-wandering 
  • In order to calm the monkey-mind, I must become grounded in the body 
    • This means expanding the space in which I allow attention to move to include the entire body, and if needed, the other senses as well 
  • Grounding techniques include: 
    • Scanning the sensations of the body part by part 
    • Attending to any strong bodily sensation 
    • Evoking whole body awareness 
    • Becoming aware of other sensations, like sounds 
  • I let the mind keep moving, but only within the boundaries that I have intentionally set 

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