We’ve all been there. You start to write, but your mind has long since wandered off, churning out lists of all the things you need to do—or that you could be doing if only you weren’t stuck here…

Suddenly you realize an hour has passed.  But don’t worry—you’re not alone. In fact, a recent study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert sampled over 2,000 adults during their day-to-day activities and found that 47 percent of the time, their minds was not focused on what they were currently doing. Even more striking, when people’s minds were wandering, they reported being less happy.

This suggests it might be good to find ways to reduce these mental distractions and improve our ability to focus. Ironically, mind wandering itself can help strengthen our ability to focus, if leveraged properly. This can be achieved using an age-old skill: meditation. Indeed, a new wave of research reveals what happens in our brains when our minds wander—and sheds light on the host of cognitive and emotional benefits that come with increased focus.

For thousands of years, contemplative practices such as meditation have provided a means to look inward and investigate our mental processes. It may seem surprising, but mind wandering is actually a central element of focused attention (FA) meditation. In this foundational style of meditation, the practitioner is instructed to keep her attention on a single object, often the physical sensations of breathing. Sounds simple enough, but it’s much easier said than done. Try it for a few minutes and see what happens.

If you’re like most people, before long your attention will wander away into rumination, fantasy, analyzing, planning. At some point, you might realize that your mind is no longer focused on the breath. With this awareness, you proceed to disengage from the thought that had drawn your mind away, and steer your attention back to your breath. A few moments later, the cycle will likely repeat.

At first, it might seem like the tendency toward mind wandering would be a problem for the practice of FA meditation, continually derailing your attention from the “goal” of keeping your mind on the breath. However, the practice is really meant to highlight this natural trajectory of the mind, and in doing so, it trains your attention systems to become more aware of the mental landscape at any given moment, and more adept at navigating it. With repeated practice, it doesn’t take so long to notice that you’ve slipped into some kind of rumination or daydream. It also becomes easier to drop your current train of thought and return your focus to the breath. Those who practice say that thoughts start to seem less “sticky”—they don’t have such a hold on you.

Reading all this might make you think that we’d be better off if we could live our lives in a constant state of laser-like, present moment focus. But a wandering mind isn’t all-bad. Not only can we leverage it to build focus using FA meditation, but the capacity to project our mental stream out of the present and imagine scenarios that aren’t actually happening is hugely evolutionarily valuable, which may explain why it’s so prominent in our mental lives. These processes allow for creativity, planning, imagination, and enhance your ability to write a rich story.

The key, I believe, is learning to become aware of these mental tendencies and to use them purposefully, rather than letting them take over. Meditation can help with that. So don’t beat yourself up the next time you find yourself far away, from where your mind was supposed to be. It’s the nature of the mind to wander. Use it as an opportunity to become more aware of your own mental experience. But you may still want to return to the present moment—so you can come up with the novel everyone is waiting for.

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