Please complete the following statement: "This morning, while doing my Workbook exercise (or having my quiet time with God) I found myself":
- Planning my day.
- Thinking about someone I am attracted to.
- Anticipating my next meal.
- Looking forward to some pleasurable activity.
- Having an imaginary conversation in which I finally made the other person see my point.
- Exploring various worrisome outcomes.
- Hearing unknown voices say weird things that I couldn't remember afterwards.
- Experiencing bizarre, nonsensical imagery, of the kind found in dreams.
- Nodding off.
- Accidentally drooling.
- God, I have no idea.
- All of the above.
Chances are that we were able to check off at least a few of the above items. And, at one time or another, we have probably experienced all of these—and more. Anyone who has tried to focus their mind is intimately familiar with what in the East they call "the monkey mind."
Mind wandering seems virtually impossible to control. We can easily relate to Lesson 236 when it speaks of seemingly being at the mercy of our own kingdom:
I have a kingdom I must rule [my own mind]. At times, it does not seem I am its king at all. It seems to triumph over me, and tell me what to think, and what to do and feel (W-pII.236.1:1-3).
Because of this, we may not give much effort to stopping mind wandering, and may hardly even notice it. Given its seeming inevitability, we might well ask: How important is it to control mind wandering? Is it even possible to do so? And if so, how?
The role of attention in the world's traditions
The contemplative traditions of the world, East and West, are unanimous on these questions. Their answers rest on a single common assumption: that the training of attention is central to the spiritual path. Note carefully the following three points, which seek to capture a universal accord on the subject of attention:
Summarily, the traditions mentioned above [Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jewish Kabbalah and Hasidism, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Islamic Sufism] conform in the understanding that the human mind in its ordinary state is somehow fragmented, unfree, and given to dispersion. Within each tradition there has evolved at least some kind of practice leading to mental stability, unity, control, and integration. Furthermore, in each tradition we discover the assumption that such psychological transformation can make reality and truth experientially more accessible ( Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. I, p. 503).
These three points provide the basis for answering our earlier questions. How important is it to control mind wandering? It means the difference between the erratic condition of the ordinary state of mind and the exalted condition of the enlightened. It means the difference between where we are now and where we are ultimately headed. In short, it means everything. Is it possible to control mind wandering? Yes, but it takes long and highly intentional training. How can we control mind wandering? Each tradition gives specific answers to this, yet their answers follow this essential idea: "simply to observe the distraction nonreactively, to note it, accept it, and then gently bring the mind back to its concentrated mode" ( Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. I, p. 505).
The importance of attention in the Course
A Course in Miracles is completely at one with the world's traditions on these points. It is, after all, "a course in mind training" (T-1.VII.4:1). Said another way, it is a course in the training of attention. It tells us in the clearest language possible that the undisciplined or untrained mind cannot have happiness, peace or salvation (W-pI.20.2:3-5), cannot see (W-pI.44.3:5), cannot actually tell the difference between happiness and suffering, love and fear (W-pI.20.2:6), has incredible difficulty in meditating and experiencing God (W-pI.44.3-6), has a hard time questioning the way it sees things (W-pI.9.2:1), cannot hear God's Voice (W-pI.125.3:1), and, in fact, cannot accomplish anything (W-pI.1:3).
In perfect harmony with the world's religious traditions (and at the same time sounding like our grade school teachers), the Course tell us that in order to get out, "You need offer only undivided attention" (T-12.V.9:4). Giving our undivided attention to the Course will eventually lead us to give our whole attention to God, which means to return our minds to Him: "To be in the Kingdom is merely to focus your full attention on it" (T-7.III.4:1).
The Course is fully aware that we begin the Workbook with minds that are like seething snake pits, and that we will hence have difficulty carrying out its instructions:
The Workbook therefore gears itself to what you might call the attention deficit disorder of its students. It does so in a number of ways. It gives us specific words to focus on, knowing that, "Words can be helpful, particularly for the beginner, in helping concentration and facilitating the exclusion, or at least the control, of extraneous thoughts" (M-21.1:8). It lets us "introduce variety into [certain of] the exercise periods in whatever form appeals to you" (W-pI.39.9:3). It breaks up the longer periods, sometimes into several distinct phases. And it makes sure they are not too long at first, giving us instead an abundance of shorter practice periods, along with the following pointed explanation:
The use of [shorter practice periods] has special advantages at the stage of learning in which you are at present. It is difficult at this point not to allow your mind to wander, if it undertakes extended practice. You have surely realized this by now. You have seen the extent of your lack of mental discipline, and of your need for mind training. It is necessary that you be aware of this, for it is indeed a hindrance to your advance (W-pI.95.4).
The Course's remedies for mind wandering
Yet even in our short exercises, with specific words to focus on, distinct phases, and variety that we ourselves can introduce, our minds still wander. What do we do? If the Course is really that interested in training our attention, you would think it would give us some remedies for mind wandering. And, unbeknownst to most students, it does exactly that. The Course, in fact, provides an abundance of such remedies, all of which are highly effective in curbing the wandering mind. The remainder of this article will explore these remedies, one by one.
1. Concentrate on maintaining your focus and on keeping your mind clear of anything that would pull you off this focus.
The most basic remedy for mind wandering is to simply try your best to keep your focus. The following instructions are from the Workbook's first meditation exercise:
At the beginning of the practice period, repeat today's idea very slowly. Then make no effort to think of anything. Try, instead, to get a sense of turning inward, past all the idle thoughts of the world. Try to enter very deeply into your own mind, keeping it clear of any thoughts that might divert your attention (W-pI.41.6:3-6; emphasis mine).
We concentrate here on a sense of "turning inward," on entering deeply into our minds. And we simply try to keep our minds clear of anything besides this focus, anything that would "divert your attention" from this focus. This intention to stay focused may sound insufficient, yet it is the basis for all the remedies we will explore.
2. See quiet as your natural state; see your mind as a holy place in which idle thoughts do not belong.
Let no idle and foolish thoughts enter to disturb the holy mind of the Son of God (W-pI.50.5:3).
Note that there is more here than a simple injunction to keep your mind clear of distracting thoughts. Both the thoughts and the mind are labelled. The thoughts are called "idle and foolish." Your mind is "the holy mind of the Son of God." The two simply do not go together. Like a violent, drunken man blundering into a silent, holy sanctuary, these thoughts do not belong in your mind. They "disturb" this holy place. The Course here is describing an attitude to hold while meditating. See your mind's natural state as a holy sanctuary, as the mind of God's Son, in which idle, foolish and disturbing thoughts simply do not belong.
3. Observe distractions dispassionately and slip quietly by them.
Then try to sink into your mind, letting go every kind of interference and intrusion by quietly sinking past them . Your mind cannot be stopped in this unless you choose to stop it. It is merely taking its natural course. Try to observe your passing thoughts without involvement, and slip quietly by them (W-pI.44.7; emphasis mine).
If you notice, these instructions include both of the above techniques. As in point number 1, we focus on entering deeply into our minds and sinking past our idle thoughts (this is a common instruction for the Workbook meditations). As in point number 2, we are to realize that such a focus is natural to our minds, that idle thoughts are unnatural and go against the mind's "natural course."
Yet something new is added here, in the portions I have italicized. We can break this down into three points:
- Observe interferences, intrusions, passing thoughts
- without involvement, dispassionately,
- "and slip quietly by them," "quietly sinking past them."
If you recall, this is a variation on the technique recommended by the world's wisdom traditions: "simply to observe the distraction nonreactively, to note it, accept it, and then gently bring the mind back to its concentrated mode."
4. Repeat the first phase of the exercise.
If you find your mind wandering…open your eyes, repeat the first phase of the exercise period, and then attempt the second phase again (W-pI.43.6:1).
If such interferences occur, open your eyes and repeat the thought once more while looking slowly about; close your eyes, repeat the idea once more, and then continue [with the second phase] (W-pI.42.5:5).
Repeat the first phase of the exercise period if you find your mind wandering… (W-pI.rII.IN.3:1).
The first phase of the Workbook exercises is generally more concrete, active, verbal, outward. Its purpose is to set your mind's focus or direction for the more receptive, non-verbal, inward phase that follows. If in the second phase you find your mind totally unfocused and undirected, you need to set your focus again. You may wonder if keeping your mind focused is so important that going back and repeating the first phase is worth it. Yet if your mind is wandering, what is the use of the exercise? You might as well be eating crackers and watching TV. Therefore, says the Course, you should be willing to repeat the first phase, not just once, but as often as necessary:
Do not allow any protracted period to occur in which you become preoccupied with irrelevant thoughts. Return to the first phase of the exercises as often as necessary to prevent this (W-pI.43.6:2-3).
5. If your mind wanders, repeat the idea for the day.
This is perhaps the Workbook's primary remedy for mind wandering:
…repeat the idea to yourself if your mind wanders away from the central thought (W-pI.61.5:7).
You may find it necessary to repeat the idea for today from time to time to replace distracting thoughts (W-pI.67.4:1).
If resistance rises in any form, pause long enough to repeat today's idea… (W-pI.44.9:1).
This technique sounds so simple that you might be tempted to dismiss it. Yet it is actually highly effective. Simply repeating the idea for the day instantly calls your mind back and centers it on your purpose. If you haven't tried this before, you might find yourself surprised at how well it works.
6. Repeat the idea and add a statement of your desire and intention to remember.
Should your attention wander, repeat the idea and add: I would remember this because I want to be happy (W-pI.62.5:6-7).
The added statement here is a gem, for it both states your intention to stay focused ("I would remember this") and gives your mind a good reason to do so ("because I want to be happy"). Again, try it and you might be surprised at how effective it is.
7. Affirm you do not want the distracting thought and replace it with the idea for the day.
A personal favorite of mine, and a favorite of those who study with us here in Sedona, is found in Review VI:
Permit no idle thought to go unchallenged….When you are tempted, hasten to proclaim your freedom from temptation, as you say:
This thought I do not want. I choose instead ________.
And then repeat the idea for the day, and let it take the place of what you thought (W-pI.rVI.IN.5:2-6:4).
As simple as this technique is, it is extremely effective. Try it. You will be surprised at how well it works.
8. Repeat the idea and add some related thoughts .
The practice of letting related thoughts come is an important one in the Workbook. You repeat the idea and then allow your mind to generate related thoughts. Here, it is given as a remedy for mind wandering, when remedy number 5 is insufficient:
You may also find that this [repeating idea to replace distracting thoughts] is not sufficient, and that you need to continue adding other thoughts related to the truth about yourself [The idea for the day is, "Love created me like Itself."] (W-pI.67.4:2).
This is much like repeating the first phase of the exercise, for you are actively and concretely setting your mind's direction for a more receptive and formless phase.
9. Devote the beginning of the practice period to watching for and actively dismissing interfering thoughts one by one until your mind is a clean slate.
Lesson 65 contains an interesting twist. At the beginning of its exercise, instead of being asked to keep our minds clear of distractions, we are asked to reverse that and actually watch for interfering thoughts:
Then close your eyes, repeat the idea to yourself once again, and watch your mind carefully to catch whatever thoughts cross it. At first, make no attempt to concentrate only on thoughts related to the idea for the day. Rather, try to uncover each thought that arises to interfere with it. Note each one as it comes to you, with as little involvement or concern as possible, dismissing each one by telling yourself:
This thought reflects a goal that is preventing me from accepting my only function (W-pI.65.5).
This is very similar to remedy number 3, which was, "Observe distractions dispassionately and slip quietly by them." Here, too, we note each one, with as little involvement as possible. But instead of just slipping quietly by, we directly address the thought, asserting that it is keeping us from our only function, the only thing we are here for.
Once we find that we have run out of interfering thoughts, we ask that the truth be written on our now "clean slate."
10. Realize that distracting thoughts have no power, that you give them their power .
This theme crops up several times, and is even mentioned in the Text:
Realize that, whatever form such [distracting] thoughts may take, they have no meaning and no power (W-pI.rII.IN.4:2).
Try to think of light…as you pass by the thoughts of this world. And do not forget that they cannot hold you to the world unless you give them the power to do so (W-pI.44.10:2-3).
The distractions of the ego may seem to interfere with your learning, but the ego has no power to distract you unless you give it the power to do so. The ego's voice is an hallucination (T-8.I.2:1-2).
I personally did not try this general technique for a long time. It did not even really seem like a technique. Yet when I finally tried it, I found that it cut to the heart of the matter. For the essence of a distracting thought is the idea that it has power over me, that it is a wild horse on whose back I am carried helplessly along. This technique dispels that illusion. This horse has no power at all. I am giving it whatever power it seems to have. I am willingly taking myself for a ride. Therefore, I can just as easily bring my mind back into the barn, back to center.
Review IV in the Workbook gives us an interesting form of this remedy. There we are told to begin our quiet time with five minutes of clearing our minds using this phrase: "My mind holds only what I think with God." The intent of focusing on this phrase is not to make this statement true, but to acknowledge it as true already. In the review (W-pI.rIV.IN.4), our minds are likened to an ocean, filled only with the thoughts God thinks through us, with us. The thoughts we think on our own are likened to a puny stick a child has thrown into the ocean. These thoughts are not only tiny, but completely empty of content, substance and reality. The stick is illusion; the ocean is all there is. Our minds hold only what we think with God.
Incidentally, Allen Watson tells me that a favorite of his along these lines is:
These thoughts do not mean anything (W-pI.4).
11. Assert the power of your will over all distractions; trust it to see you through.
The natural corollary to the above point is given in Review II:
There is a message waiting for you. Be confident that you will receive it. Remember that it belongs to you, and that you want it.
Do not allow your intent to waver in the face of distracting thoughts….Replace them with your determination to succeed . Do not forget that your will has power over all fantasies and dreams. Trust it to see you through, and carry you beyond them all.
Regard these practice periods as dedications to the way, the truth and the life. Refuse to be sidetracked into detours, illusions and thoughts of death. You are dedicated to salvation. Be determined each day not to leave your function unfulfilled (W-pI.rII.IN.3:2-5:4; emphasis mine).
I suggest you read this passage over a couple of times, focusing on the italicized words. Try to fill your mind with the feeling these italicized words convey. Now imagine carrying that feeling into your meditation. Do you think you would find it easier than usual to keep your mind free of distractions?
If we put this remedy and the previous one together we get: Distracting thoughts have no power. You have all the power. Assert your power over them . This reminds me of the following passage from Lesson 160, which you might even want to use as a response to distraction:
And yet, how easy it would be to say, "This is my home. Here I belong, and will not leave because a madman says I must" (W-pI.160.2:3-4).
Another good line to use for this purpose is Lesson 236:
I rule my mind, which I alone must rule.
12. Realize that controlling mind wandering is worth the (repeated) effort because you are worth the effort.
The mind is our kingdom. We are its ruler. If our minds are wandering, seemingly beyond our control, then that is what we, the king, have decreed. We have decided that our idle thoughts are truly worth having. And we have decided that any one point of focus is simply not interesting enough to entertain for long. In short, we have decided that mind wandering is worth it. Therefore, if we decide that controlling mind wandering is worth the effort, we will control it.
This is an important theme in the Workbook. It is worth whatever effort it takes to call your mind back from wandering:
Do not allow any protracted period to occur in which you become preoccupied with irrelevant thoughts. Return to the first phase of the exercises as often as necessary to prevent this (W-pI.43.6:2-3; emphasis mine).
You may need to repeat "Let me not forget my function" quite often to help you concentrate ((W-pI.64.7:3; emphasis mine).
If you feel yourself slipping off into withdrawal, quickly repeat the idea for today and try again. Do this as often as necessary . There is definite gain in refusing to allow retreat into withdrawal, even if you do not experience the peace you seek (W-pI.74.6:3-5; emphasis mine).
All three of the above passages tell us to call our minds back "as often as necessary." Yet the last passage is particularly important. It speaks of "withdrawal," which the same lesson calls "drowsiness and enervation [a state of being devitalized]." Withdrawal, therefore, means slipping off into a sleepy, sluggish state of mind. The passage ends by saying there is "definite gain" in not slipping off into withdrawal, even if that is the only thing you accomplish in your meditation. The achievement of an alert, non-wandering state of mind is a goal in itself .
The following passage from the Text adds a new dimension to both the problem and the answer:
The habit of engaging with God and His creations is easily made if you actively refuse to let your mind slip away. The problem is not one of concentration; it is the belief that no one, including yourself, is worth consistent effort. Side with me consistently against this deception, and do not permit this shabby belief to pull you back (T-4.IV.7:1-3).
This passage starts out with a restatement of a now familiar theme: "actively refuse to let your mind slip away." Then it says the problem is not that you cannot concentrate. As we said above, you do concentrate on what you think is worth it. Therefore, if you will not concentrate on something that is worth it, that will make you happy (in this case, God and His creations), then you are not motivated to save yourself. And this means that you do not think you are worth it. In your practice periods, then, you might want to remind yourself, "I am worth the consistent effort (of keeping my mind clear)." In this way you will carry out the last line of the passage. It urges you to join with Jesus in putting consistent effort against the belief that you are not worth consistent effort.
Set the goal and you will get there
These techniques sound great, but what do you do when your mind is so out of control that you cannot even remember them? The Text talks about setting the goal before entering every situation. We have just observed that controlling the wandering mind is a goal in itself. My suggestion, therefore, is this: Before entering each practice period, set the goal of staying alert and focused. Set the intention that you will watch your mind for idle thoughts and will respond to them with one or more of these remedies. Even be clear beforehand which one(s) you will use. I suggest you try this just once, and see if it works for you.
The Course assures us that we will get there. The experience of millions of meditators throughout history, and my own experience with the Workbook, is that the mind can become increasingly trained over time. We can rule this kingdom. Even when the Course refers to the great difficulty we will have in sustained concentration-as in Lessons 64 (7:2) and 39 (9:3), which we quoted above-it always adds "at first." After those early lessons, the Course leaves us with this wonderful promise, which I will also leave you with:
Your practicing will now begin to take the earnestness of love, to help you keep your mind from wandering from its intent. Be not afraid nor timid. There can be no doubt that you will reach your final goal (W-pI.153.20:1-3).