If you’ve tried meditation, one of the first mental experiences you probably become aware of is that your mind doesn’t tend to stay in one place. “Mind wandering” is an extremely common occurrence, with studies suggesting it makes up nearly half of our waking lives. When our minds wander, they can go nearly anywhere—from negative thoughts and emotions like worry or rumination, to positive thoughts like creative planning, wishing well for others, or gratitude. Research continues to build about mind wandering during meditation, but little has been explored about the varying effects of the content of mind wandering. Does what you think about during meditation change the possible outcomes?
Co-author Tracy Brandmeyer and I recently published an article entitled “When the meditating mind wanders” in a comprehensive special issue of Current Opinion in Psychology on mindfulness. In our paper, we consider whether chronic thinking (e.g., mind wandering) associated with strong emotional arousal during meditation practice might be detrimental to meditation practice and well-being. As humans, we all have the capacity for thought and the ability to assemble and manipulate concepts in our minds. Spontaneous thoughts often occur when we are engaged in attention-demanding tasks such as reading, and an increased frequency of thoughts has been associated with negative affect. Meditation does not require thinking; however, thinking in the form of mind wandering occurs naturally during meditation.
One goal of meditation is to identify emotions and thoughts that arise, and to remain equanimous with them—that is, to not judge them, or push them away, or cling to them. Over time, meditation may help dampen the attention-grabbing power of these thoughts both during practice and in daily life, which may consequently help deepen meditation practice. In fact, we have shown in an article published in Experimental Brain Research that experienced meditators’ minds wander less than the minds of novices. This is encouraging for meditators.
However, when meditators fail to remain equanimous, the effects of thoughts that arise during practice could be detrimental. In other words, meditating while being upset might actually be worse than not meditating. This is because negative arousal could actually reinforce those thoughts, leading to more negative thoughts in the future. More research will be needed to test this hypothesis. If verified, it would mean that one should probably not meditate if they feel strong resistance about doing so, or if they feel they are not successful at remaining equanimous with the emotional thoughts that cross their mind.
We feel it is important to further explore how emotional responses to one’s own mind wandering might impact outcomes of practice, as understanding this relationship can inform how meditation is taught and applied in various settings.