Wandering Minds Welcome


When I tell people I’m a mindfulness coach, the conversation generally goes something like this:

Them: “I could never do that; my mind wanders too much.”

Me: “Perfect! You’re mindful.”

Everyone’s mind wanders.

And mindfulness is paying acute attention to what’s happening in the present moment.

So if you’re aware that your mind is wandering, you’re halfway to a successful mindfulness practice.

The other half involves gently returning your attention back to the here and now.

This does not involve a beat-yourself-up kind of yanking the misbehaving mind back to reality, but rather a compassionate return to consciousness. Picture a feather on the ground, lifted up by a gust of wind and then floating back down to rest on the pavement.

Wandering. Awareness. Return.

And here’s something cool:  The handiest of tools for achieving that gentle return to the present moment is always available to you: focusing on one single physical sensation.

It could be feeling your back against the chair, your hand holding the fork, your finger on the touch screen.

The key is to aim all of your awareness directly at one physical sensation of your choice.

Try it. Pick one part of your body that’s in contact with an object. Let’s say it’s your feet on the floor. Pour all of your awareness right down into the soles of your feet. What’s the sensation there? Are your feet resting on the floor lightly, or are they pressing against it? Now wiggle your toes a bit, and notice how the sensation changes. Are you wearing socks? If so, can you feel the fabric against your feet?

If you had to assign a feeling to this sensation, would it be pleasant? Unpleasant? Neutral? No wrong answers here, because the other piece of mindfulness is non-judgment. This is all about noticing what is, rather than making a relative comparison to anything that you are not experiencing right now.

All we’re focusing on is the feeling.

See? That took all of a minute. And you weren’t ruminating on the past or fretting about the future. It’s impossible to be fully present in your body with a wandering mind. If you pick the presence, the mind can’t meander.

Wandering. Awareness. Return.

So to recap:

  1. When you notice your mind drifting, give yourself a pat on the back for being aware.
  2. Gently return to the here and now by choosing one part of your body that’s in contact with something else. Feel everything about it. Be a physical sensation detective and say things to yourself like: “I feel my fingers grabbing the steering wheel pretty tightly,” or “I’m noticing the slight weight of these glasses resting on the bridge of my nose,” or “This chair feels kinda hard under by backside.”
  3. Don’t follow that last statement with a thought like: “I really should get a new chair,” since that’s not a physical sensation and could lead to less feeling and more thinking thoughts like “I need to earn more money before buying a new chair,” which sends rumination an invitation to join you. But by all means, if you discovered through this mindfulness exercise that your current chair hurts your butt, go ahead and spring for a new one.

Wandering. Awareness. Return.

I know this might all seem ridiculously simple. And it is. It’s the mind that complicates things when it takes us out of the here and now. So making the choice to pay attention to how you’re feeling in the moment is a crucial first step to actually being in the moment, which will increase productivity and focus.

It will also make you happier. In a study published in the journal Science, Harvard researchers found that people spend nearly half their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing right now, and that this distraction from the task at hand “typically makes them unhappy.”

When we’re fully present, we’re better communicators. We’re less reactive and more responsive to the people around us, at home and at work.

We’re also more fully here for ourselves, since we’re in better touch with how we feel and what we need.

And by gently returning our awareness back to the present moment when we notice it has wandered off, we begin to feel a bit more in control, in a world where so much is out of our control.

Wandering. Awareness. Return.

Remember, the return is gentle. A soft landing back to the self.

It actually feels a bit like coming home.


A version of this post originally appeared in Fast Company