We come across guided meditations or mindfulness practices online, on apps, at yoga classes. Often they're relaxing, sometimes they're not.
Either way, you've succeeded. Here are the reasons why:
The more our mind wanders, the more opportunity we have to bring it back to where we'd prefer it to be. This effectively strengthens the attention "muscle" of our brain.... well, not literally muscle. Medical imaging studies show that this type of attention training actually increases the thickness of the grey matter in the CEO area of our brain, the Prefrontal Cortex. It follows that we gain improved functioning in areas such as planning, decision-making, problem-solving, and self-control.
2. Mapping the Territory of our Mind
There's a wealth of information in the places our mind goes when it wanders. Over time, we have the opportunity to see the patterns that we get into - some of them harmless, and some of them unhelpful. For example, we might have a tendency to worry about things that are out of our control, or we might get caught up re-hashing hurtful events from the past. And as our minds have a preference for travelling to difficulty places (on average two-thirds of the time to neutral or negative places, one third to positive), chances are, these wanderings will be accompanied by physical signs of stress, even if we're lying comfortably in our warm cosy bed at the time.
The benefits of mindfully observing these patterns over time? First, we're more likely to notice if we're being pulled into unhelpful patterns. This gives us the chance to consider how we'd like to respond, rather than reacting in the spur of the moment. Second, we're less likely to get caught up in old patterns in the first place.
Mindfulness researcher, teacher, author Professor Mark Williams discusses the common belief about mindfulness practice, that we're meant to clear the mind and keep the mind still. He said that would be like going to the gym without any equipment. What would be the point of that?
So next time you notice your mind wandering for where you'd like it to be, congratulate yourself for having noticed; you've just done the equivalent of a bicep curl for your brain. You can make a note of where your attention went. you might like to give it a label, such as "worrying", "daydreaming", "remembering", "planning", etcetera. Then bring your attention back to where you'd like it to be. When it wanders again (as minds naturally do) - rinse and repeat. The benefit of more bicep curls.
Having said that, it's simple but not easy. The next challenge - seeing if you can practice this without being too hard on yourself....