A  A recent study at Harvard found that, on average, people spend 46.9% of their time ‘mind-wandering’ – thinking about something other than what they are doing, and the research suggests that being lost in thought like that tends to make us unhappy. In contrast, happiness usually comes from being present in the moment, and mindfulness meditation practice can help us to be more present more of the time.

B  I was introduced to the idea that we spend much of our time lost in thought and talking to ourselves in our heads by Sam Harris, neuroscientist and long-time meditator. In his book Waking Up, Sam explains that there is nothing wrong with thinking, but when we are lost in thought and thinking without realising we are thinking, we become so connected to our thoughts that they change our whole experience. Thoughts appear in our minds, but instead of realising that they’re just thoughts, we feel like we are the thoughts, and they drive our emotions, behaviour, and the thoughts that come next.

C  When we are in these mind-wandering states, we are often dwelling on the past or trying to control the future; we are not present in this moment. In addition to this, we have what is known as a negativity bias, meaning that when we are lost in thought, we are likely to be focused on bad things that happened or might happen in the future. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach explains that evolution has designed us worry about the future in this way, as it helped us survive in the past when there may have been a lion around the next corner, but this worrying is less necessary now and detracts from our happiness, she says.

D  Another problem some of us experience when we are mind-wandering is what Tara calls if-only mind: this includes thoughts like, ‘If I have that, then I’ll be happy’, or ‘When I get this finished, then I’ll feel okay’; we are hoping that the next moment will contain what this one does not. But what we are actually hoping for is to get to a point in the future in which we can feel okay and be fully present in that moment. Meditation teachers argue that there’s no need to spend our lives hoping for something that gets us to that point of feeling okay, as that feeling is available to us right here in this moment.

E  Mindfulness is simply observing your thoughts, feelings, and the sounds around you – paying attention to what is real in this moment. And mindfulness meditation practice is a form of mental training which, as Tara Brach puts it, carves new pathways in your mind, meaning that you’ll spend less time mind-wandering or distracted by thoughts in your day-to-day life. As you become more able to notice when thoughts are appearing, and more aware that you are not your thoughts, you’ll become more able to choose which thoughts to let go of, and come back to being present in the moment more easily.

F  Not only does this mean that you can be more present with the people you care about, enjoy the moments more, and take more pleasure from what is around you, it also means that when you are having a hard time, you will be less likely to get lost in thought and carried away by difficult emotions. Being able to notice your thoughts and emotions as they arise can help you to manage them better and gives you more of a choice about how you react. Being mindful in this way is what Sam Harris describes as ‘the doorway to a profound degree of psychological freedom’.

G  So, would you like to give meditation a try? All you need is somewhere quiet to sit, but a good way to get started is listening to guided meditations. You will get lost in thought, but the guided meditation will help to bring you back; part of the practice of meditation is getting lost and coming back, as that is what strengthens the pathways so that you can come back to being present more easily in other parts of your life.

Give it a go. As Sam Harris says, the quality of your day will be determined by the quality of your mind.

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