Mind Wandering

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There are a lot of people who crave travel. They long for adventures in new places, explorations of unexplored territory, luxurious or backwoods trips to exotic locales. I'm not one of them.

Don't get me wrong - I love to explore new places, and I get rather giddy any time I get to fly somewhere. 

But what I like more than traveling physically is wandering mentally - experiencing new perspectives more with my mind than with my eye. I crave SPACE - not necessarily vast plains and mountain ranges and deep oceans, but space where my thoughts roam and get lost and have to find new ways to traverse unknown (or familiar) territory.

Is all of this getting a bit heady? Let me explain.

Our thoughts tend to follow the same pattern day after day. Our attention, driven by habitual thinking and our environments (which tend to stay overall the same), is focused on the same things.

Pay the utility bill this month, change the oil in the car, switch the laundry, deal with the same relationship problem that comes up every 3 months, pick up the same sock that gets left in the hallway, wonder once again why I'm doing the job I'm doing and if or how I want to change it, struggle with doing a workout or skipping it, notice the belly roll in the mirror, gotta switch laundry, what's to eat, time to sleep....pay the bill, switch the laundry, repeat.

If you think about it (!), your thoughts are largely on repeat. Watching a new television show, reading a new book, hearing a funny story from a friend - they all temporarily swing your attention in a different direction. Sure enough, though, you return to thinking of the report that is due, the dinner that needs made for you and family, the small hole in the wall that needs still needs fixed that someday you will finally deal with but until then will keep thinking about each time you pass it.

Our minds live in the same small area, year after year. Over time, this repetition is enough to cause stress, disconnection, hopelessness, lethargy, cynicism, and despair.

The "fix"?

Let your mind out. Let your thoughts travel.

Create the mental space for your thoughts to get lost. 

Then see what happens.

I've found this is where some of my deepest, most life-changing insights have happened. At the very least, I'll often breathe a bit easier while my mind explores ... and that deeper breathing makes me feel more relaxed throughout the next several hours. Sometimes, I'll come up with an answer to a problem I hadn't even been pondering recently, but that my wandering-thoughts stumbled upon and gently cared for.


An important aside: This isn't the same as lack of focus.

This mental wandering is a purposeful activity, done with conscious intention and attention.

It probably isn't a good idea to try mental wandering in the middle of the meeting while your boss is speaking, or attempting it while the kids are once again clamoring, "mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom......".

And if you find your attention wandering involuntarily through the day, this is not that. (And that, dear friend, is actually an issue that can cause stress and trouble. But that's for another post....)


As I mentioned, I've not traveled a great deal. But I've always been a mind-wanderer. If this isn't you, though, and you are curious to try it - how might you start?

There are infinite ways, but here are a few guiding suggestions:

1 - Let go of judgment. Judgment is a drug, an addiction, the seemingly-safe-but-truthfully-destructive thing we go to to make us feel in control. When you let your mind wander, it will inevitably come across a new idea - and your tendency will be to judge that idea as brilliant or stupid. Doing so shuts off further exploration, either locking you into that "brilliant" idea or pushing you away from that "stupid" idea. The entire purpose of this exercise is to get lost, to discover deeper and deeper thoughts that are normally outside of your range of attention. 

2 - Change your physical environment. As mentioned above, your environment plays a huge part in your attention. Have you ever tried to work at home? Have you ever found yourself thinking about the laundry you could do, the dust in the corner, the snack you could grab, .... anything but actually working? Change it up. Go to a coffee shop. Drive somewhere on a backroad and get lost. (Thank heavens for GPS these days which can guide you back if you actually do get lost.) Find a secluded place in a library or park or even wander around Target. Displace your body from its usual environment and let your mind wander.

3 - Write, write, write, write. Similar to morning pages, suggested in the ever-popular Artist's Way, one way to discover new mental territory is to write. (You can type if you'd like, but I've found - at least for me - that the pen + paper combination and pace leads to more mental places.) Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and just write. Don't stop writing. If you can't think of anything to write, write that over and over ("I can't think of what to write. this is silly. why am i doing this? i want coffee.") See where your thoughts go. (And remember suggestion #1 while doing this.)

4 - Walk. As many of you know, I'm beyond 1000 days in my #walk365ish journey ... walking every single day for 30 minutes a day. This practice has proven invaluable to my contemplative practice. I come up with the most fascinating insights while walking. We tend to sit so much that it only takes a simple bit of movement to shake things up (mind and body). A few quick tips: Walk somewhere secluded or familiar so that your attention can more easily wander (not focus on the multiple stimuli around you). Use a voice recorder on your phone (there's an app for that) to record thoughts that you find valuable so that you can record them, but also quickly move on to wandering. Walking doesn't have to be outside - you can find a mall, your office building, or even your hallway at home. Just walk more slowly in a limited space. 

5 - Don't return too quickly to the familiar. I swear this happens every single time I open the space for my thoughts to wander: I hit a point where I really want to check my phone, get coffee / a snack, or get up and do something - anything else than what I'm doing. Mental wandering can create physical discomfort. Believe it or not, it can be challenging! Don't judge yourself, but try to resist the temptation to return too quickly to the familiar. Just beyond the comfort zone is where most of the brilliant insights reside. 

6 - Give yourself more time than you think you'll need. This is to prevent the afore-mentioned jump to the phone or coffee. It takes a bit of time for your thoughts to move beyond their typical patterns.

7 - Watch the transitions. Eventually, mind wandering will become as normal to you as breathing. When this happens, amazing insights can happen from just seeing the expression on someone's face, or glancing at a small cavern in between two stones of a wall. It's important, however, to know how to redirect your attention. A wandering mind can find plenty of fascination, but it can also get attached to that wandering. Things at hand can be ignored, and your here-and-now life will suffer because your thoughts are living in what-if land. Practice transitioning between focusing on what is and focusing on what might be.

8 - Embrace creative engagement. Ultimately, this practice of mind wandering is designed to give you new perspectives so that you may create the life that you want to be living. The more possibilites that you are able to think and to feel, the more "tools" you have at your disposal for working with and through your environment. As you enjoy (or are challenged by) these new perspectives, practice bringing them into your daily life: Share them through social media or in conversation with a friend, doodle it with fancy pens and place it somewhere where it will remind you, practice what an idea looks like when acted out in daily life. Help your mind and your life to grow.


Have you tried this before? What have you discovered, or what has stopped you from trying it? Does this sound exciting or terrifying to try? Leave a comment and let me know!

Here's to the wandering....

Lisa WilsonComment