What do I do when I am really scattered?

It happens a lot that a student approaches me and says that they are having a very difficult time settling their mind. Don’t we all?

For me, meditation is not like a magical calm switch that I now have access to because I have logged so many hours sitting. I do sometimes wish, that meditation acted as the proverbial blanket over the parrots cage, assuming the posture and breath would automatically quiet my mind. When I take my seat, I do have a sense of solidity and clarity that has become stronger over time. The act of taking my seat, straightening my spine and tuning into my breath and my surroundings is a very powerful way to begin to organize my attention.

The problem is not a scattered mind actually, the problem is becoming so accustomed to a scattered mind that we think that a calmer and more stable outlook is “just not who we are.” Some days, I take my seat and watch my own thoughts and am amazed by how quickly my mind leaves my body.

Many mornings, I have abandoned my body on the floor of the living room and headed off into next week, only to return to my body filled with anticipation and emotion for things that haven’t happened yet, and all the while my body has been sitting there dutifully, cross legged and breathing, just waiting for my mind to return.

Sometimes, if my mind seems impossibly speedy, I will do a loving kindness practice rather than my regular shamatha practice. In a loving kindness practice, your attention rests not on your breath and surroundings but on a mantra and a visualization. This can be helpful when I am feeling speedy or irritable, it is also a powerful example of how our mind is the source of our emotions.

For this practice assume your regular meditation posture, your eyes can be open or closed. Draw to your minds eye the image of someone you love very much, someone who inspires in you feelings of generosity and openness. As you rest your attention on that person’s image, let the feelings that they inspire permeate each breath. Sometimes, you even experience a sense of expansion in the chest. Then, send that person the message:

May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you be safe
May you be at ease

Repeat this several times. Then draw to your minds eye an image of yourself, at first this was very challenging for me. A lifetime of intense self criticism in mirrors made it impossible for me to conjure up a judgement free image, so I pictured one of our wedding pictures. Then you send the same words to yourself, and you do this with that same generosity of spirit that you connected with while picturing someone you dearly love.

It is keeping that feeling as your focal point, and shifting your attention from a loved one, to yourself, and then to someone about whom you have very little feeling and then finally someone with whom you have had conflict. With each visualization, repeat the phrases three times, and then spend another few minutes sending those messages and feelings out into the world.

This practice is so valuable on a day when you are feeling scattered and diffused, it helps to focus and center our energy and channel that speediness into something that is productive both for ourselves and those around us.