Managing the Lost Moment in Meditation

Greg Sazima MD (author of Practical Mindfulness) says working with the frustration of lost attention can help new meditators.

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KEY POINTS

  • Losing attention is a familiar, normal aspect of meditating—an important message to provide to those new to meditation.
  • Treating the “lost, then found” moments with curiosity rather than negative judgment can lead to less frustration and even some new insights.
  • Some “go-to” tactics, often including attending to physical aspects of the experience, are useful to convey as part of the initial “launch” work.

I’ll begin here with the basic recipe for breath meditation, as streamlined as possible. It’s the “mother sauce” to start a practice ourselves, and to teach to our loved ones, patients, students, and tense strangers on the subway. (With their consent, of course.)

  • Step 1: Watch your breath.
  • Step 2: Lose that watching.
  • Step 3: When you figure out you’ve lost it … don’t get judgy, but just go back to watching your breath.

Annnnd … repeat. It’s easy! Thank you for your … attention. (Heh.)

(My podcast episode on this routine features exciting drum rolls, orchestral swells, and then an elevator-worthy interlude of “The Girl From Ipanema,” in case you need some sonic incentive.)

That lost (and found) part is worth diving into. For one, it’s the most common extinction event in early meditation. Newbies tend to give up on the enterprise due to the perceived hopelessness of ever having a pristine mindscape when the initial experience is full of thought blizzards and/or drops into London fogginess. A couple of posts back ( “Prepping Meditation Newbies on Losing Attention” ), we covered some reasonable expectations about this at the outset of training. Beyond an attitude adjustment, there are some practical ideas and tools to pass along to better understand and even work with those moments of losing and regaining clearer awareness, to make getting back going easier.

Losses of attention are tiny lessons in grief—the death of a perfect meditation, over and over. That provides a tableau to witness our individual reactions to that bit of human experience.

Sometimes we can register what is driving the losses. Getting lost in meditation is not just inevitable, but can actually be useful. It’s similar to how defenses work in psychotherapy—the mind sometimes throws some tacks on the road or turns the lights down on stuff that we may be defending against or avoiding a good look in the mirror at.

What changes with practice is the degree of lost in the woods, how long we’re away, and how effective we get at moving back to the intended plan without a lot of narrative judgment about why it all happened. So what’s going on when we lose and then find ourselves is something I spend a good bit of literary real estate on in Practical Mindfulness. Some tips and tactics:article continues after advertisement

  • So we sit in awareness until there’s some wandering off. Then, eventually, a recognition of being lost emerges. What then? A quick acknowledgment of “yup, got lost” is really all that’s needed. Maybe a brief cataloguing of the culprit can help. “Thoughts, lots of ’em” is enough, or “mind got muddy.” Then let it go, and re-engage your intention.
  • Instead of a crime, it’s better to consider the event as a curiosity. It may even be worth turning one’s focus directly into as the focus of attention. Otherwise, we just get back at it, as best as we can with the state of attention of our particular moment.
  • If getting back on track is a struggle, resettling physically can be helpful. One tactic I recommend is nicknamed “dropping into the body”—especially when the mind is chattering away, pulling attention out to the felt state of your body can help settle things. Another variation of this is what I term “breathing into the body”: visualize gathering up attention in the chest in the in-breath, and then imagine filling our physical selves on the out-breath. These moves pull body, heart, and head together when thoughts are dominating, and can bump up energy when the dullness thing has set in.
  • Lastly, if getting lost over and over is the day’s drama, it’s not a bad idea to try a full reboot; wiggle yourself in place and briefly reiterate your “HWG” warmup (details in the last post): “here” resets body, place and time, “we” can help fend off frustration, and “go”—back to task.

Getting lost is nothing to lose our heads over; it’s actually part of the practice, and an important message to convey to those new to meditation. One other message to know: finding our way back is both possible and another opportunity for self-knowledge and adaptation.

References

Sazima MD, G.(2021) Practical Mindfulness: A Physician’s No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners. Mango Publishing.


Practical Mindfulness

A Physician’s No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners

Training exercises that work. Practical Mindfulness approaches mindfulness and meditation from a hands-on, how-to, irreverent perspective–appealing directly to smart readers curious about meditation. By applying Dr. Sazima’s training routines, learn to spend more time in real engagement with the world. Cultivate a deeper appreciation of experiences, from the everyday to the extraordinary, and live your life more fully, wisely, and joyfully.