20 Feb What To Do When Thoughts Pop Up During Meditation

Everybody can relate to thoughts popping up during a meditation session. At times the mind is very restless and our attention is continually distracted by other things. These can include external objects like sounds, but also internal distractions such as memories of the past, fantasies about the future, or incessant chatter about what’s happening in the present. Such thoughts are often accompanied by disturbing emotions, such as attachment (grasping at pleasant experiences); anger or hatred (obsessing over what someone did that hurt or irritated us); fear; doubt; jealousy or depression. Normally, we just let the mind run like this without trying to control it, so mental wandering has become a deeply ingrained habit.

Giving up a habit is not easy, but we should recognize that this one - this mental excitement, as is called - is the very opposite of meditation. As long as we are busy running in circles on the surface of the mind, we will never penetrate to its depths and never develop the concentration we need for perceiving reality.

There are a number of methods for countering mental excitement. One is to focus firmly on the breath and let the mind become as calm and even as the natural rhythm of your breathing. Every time your attention wanders, bring it back to the breath. Observe whatever thoughts and feelings arise without getting involved in them; recall that they are just waves of your mind, rising and falling. But if your mind is strongly caught up in a disturbing emotion such as attachment or anger, it might be necessary to spend some time working with one or more of the antidotes to these (see below). Once you have regained control over your mind you can return to the main object of the session.

An effective method from the Tibetan tradition for calming the mind is known as the Nine-Round Breathing Practice. This can be used at the beginning of a meditation session, or in the middle of a session if your mind gets out of control.

  1. For the first three breaths, breathe in through the right nostril and out through the left. If you wish, you can use forefingers to close the left nostril while you breathe in and to close the right, with your thumb, when you breathe out.
  2. For the next three breaths, breathe in through the left nostril and out through the right. Again, you can use your forefinger to close the nostril you are not using.
  3. For the last three breaths, breathe in through both nostrils and out through both.

With each breath, keep your mind focused on the breath and on the sensations you can feel at the nostril as the breath goes in and out. Do not let your mind be distracted by thoughts or anything else. You can repeat the nine rounds several times if you wish, then return to your main meditation practice.

If mental restlessness is a recurring problem, check your posture. The spine should be very straight and the head tilted slightly forward to the chin tucked slightly in - the mind tends to be more restless when the head is raised too high. Reducing the amount of light in the room could also help, as bright light can stir up thoughts and feelings.
Patience is essential in dealing with a busy mind. Don’t be upset with yourself if you can’t keep your attention on the object of meditation. It takes time and persistent practice to learn to slow down and gain some control over the mind, so be easy on yourself.

I hope that cleared up all doubts about thoughts interfering with meditation. Remember that it is very natural for thoughts to pop-up - that is the nature of the mind. You need to practice regularly to train your mind to manage your thoughts better. For more distractions related to sleepiness or dullness, physical discomfort or noise, do check this out!


2016-11-15-19-46-35Nehita Abraham

Nehita is a mindfulness expert who writes extensively on lifestyle management, wellness and ways to lead a healthier and a happier life. She is a part of Aware’s expert team on meditation. She is also an avid artist who spends most her time dribbling amazing stories through art.


References have been taken from: “How To Meditate by Kathleen McDonald”;Image Credits- www.yogaoutlet.com

  • Ryan
    Posted at 17:26h, 02 March Reply

    Usually, when I begin to notice thoughts, it is a good thing, and I don’t stop there. I notice the thoughts without judging, continuing to notice my breathing and my surroundings. I don’t know that trying to change thoughts by controlling them is a good thing.

    • Aware
      Posted at 14:39h, 17 March Reply

      Hi Ryan,

      You’re right. Trying to change thoughts by controlling thoughts is a good idea because we can never be successful at it. The secret is, as you said, just to observe the thoughts without judgement. Just being an observer.

  • Rick Pereira
    Posted at 20:58h, 06 March Reply

    Very helpful, thank you!

    • Rick Pereira
      Posted at 20:59h, 06 March Reply

      Could you please provide a link to the analytical meditation on death, impermanence and suffering?

      • Aware
        Posted at 14:34h, 17 March Reply

        Hi Rick,

        As of now, we don’t have any meditation on death, impermanence and suffering, but we’re working on. You’ll be among the first ones to get access to these meditations when they’re ready.

  • Chris Abraham
    Posted at 12:58h, 25 September Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful post! It’s indeed a gift.

    • Aware
      Posted at 07:34h, 04 October Reply

      So glad you liked it Chris 🙂

  • Magdalene Magica
    Posted at 09:53h, 07 October Reply

    When I started researching meditation, I already had gone through roughly 18 years of psychotherapy and due to my most severe PTBS no therapist had ever been able to teach me any calming or relaxing techniques. I grew up in a small but terrible cult and because of that yoga, meditation and everything to do with it was part of my complex trauma. When anybody told me to breathe, I got into a stupor, as I had been programmed to do (so I wouldn’t struggle when assaulted). But I had escaped the cult about ten years before and by then learned to at least focus through flashbacks using simple mindfulness techniques. They were still terrible, but nothing life threatening anymore because I could keep in touch with my current reality of safety and wellness even though my amygdala made me relive torture. That was the start. With a new therapist, the very first one that really knew about the mental and neurological aspects of mindfulness, I approached the topic from the safer distance of a scientific angle. I worked through my fears, one by one and I kind of developed my own kind of mixture of sitting and lying yoga (I’m a wheelchair driver) and mindfulness and loving kindness meditation. Lately, I discovered that the purring of a cat is, for me, a great substitute for the still triggering om or other chants. And finally, I have learned to listen to at least some guided meditations. Mostly, it’s when the guide is a woman. But the breakthrough came about 2 years ago when I first tried to do a course for the first time and the wonderful Vidyamala Burch tought me that a wandering mind is the most normal thing, it’s what minds do. And that everytime you realise that the mind wandered is that magical moment of mindfulness. It’s a success, not a failure and instead of becoming annoyed about the supposed failure and forcing the mind back to the meditation, I learned to welcome these moments, cherish them and gently guide my mind back to what it was supposed to concentrate on. I am, among other stuff, autistic and many think autistic people can’t learn to meditate. On the contrary :our minds do flow with great ease if we give them a focus they crave. This is often seen as another problematic feature of autism that should be trained away (never really works) but there I am, getting steadily better at meditation and mindfulness through exactly that feature: hyperfocus! Others may listen to monks singing, I listen to a cat purring or, indeed, to Harry Potter audio books, because that’s what my minds focus latched on to. Fine, then, you take the monks, I’m happily meditating on Harry Potter. Because it’s completely irrelevant what you train your mind to calm down with as long as you achieve calm, peace and mindfulness… Hope this helps someone…

    • Carol Tadios
      Posted at 06:50h, 01 December Reply

      O.My,Magdalene Thank you.I am so Thankful for every word,every thought you have expressed.I wish I could write it all in a space in my heart.Just know how much I cherish your very life…

  • Natalie Powers
    Posted at 17:27h, 06 April Reply

    Thank you I needed to read this.

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