detailed yellow flower
Ideas Presented in Chapter 4








Idea #18: Disciplined Thought Cycles Between: Being On Track and Wandering

In Idea #17, we learned that we can have thoughts along with the mantra and that the meditative function does not require us to sweep the mind clean, but to give priority to the mantra. Now we move to a related issue: What to do when thoughts become so intricate and interesting that we actually forget that we are meditating, resulting in the absence of the mantra for many minutes on end. That certainly does not sound like “giving priority to the mantra.” Step 6 says to recall the mantra “whenever awareness allows”. Obviously we can’t recall the mantra when we don’t have awareness, so the question before us is:

Q: Should we try to keep awareness intact and try to avoid wandering off?

A: No. All trying compacts the awareness. Experience will show you that the unintended wandering away from the mantra actually doesn’t disturb the meditative function as long as you simply and directly return to the mantra whenever you remember that you are meditating. As long as you do not intentionally leave the mantra, then you actually are giving it top priority and are fully following the ten-step agenda. It is as much about intention as it is about attention.

This can be hard to accept at first. It sounds too easy. We are so used to thinking of struggle as being necessary for success that this laissez-faire approach can seem like a gutting of meditative discipline. Are we doing this just to make newcomers feel OK about their wandering minds? Not for a moment. As with every rule in Natural Meditation, nature is the boss. This rule exists because it works. A self-accepting approach to the wandering mind is critically important in Natural Meditation, as it is in many other methods. The student of meditation must seek, from the start, to make non-striving become second nature during meditation. The analysis that follows shines a light on the returning phase of the cycle of discipline (introduced in Idea #13). The returning is where we return to awareness and it is where it is easiest to slip unconsciously back into a striving approach.

We said that during extended periods of disciplined thinking such as meditation, one cycles in and out of the intended action of the discipline. The mind cycles through periods of doing what is intended, followed by forgetting to do what is intended, followed eventually by a sudden recall of what is intended and a returning to the task. To make this more precise, we will introduce two additional phases, wandering and deciding. In the figure, forgetting and deciding are placed at an angle because they are very brief events. circular diagram showing the six phases flowing clockwise The cycle now has these six phases:

  1. Doing
  2. Forgetting
  3. Wandering
  4. Recall!
  5. Deciding
  6. Returning

In Natural Meditation we begin the doing by recalling the mantra, having a very simple awareness of its existence. After a while we are likely to slip into a forgetting in which we unconsciously lose awareness of meditating.  This usually ushers in a wandering phase in which we follow a trail of other thoughts without an awareness of ourselves as meditating. 

Eventually we come back to that awareness in the moment of recall.  We then have to take a moment to decide what to do next. If we know the time is not up, the deciding phase is almost invisibly short, and we enter the final and critically important phase of returning to the mantra without striving.

Since all six phases continue the movement of meditation, it is better to envision the cycle as a spiral, rather than a circle. The difference, of course, is that a spiral continuously progresses, whereas a circle implies coming back again and again to a starting point. We should not attempt to return to the starting point each time we come out of a wandering phase. Instead, just pick right up where you are. The mantra is right there in the mind; we do not have to go hunting for it.

The two main points to take from this diagram and from Idea #18 are:

  1. Even the forgetting and wandering phases continue the shift in consciousness brought about by the meditative function.
  2. Make the return to the mantra simple and direct, without trying to prevent further rounds of forgetting and wandering.
an upward spiral showing the phases as continuous


Is listening really a
mental discipline?

Sadly, not often enough. The building of relationships, however, requires that it be so. It need not feel like discipline, but it needs the consistent attention that is the hallmark of disciplined thought. This is the discipline of attentive and active listening.

For a great explanation, see Stephen Covey’s habit #5 in

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

This process occurs in listening, reading, prayer, problem solving, performing arts, sports, and meditation. Looking at how the cycle of discipline works during listening should be a good way to further describe each of the phases in terms we all understand. Then we can better see what is meant when it’s applied to Natural Meditation.

We will use a fictional setting in which a couple are meeting up at the end of the day. Valerie is telling her husband Ray about what happened to her in the public library this afternoon. Ray will move through the six phases of the cycle in about five minutes. Valerie sets the stage saying,

"I had a rather surprising coincidence occur to me this afternoon. It's a bit of a tale. Do you want to hear about it?"

Ray has the time and inclination to listen, so he says, "Sure!", and with that, he enters the role of listener and begins the discipline of listening. Active listening is a mental discipline because he will have to stay on track with Valerie for a period of time. His task is to listen to her sentences and to make sense of them. We might even say that Ray is meditating on Valerie’s story.


The job at hand is what we call thedoing. It begins with the setting of an intention, such as "I am going to listen now to Valerie" or "I am going to meditate." Intention is critical, but two additional conditions are needed:awareness of the intention, and ability to act on the intention.

Ray starts out having all three, the intention, the awareness, and the ability. So, he listens to Valerie. He hears her phrases and makes sense of them. He hears other sounds, and his eyes glance to the side from time to time. He has little side thoughts. But all of this extra input doesn’t derail him. He stays attuned to Valerie. It’s like driving. He can keep on center as long as his awareness is global enough to let him make little course corrections keeping him from going off course.

A few minutes into her story Valerie says,

"…and the amazing thing is that just this morning Bob had told me about a study on lung disease that has just appeared in a journal he gets—I forget its name, you would recognize it."


Because of what is going on in Ray’s life, Valerie’s mention of a journal ignites a series of thoughts in his mind about an important article that he wants to study tonight. He had planned to put a journal in his briefcase. But did he? His mind pours forth a series of questioning words and images that amount to a belief that he left the journal at the office. "Or did I leave it on the seat of the subway!?" Without his quite realizing it, Ray's attention lifts swiftly and quietly away from Valerie's story and dives deeply into his own. Ray has entered a forgetting phase.

In the phase called forgetting, the mind produces a swelling of thoughts and images that capture the train of thought, almost kidnapping it to another place. This is a kidnapping of the full self-conscious awareness which has kept the doing phase in tact up to this point. The intention itself remains intact—albeit, on the back burner. The intention remains intact until consciously taken down or replaced by other willed actions. Ray still intends to listen to the story; he has just forgotten that fact, or inadvertently misplaced it.

Note that the forgetting phase was not caused by the mere existence of other thoughts. Ray was having other thoughts for several minutes as he listened to Valerie’s story. Nor was this forgetting caused solely by Valerie’s mention of the journal or by Ray’s interest in his missing journal. No, his forgetting is caused by a shift of self-awareness that allows his interest in the journal to eclipse his intention to listen. Of course, his intense concern about the journal is significant, but it’s only part of the story. Ray doesn’t lack interest in his wife. So what is it? We will not try to answer. The causes of the shift in awareness are too complex to determine. For the purposes of Natural Meditation, we can be content to say, “the shift happens.”


In the shadows of the eclipsed awareness that is a forgetting, the mind can produce a potentially endless series of thoughts, feelings, images, memories, and future imaginings. The series lasts as long as awareness of the doing intention remains eclipsed.

Ray continues the series of thoughts, unaware of Valerie's storytelling... "Did I leave the Journal on the seat of the subway, mixed in with the sports section...?" Then he remembers a difficult rainstorm he weathered on the way to the station...that lonely girl he saw standing at the base of the exit stairs...her face...what she said to him as he passed by....He recalls, "I wanted to tell Valerie about her as soon as I got in tonight!


... then, just as suddenly as he forgot, Ray recalls. Oh, yeah, Valerie is telling me a story! Instantly Ray's awareness of his "here and now" pops back on like a light, and with it he immediately recalls his intention to listen to Valerie. This event lasts an instant, and that is why we spell it with an exclamation point.


What it is in general

Example in the Listening discipline


Enacting the intention. Doing the "job"

Listening and following the story


Losing awareness of the intention

Remembering that he left a journal at the office


Riding on other thoughts, unaware.

"..or did I leave it on the subway?  The rain was fierce...that lonely girl..."


Returning to awareness of the intention

...Aware that I am listening...


Determining whether to continue with original intention

"Should I call the office about that journal before too late or listen?"


Subtle thoughts and feelings that affect the restarting ofdoing

"Yikes! What was she saying? Don't lose track next time!"


In the moment after the recall, the mind conducts a swift review of the situation and assesses whether or not to go back to the doing. It re-evaluates the original intention. If nothing challenges the intention, then the decision to return is completed before it is ever a conscious question. Otherwise a conscious decision must take place.

Ray makes a conscious decision to go on listening, but first he thinks, "The story about the subway girl can wait, but what about the Journal? Maybe Dick is still at the office and could look on my desk… I need to check the time…I am going to sneak a peak at my watch.” Then he looks at Valerie and decides, “Oh, forget it! Get back to Valerie’s story!" With that, Ray has completed his deciding phase and has re-subscribed to his original listening intention.


After the moment of recall, the return to doing is so quick that we would not normally stop to notice what can take place here. It is a subtle, short period, but one of great significance. We identify the returning phase in Natural Meditation because what we do with it can exert a powerful influence on the meditation. Indeed, shining a light on the returning phase is one of the major reasons for this whole elaboration of the cycle of discipline.

The reason it is so important is this: If we are not accepting of our repeated forgettings and wanderings, if we consider them to be failings, then we will try to prevent their recurrence. That, as you know by now, is totally counter-productive. During the brief moments of returning, if we are guilty or anxious about having been off on a wandering, we will subconsciously give ourselves a pep talk. "Quick! Get back to work!;"; "Pay attention next time!"; "Yikes! I have lost my place. I don't know where I am!"

Look at the psychology of the returning phase as it works on Ray. Remember, he has just been off track with thoughts about his missing journal and has suddenly remembered he is listening to Valerie. He listens carefully for a sentence or two to see if he can piece together what Valerie has been saying for the last 30 seconds. Then, Valerie says,

"…I mean, wouldn't you have done the same, Ray?"

This is a case of Yikes! I have lost my place. I don't know where I am!" Ray breaks a small sweat because his complete absorption in his own story has prevented him from hearing her main point. Now she is asking him a question he cannot honestly fake with a nod. He doesn’t want to hurt her by showing his mind was wandering during the story of her amazing coincidence. He tries to rewind his listening tape, but cannot pick up what she has just said. Past experience has taught him how to handle it gracefully:

"Excuse me. I got sidetracked just now with something you were saying. Could you rewind that last part?"

No doubt, you know what Ray is feeling. It is unpleasant, and he does not want to repeat it—certainly not within this storytelling event. So, he returns to listening with a special dedication to his task and gives himself a little pinch to keep himself from wandering off again. Following a period of forgetting with a forceful return and a little pinch like that is a valuable skill. You could not have come this far in the course, let alone in your life, without that skill. That is why we need to emphasize something here: You need to check that focusing skill at the door when you do Natural Meditation. Instead, bring along your skills in self-acceptance. When you see that you have been wandering, just pick right up from there and keep on going, quite content that you have not been goofing off. Remember the spiral diagram?

We leave Ray and Valerie at this point. He has completed one full cycle from doing to returning. Will she rewind graciously and keep telling her story? It all depends on who they are and how they are as a couple...

Relating to Ray’s experience as a listener is probably rather easy. Now, can you relate each phase to your meditation? It should be a straightforward matter, too. We all have wanderings like Ray’s in our meditations. If Ray had meditated before Valerie got home, he might very well have had a wandering that involved the journal and the subway. If he were a skilled practitioner of Natural Meditation, he would not have experienced any pang of guilt or shame about that wandering. As soon as he returned to awareness of his meditation, he would have immediately recalled the mantra. As we know from Idea #17, he might not have dropped all thoughts of the journal and subway, but he would have returned to a conscious relationship to his mantra, giving it his priority. He might have gone through a moment of conscious deciding in which he briefly weighed the merits of getting out of meditation to try to catch Dick at the office. If he has a lot of these impulses to stop meditating to do something that seems urgent, he would have learned that they usually are not so urgent and would have learned to let them pass.

The table for meditation is very similar to the listening example:


What it is in meditation

Example in Natural Meditation


Orienting to the "object" of attention

Recalling and thinking the mantra


Unconscious slipping off the "object"

"What will I make for dinner... ?


Riding on other thoughts, unaware.

"... I should have stopped for milk!.."


Sudden return of here/now awareness

...Aware that I am meditating...


Determining whether to continue

...time is not up, keep going...


Subtle thoughts and feelings that affect the restarting of doing

...a quick, clean habitual returning...

Whenever we take a non-judgmental view of forgetting and wandering, discipline flows easily, shifting from phase to phase almost automatically. Maybe you suspect that taking a casual view of forgetting and wandering will encourage you to wander. But then, ponder the power of intention. If an intention is clearly set at the beginning, then one will return and stay on track whenever possible. As should be quite clear by now, Natural Meditation takes a non-judgmental approach to the phases of the discipline. This is not an arbitrary policy or a preference for that which is easy. It is the requirement placed on us by nature. If being tough on ourselves worked better than this, then we would advocate toughness.

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