One of the lessons you learn in meditation practice is that there is no way to control the mind. It's impossible. This is called the Noble Failure, the realization that the monkey mind, the puppy at the end of the chain, or whatever metaphor you want to use, cannot be controlled. You can practice responding to it differently, but stopping our minds from jumping from past to present, from fantasy to fear to memories... is impossible. It's just how our minds work.
An article in the current Discover Magazine discusses some recent studies that have been exploring this topic.
Some points worth noting:
- Even when we focus and try to pay attention, a surprisingly large percentage of our time is spent mentally wandering.
- During large parts of this 'wandering', we're not even aware that we've zoned out.
- This line from the article seems to come straight out of a meditation book: "When our minds wander, we lose touch with the outside world."
- Our brains likely evolved to be like this because it gives us certain benefits, such as allowing us to work through different types of problems (short term and long term) at the same time.
Relating this back to Buddhism and meditation practice, I would say that this information could help us to be a little more compassionate and patient with ourselves when we are meditating. Don't be too hard on yourself when you catch your mind wandering to relationship problems or future plans during meditation. Simply note that your mind was wandering, and go back to the center of your awareness (breath, a mantra, etc).
It's ok -- your mind is working fine.
"Stop Paying Attention: Zoning Out Is a Crucial Mental State" (Carl Zimmer, Discover Magazine, 7/2009)