When I practice mindful meditation (concentrating on the breath), my thoughts wander - a lot. I try hard to bring my mind back but often I fail.
What should I do to calm myself before meditation?
Failing is no problem. Just watch your thoughts and see them as clouds in the sky. They will go. Don't grasp them. Let them go. In some weeks you will be calm.
What you should do before meditation? Meditation.
The times you think you fail, you succeed. Just watch your breath.
Wandering thoughts are normal, it is all part of learning to meditate. Try not to follow the thoughts that pop up. Instead accept and dismiss them as just being a thought. If you find that you have become distracted, no problem, just place your focus on your breath again. Becoming angry or frustrated about it is counterproductive.
When you start with meditation many people experience that the 'noise' in their head seems to be increasing at first. This is because you are becoming aware of all the thoughts that constantly pop up. In time and with practice, your mind will become calmer.
It helps if you don't do any exciting activities right before meditation. Give yourself time to calm down before you start. Also you will be more relaxed if you don't eat or take caffeinated drinks (coffee, cola or black tea) just before meditation.
Before meditation there are several Dos and Don'ts. Do lie flat on your back (corpse pose or "constructive rest position" with knees bent. Relax every muscle. It's okay to think or even silently acknowledge each muscle. Don't eat or drink anything right before meditating. A few sips of water are okay but keep in mind in the hour or two before meditating that coffee, soda, juice, starch, sugar and fiber all have physical reactions which will likely come up during your sit.
Even if you are relaxed, calm, chillin' before meditation, you may start to get monkey mind once you start. Like others have said. That's what your mind does. That's why you're meditating; to train it to be nicer to you. Try meditating with a focus object. It can be a small buddha statue, cross, orb, candle, photo or any other static object in the room. Stare directly at it.If your mind drifts or you start to think about the email you sent to your boss before coming home, just come back to the object. say silently to yourself what the object is. "Picture...picture....picture." You can also come up with a blanking word. Soemthing that means nothing or signifies nothing. That's what we're trying to get to, riught? No attachment and no aversion. I use the word "Nothing.....nothing.....nothing...." You could make up a word in an imaginary language if you want. The idea is to detach from your worldly worries and remember that your mind is the part of you that you are exercising.
Meditation is about mastering your mind not turning it off. Don't make it too difficult on yourself.
Simple, focus on one singular thing. Simple example might be the sound of rushing water, or imagining the soft passing of an autumn wind. Try to visualize a particular kind of tree or recall the sound of a certain type of bird.
Meditation isn't complex, don't overthink it. I'm a martial artist for over 25 years, there's no science behind it. These are just generals but meditation is simply focusing on one simple thing. Conscious breath well.
I always take whatever issues or concerns are at the forefront of my thoughts and imagine that they're fading into a huge sun and actually burning. Sometimes, writing my issues down on paper and burning the paper actually calms me down. Might not work for everyone but it does for me.
Yes wandering thoughts are to be expected and are normal. So too the sudden 'shock' of newly sitting with an overly busy mind. But i know what you mean. Sometimes sitting with the breath just doesn't seem to do anything.
I've been sitting for, dunno, maybe twenty years and I get sits where the mind won't settle. That's just the way it is going to be I guess. However it can be helpful to give some reflection to what you do leading up to the sit.
For myself, I reflect on possible contributing conditions. Food that I may have eaten, or drinks consumed. Spending time looking at a computer or any flickering screen before a sit doesn't help the mind settle either. Maybe there is some pressing issue or other.
The length of the meditation period makes a difference also. I've had sits where 35 minutes into a 50 minutes sit, 'something' in me just gives up. There is a tangible relaxing and sometimes even a spontaneous deep breath, and the remainder of the sit has a lot of stillness. So longer sits can make a difference.
Sometimes the breath is too evasive. If my mind is very choppy, I will spend (a lot of) time moving awareness though my body (body awareness and grounding practice). The body is nice and chunky. Just keep bringing attention back into the 'blob of presence' that is your body.
Mantras too are nice and 'chunky' and can be easier to stay with.
Visualising a clear bright blue sky can bring about a happier interior and positive state of mind. It is easier to be mindful when in a positive state.
Experiment, especially when starting out. Mediation is not simply about doing some technique or other. Have a living relationship with your practice. Also, AND THIS IS IMPORTANT. Don't get hung up on getting into a particular calm or any other type of state. Far better to clarify committment to returning the wandering mind. That is the real practice. The committment to keep returning the mind, no matter how many times it wanders. It's the willingness to do that which bring about change (and calm). If you finish the sit and can say you did your best to stay committed to returning the wandering mind, that's the job done well.
One last quick thought (actually all of this is quick) when you notice that you have wandered into thought etc. That moment of noticing, is IT. Don't be in a hurry back to finding the breath or mantra or whatever. Stay with that moment of knowing, and say well done to yourself.
So play a bit. But you need to be careful too that you don't end up simply going along with restlessness, moving from one technique to another, and using that to distract yourself away from the sometimes discomfort and frustration of being with yourself, and things not being the way that you want them to be. You need to be honest with yourself about what you do and why.
Find a group to sit with. That helps. Go on retreats. Putting yourself in supportive conditions will help your mind settle and your practce to go deeper. This gets 'ploughed back' into your practice at home.
.... taking some slow steady deep breath at the start of the sit can be helpful. Basic stuff. Slow deep breath help calm the mind. I recall somewhere reading that ten minutes of slow deep breaths brings about deep relaxation. So, you could spend some minutes at the start of the sit taking deep abdominal breaths.
automate breathing. (I often think about breathing while meditating)
#1 establish max lung capacity, by inhaling as much as I can (into belly).
#2 establish amount of oxygen per breathe; at lung capacity I often carry at least two full breaths worth of air.
#3 know what 'empty' feels like, exhale all air from lung (do a small crunch to exhale air there as well).
then I will fill lung (to max), exhale through nose (until empty) quickly; a few times.
then I slow down, then I slow...
Until the lungs take over inhale/exhale rhythm.
By not thinking about breathing (meditation) I eliminate a huge anchor to my consciousness.
I used guided mediations to 'train' me to do this. Calm and Headspace are both excellent iOS apps to achieve this.
Similar principles used in both and cited in other answers:
Don't beat yourself for the mind wandering, that's what it does and one of the reasons you're trying to mediate. Just bring you focus back to your breath when it does
Also, try focusing on some other static body area. Where your back touches the seat or foot on the floor for example may be easier
Friends of mine have had good success with YouTube videos guiding them through their mediation.