One of the most difficult tasks in meditation is truly catching the essence of the present experience. When your mind wanders and you say to yourself “wandering, wandering”, there are probably multiple mind states and associated emotions going through your mind in sequence. So, while “wandering” takes hold of the overall experience, there are likely many other aspects to the experience that should be acknowledged as well.
For example, there may be an enjoyment of the thought or a disliking; there may be worry, fear or stress or some other emotion as well, all of which contribute to your state of distraction. Because of this, you will find it difficult to return to the rising and falling. As long as there is something else going on in the mind that you are not clearly aware of, it will prevent you from contemplating any other meditation object.
So, the most important thing in meditation is to ask yourself “what is happening right now?”, not “how can I go back to the rising and falling?” or “how can I return to my meditation practice?” When you perceive an experience as distracting you from the true object of your meditation, trying to block it out or ignore it out of preference for another object, you will only make it difficult to give rise to a clear thought about any object. It’s much more important that you watch that which is taking your attention away, focus on it, and wait for it to disappear before even thinking about going back to the rising and falling.
When you say “wandering, wandering” and the wandering subsides it is proper to return to the rising and falling but when some other experience arises you must focus your attention on that as well. This applies even in the case where there is no clear object of awareness, and it even becomes difficult to watch the rising and the falling – feeling detached, unclear, or just quiet. In such a case, you must focus on that state as well, reminding yourself of its essence by creating a clear thought, “unclear” or “distracted” or “quiet” or however it appears to you. Once you get good at this, you will find that even muddled mind states can be a cause for the arising of mental clarity and insight, due only to the application of mindfulness.
One “catch all” phrase that focuses the mind in many situations is “feeling”, since feeling is the essence of much of our experience. When you feel a strange sensation that you are unable to recognize, just remind yourself that it is only a feeling and your mind will become clear, dispelling uncertainty about the object. In the end, the exact word isn’t so important; just “feeling” can capture so many different things. What is most important is that the word reminds you of the essence of the experience, preventing the arising of mental projection, judgment, or identification with the object.
Try to not be overly concerned about a specific object like the rising and falling; focus on whatever comes and, when there is nothing else to focus on, just then go back to the rising and falling.