The moment when we realize that we’ve been caught up in a distracted train of thought is a valuable opportunity to bring skillful qualities into the mind, and to cultivate insight.
This is something that’s very familiar to anyone who’s meditated. We’ll start by following the breathing, or some other object of attention, but then without our making any conscious choice to shift our focus we slip into a dream-like state in which we’re rehashing a dispute, or fantasizing about something pleasant, or worrying about some situation in our lives.
These periods of distraction can be so intense that they are like hypnotic states. They’re like dreams. They’re like mental bubbles of an internal virtual … Read more »
Beginners to meditation are often disappointed, annoyed, or despondent about many thoughts arise in meditation. They want to get rid of these thoughts, especially since many of them are emotionally troubling and cause stress, anxiety, and other forms of suffering.
Long-term meditators, of course, learn to accept the arising of thoughts, and so they don’t get upset about them.
Something that can benefit not just beginners, but people with many years of experience of meditation, is that we don’t need to do anything to get rid of our thoughts!
That may sound a bit puzzling. Here’s a bit of context to help you make sense of what I mean.
We tend to be very focused … Read more »
Your ability to stick with something varies from activity to activity. For example, when playing Scrabble or a computer game, or watching a movie, you no doubt have thoughts about unrelated things, but you keep coming back to the activity. But in other things, like meditation, you find it more difficult to stay focused, and may even give up.
This all suggests that “attention span” is a question of how you relate to distraction, rather than some intrinsic quality of the mind.
The difference is often to do with rewards: in Scrabble, you naturally get a reward when you’ve completed a word and score points. That gives you a little dopamine hit—not just when you … Read more »
I was teaching a class the other night and after a guided meditation one woman said she’d found it hard because lots of thoughts came up, and she’d get absorbed in them. Then she had to keep letting go of the thoughts and returning to the breathing. Of course I reassured her that that’s absolutely normal. In fact, noticing that we’ve been caught up in the mind’s stories and returning to our present-moment experience (whether of the breathing or something else) is what meditation is about.
Once you accept that fact, you’re less likely to think of yourself as being a “bad meditator” or to think that your meditation practice isn’t going well just … Read more »
Someone recently asked me about how to deal with useful distractions:
As a creative writer, I think I get some of my best ideas while in a meditative state such as when showering or shaving. My question is what I should do when a ‘useful’ or ‘epiphany moment’ happens while meditating. My instinct is to get up and write my idea down and my fear is that if I go back to my breathing I will lose this idea which has bubbled up from my subconscious. I don’t really see my wandering mind as a thing to avoid but a thing to embrace – which confuses me regarding the practice of meditation.
Mind-wandering is partly … Read more »
As we meditate, thoughts bubble up. Many people are bothered when this happens, and tell themselves that there’s something wrong or that they’re no good at meditating. But having a lot of thoughts arise is OK. Our minds produce thoughts. It’s natural.
While bubbles in water contain gases, the thought bubbles that arise in the mind contain stories. Sometimes the stories inside these bubbles are emotionally compelling, and we can’t resist sticking our heads inside to see what’s going on. The bubble now surrounds our head like a 3D holographic display, complete with images, sounds, and tactile and other sensory information. And the story we’re witnessing is interactive! We now start playing the role of … Read more »
Once, many years ago, I was meditating—or at least I was supposed to be—and I found myself wondering what the Pali for “Palm Pilot” would be.
I had one of these electronic devices in front of me (if you’re not familiar with this ancient technology, think of it as being a very primitive iPod Touch) because I was leading a retreat and had been reading notes from it. I recognized that this train of thought was a hindrance, and as I wondered why it was happening it occurred to me that it was an expression of playfulness. Could it be, I inquired, that my meditation had been lacking in playfulness? Had it been a bit … Read more »
Earworms are those tunes that get stuck in your head. Sometimes you’ll be meditating and have a favorite song stuck on replay. Sometimes it’s a song you hate. Either way, earworms aren’t very helpful to our meditation practice. In fact they can be so persistent that they drive us nuts!
Over the years I’ve tried a whole bunch of techniques to try to get rid of ear-worms. I’ve tried just listening to the song, accepting its presence and using it as an object of meditation, but songs can be intoxicating and I’ve found that I don’t develop much mindfulness and end up rocking out.
Sometimes I’ve listened to the lyrics closely to see if they’re … Read more »
Michael Taft, The Huffington Post: When I first started meditating, one of the hardest things was trying to stay focused. There were just so many things to do, people to interact with, noises like music or blaring car horns that shattered and upset my nascent meditative vibe. I felt like I was drowning. How could I focus in a sea of constant distraction?
The funny thing is that, more than 30 years later, the distractions are still the same. Sirens wail, the bladder complains, people demand my attention, life is moving along in just the same intense, chaotic, confusing manner. If anything, decades of …