The problem with distractions is that they’re compelling. They make us think that they’re important. They draw us into their stories. It’s as if they’re saying, “This is what you need to be thinking about right now.”
And so, over and over, we end up immersed in stories driven by anxiety, anger, desire, and self-doubt.
These distractions come from relatively primitive parts of our programming, which evolved as protective mechanisms. As mammals who suffered from predation, we needed to be anxious and alert for potential physical threats to our wellbeing. When such threats became actual—a stranger approaching our camp, for example—we might respond with displays of anger in order to invoke respect or fear … Read more »
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 »
Someone wrote to me the other day, asking for advice:
I just started regularly meditating about a month ago. I’m scared to continue now though. I had a sudden feeling of self resentment and I felt it so deeply. I remembered the bad choices I have made in my life and felt so unworthy of love and compassion. I felt unworthy of the meditation itself. I felt like I was the most selfish person in the world. I can’t even begin to describe how painful it was.
What she’d described is what we call the “hindrance of doubt.” There are five of these hindrances, which are mental patterns that stop us from being at ease … Read more »
A couple of weeks ago I had a growth removed from inside my ear, and a week later the pathology report came back, saying that the lump had been cancer. It’s not very pleasant to hear that you’ve had cancer, and it’s also unpleasant knowing you’d had to leave it untreated for six months because you couldn’t afford health insurance. Anyway, that unpleasantness prompted the worrying part of my mind to go into overdrive. What if the surgeons hadn’t got it all? What if … Read more »
You know the standard advice: when you notice during meditation that the mind has been caught up in thinking rather than with paying attention to your present-moment experience, just let go of the thoughts, without judgement, and just come back to the object of the meditation practice. And do that over and over.
But sometimes the thoughts are very persistent, especially if there’s something that’s preoccupying you emotionally. If you’ve been involved in an unresolved conflict, or have unfinished business, or if you’re looking forward to some big event, then it’s natural that your mind is going to turn to that over and over.
Over the years I’ve found a “trick” that helps me to … Read more »
Here’s a meditation tip for you to try. It came to me when I was on retreat a couple of weeks ago. One morning, on the first meditation of the day, I found that my mind was all over the place.
I really needed to calm down my racing thoughts, but I had a hunch that the more I “tried” to do something about them, the more I was going to create more disturbance. In Buddhism we sometimes talk about this as being the task of “catching a feather on a fan,” because more effort equals more disturbance, while a gentle and sensitive effort will get the job done.
As I paid attention to the … Read more »