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 a problem because it disturbs us emotionally. Research has shown that we’re distracted—i.e. thinking about something unrelated to what we’re doing—almost half the time. It also shows that these distractions make us unhappy.
Traditional Buddhist teachings agree, and point to five different types of distractions that we get caught up in. We crave pleasant experiences, we think about things that annoy or anger us, we worry, we slip into dream-like states (or even into sleep), and we engage with doubts, telling ourselves stories about our own incompetence or unlovability. All of these states are painful, lead to pain, or are unsuccessful attempts to deal with (usually unacknowledged) pain.
But these “five hindrances,” as they are known, come in varying degrees of intensity. Ill will, for example, may manifest as hateful thoughts about another person, or as mild irritability, or even as an aversion to some experience that we resist experiencing.
It’s the hindrance of craving, or “sense desire,” as it’s termed, that can lead us into the kind of pleasant, creative rumination that my correspondent asked about. In a relaxed state, especially when we’re doing something familiar and repetitive, such as showering, the mind my look for a pleasing distraction in the form of putting together ideas in new and creative ways.
There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way. There’s nothing actually wrong with any of the hindrances, in fact. It’s just that they tend to cause us suffering. In their milder forms, though, that’s generally not the case. Creative thinking in fact can be very enjoyable. One problem is what in economics they call the “opportunity cost.” If you’re creatively daydreaming, you can’t also be mindfully aware of your present moment experience, which is a gateway to a more deeply satisfying level of experience. In meditation, for example, we can end up spending most of our time letting the mind drift in this way. And once it starts drifting, it can be hard to stop it. The mind may well end up straying from pleasant and creative forms of thought to more overtly pain-inducing types of thinking, such as ill will or doubt.
Creative thinking is going to happen, though! Sometimes when I have a creative thought in meditation I’ll cross my fingers. I soon habituate and forget my fingers are crossed, but when the meditation ends I notice that they are in an unusual position and I remember the thought I’d had.
I think it’s also OK to keep a notebook handy and to jot the thought down, in order to get it out of your head. It’s probably less disruptive to the meditation session than it is to worry about losing the good idea!
If creative thoughts keep coming to you in meditation, then usually this is a sign that you’re not giving yourself opportunities to do this in your daily life. If you’re constantly on the go, always doing something, then it’s natural that when you close your eyes to meditate you’ll find that the mind starts digesting all the information you’ve been exposing yourself to, making sense of it, and coming up with creative insights. If you take breaks between tasks, though, and even schedule time for reflection, then it’s less likely that your meditation will be dominated by “good ideas.”