cognitive distortions

“This is where peace is found”

Anyone who has meditated knows that over and over again we turn the mind toward the sensations of the breathing, to building kindness, or to some other object of meditation, and over and over again we find ourselves distracted by some random train of thought.

Distractions are seductive, but make us unhappy

Our thoughts are strangely seductive. And yet they rarely make us happy. In fact research shows that distracted thinking is a source of suffering. We’re much happier when we are mindfully attentive to our experience.

The Buddha in fact classified our distracted thoughts into five categories: longing for pleasant experiences, ill will, worrying, avoidance, and doubting ourselves. All five of these hindrances, as they’re called cause unhappiness.

So why do we keep getting drawn towards doing something that makes us unhappy?

Why are we so drawn to distractedness?

Early Buddhist teachings talk about a number of “cognitive distortions” (vipallasas), one of which is seeing things that cause suffering as sources of happiness. And that’s what’s going on here. The mind assumes that if we long for pleasure, pleasure will happen, that if we hate what we don’t like, it’ll go away, that if we worry about things, this will fix them, that if we avoid things we don’t like, they’ll go away, and that if we doubt ourselves and make ourselves miserable, someone will come and tell us everything’s OK.

So on a certain, very deep, level, we’re convinced that distractedness is where happiness is found. Even though it isn’t.

Being mindful of the body is the way to happiness

Where happiness does lie is in mindful attention — mindfully attending to the physical sensations of the body, to feelings, to thoughts, and to how all of these things affect each other in ways that either contribute or detract from our wellbeing.

Simply observing the breathing and other sensations in the body, patiently returning to it over and over when we get distracted, brings peace. This is the basis of meditation.

It’s in the body that peace lies. That’s where we find happiness.

A practice for retraining the mind

So as a practice, I suggest the following.

First, let the eyes be soft. Let the muscles around the eyes be relaxed. Let the eyes be focused softly.

Then, begin to connect with the sensations of the body, feeling the movements of the breathing as soft waves sweeping through the body.

As distractions arise, and you begin to extract yourself from them, see if you can have a sense of distracting thoughts being in one direction, and the body in another direction.

On each out-breath, remind yourself that the sensations of the body are where you want your attention to be by saying something like the following:

  • This [the body] is where happiness is found.
  • This is where peace is found.
  • This is where patience is found.
  • This is where joy is found.
  • This is where calm is found.
  • This is where ease is found.
  • This is where security is found.
  • This is where confidence is found.
  • This is where contentment is found.
  • This is where love is found.
  • This is where awakening is found.

As each breath sweeps downward through, say one of the phrases above, or something like them. You can make up your own phrases. You can repeat phrases, but see if you can mix them up a bit in order that the practice doesn’t become mechanical.

How this works

Essentially all positive qualities are supported by mindfulness rooted in the body, so you can just let various qualities come to mind and remind yourself that it’s through awareness of the body that they will arise.

Let the words accompany the breathing, strengthening your intention to notice and appreciate the body mindfully.

In the short term, the repeated reminders to observe the body will help to keep your mind on track. There’s less opportunity for distraction to arise and take over your mind.

In the long term, you might find that you start to realize that the body — rather than distractions — is home. It’s where growth happens. It’s where you want to keep turning your attention. It’s where you want to be. And your attention will naturally gravitate there.

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“The future is no more uncertain than the present.” Walt Whitman

If you’re a long-time visitor to this site you may have wondered why there are fewer posts here than their used to be. It’s not that I’ve semi-retired, or anything like that. In fact I’m busier than ever with my teaching work, but most of it is seen only by people who sponsor Wildmind, and thus support me to teach meditation. If you’re interested in supporting my exploration and teaching of meditation, please check out Wildmind’s meditation initiative.

Whitman appears to have been obsessed with the concept of karma. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that he was influenced by Transcendentalism.

In the “Song of Prudence,” for example, he wrote:

All that a person does, says, thinks, is of consequence,
Not a move can a man or woman make, that affects him or her in
a day, month, any part of the direct lifetime, or the hour
of death,
But the same affects him or her onward afterward through the
indirect lifetime.

His embrace of the principle of karma is something I might write about at another time. Today I’d like to go in a different direction.

When Whitman (in a poem called, “The Future”) wrote the line, “The future is no more uncertain than the present”  he was expressing confidence that the future would be an improvement on the present, because “we all are onward, onward, speeding slowly, surely bettering, / The world, the human race, the soul.”

I read the line “The future is no more uncertain than the present” differently from how Whitman intended it, however.

I interpreted the quote to mean that the present isn’t as certain as we think it is. This isn’t what Whitman himself meant, but it’s where my mind went.

We’re used to the idea that the future is unpredictable and unknowable, while we think we know what’s going on right now. But what if our certainty is misplaced and we’re getting it all wrong?

One of my meditation students, for example, has been sharing how she’s learning to see through the delusion that other people make us feel and act in certain ways: He’s making me anxious; she’s making me angry. Those statements are so certain, suggesting that we know what’s going on in the present moment. But they’re false certainties.

Our feelings arise within us. They’re our creations. Our responses — anger, depression, happiness — also arise within us. They too are our creations. Yet most of the time we forget that. He’s driving me crazy; she makes me happy.

All those certainties about the present. All wrong.

Which brings up the question, what else are we getting wrong about the present?

Often, for example, we focus on what’s going wrong in life, and on the things people are doing that we don’t like, and we ignore all the things that are going right. The car needs repairs again and realize we’ve run out of milk for our coffee, and we think, “What a day! Nothing is going right!”

But we’re ignoring the amazing fact that we have a car and someone to repair it, and that we have coffee, and a mug, and water, and electricity to heat it up. When we focus on what’s going wrong, we’re convinced that life is horrible. The present seems so certain. But when we focus on what’s going right, we feel blessed.

What else in this present moment are we certain about, but getting wrong? According to the Buddha, just about everything.

He talked about four kinds of cognitive distortions (Pali, vipallāsā; Sanskrit, viparyāsā) that affect how we understand the world:

Perceiving impermanence as permanence,
suffering as happiness,
not-self as self,
and ugliness as beauty—
sentient beings are ruined by wrong view,
deranged, out of their mind.

Right now, the one of these that most interests me is when we imagine things that are sources of suffering to be sources of happiness. Take any kind of addiction, if you want an extreme example. When we’re in the throes of addiction, over and over again we see the thing we crave as being a source of happiness and an escape from suffering. This of course is a cognitive distortion, and we have things upside down and backside foremost.

The reverse is also a vipallāsa: seeing sources of happiness as sources of suffering. An example I often think of is the reaction I get from some people when I tell them I’m going on a retreat with lots of silence and no access to TV. For many the very thought of that is painful. And yet the simplicity of such a retreat is positively joyous.

So we can have all these fixed certainties about what things are like in the present, but it turns out that those certainties are wrong. Once we’ve seen that pattern repeat itself a few times it seems wise to start regarding the present as being as uncertain as the future. We could call this “intellectual humility,” or “receptivity,” or even “courage” — because that’s what it takes to let go of potentially false certainties in order to open ourselves to perceiving things as they are, not as we believe them to be.

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