distraction

“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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“Unusual” meditation experiences, sensory deprivation, and synesthesia

Photo by Aaron Andrew Ang on Unsplash

On a Buddhist discussion forum where I occasionally “lurk” (I’m interested to see what goes on there but I don’t really have the time to get involved in discussion there) someone asked if what are called “nimitta” experiences in meditation are the result of sensory deprivation.

What the heck are nimittas?

If you’ve never heard of “nimittas,” they are slightly unusual experiences that can arise in meditation, that are generally regarded as being helpful for your practice. There are many different kinds of nimitta and they can appear in any of the senses. Sometimes they’ll take the form of a light that appears in the mind, or a subtle sensation connected with the breathing that might have the quality of a fine silk thread being drawn between the fingertips, or the sound of the breathing, but heard internally rather than through the ears.

The word nimitta means a “sign” or even a “hint.” When one of these experiences arises, then it’s an indication that your practice is going deeper. And if you pay attention to the hint that your mind has produced for you, then you’ll go deeper still. Think about what it would be like to be lost on a dark moorland. You’ve no idea where to go, but then you see in the distance the faint glow of sodium lights on the horizon. It’s a town! Now you know which direction to go in, and as you move toward the lights they become clearer and clearer. That’s the function of a nimitta; it acts as a feedback mechanism, steering you toward becoming more absorbed in your experience.

But these experiences don’t arise from sensory deprivation. True nimittas arise as we become more immersed in our direct sensory experience, and as we sense it in more detail. When the mind is full of sensation in this way, there’s less room for thinking, and so the amount of inner chatter begins to die down. In other words we think less. This isn’t that infamous (and mythical) “blank mind” that newcomers to meditation often ask about. The mind isn’t blank. It isn’t thinking so much, but the attention we would normally pay to our thoughts is now directed toward, and absorbed in, the body.

Synesthesia and true nimittas

Now, it seems to me that most of the experiences that I’ve encountered that I’d call nimittas (whether in my direct experience or that have been described to me by others) involve an element of synesthesia. Synesthesia is where information that’s in one sensory channel is represented in another sensory channel. So some people literally experience a particular color associated with certain words. This isn’t them using their imaginations: the cross-over is automatic and consistent, so that if the word “David” is orange today, it’ll still be orange next year.

Synesthesia is reasonably common. When 500 people were studied in Scotland (who were not recruited on the basis of having reported experiences of synesthesia) the incidence was 4.4%. So in a random group of 24 people in a meditation room, roughly one of them, on average, will be a synesthete. But I suspect that a larger percentage of people are potential synesthetes: that is, they have a weak form of synesthesia that they don’t normally notice in the everyday turmoil and hubbub in the mind. It’s only when the mind calms that their synesthesia becomes apparent—for example when they’re meditating.

So as the mind stills and we become more sensitive to our experience, we may notice a tactile quality associated with the breathing, but not directly connected to the actual physical sensation of the body moving. Or mental calm may be represented as inner light, or a sense of being surrounded by a bubble of stillness. As you experience kindness, you may feel warmth or light radiating from the heart. These nimitta experiences are arising because the mind is calming down, and as you pay attention to them and become absorbed in them, the mind calms further.

Sensory deprivation and “para-nimittas”

Now, there are other sorts of experiences that can arise in meditation that are superficially similar to nimittas but aren’t helpful in taking you deeper into meditation. In fact they’ll do the opposite. And those do arise from sensory deprivation. I’m going to call them “para-nimittas.”

Now, sensory deprivation isn’t the point of meditation, but it can happen. If the mind begins to calm down, but you haven’t yet learned to be deeply attentive to the physical experiences arising in the body, then the mind is under-occupied. There’s not much stimulation flowing in from the body, and there’s not that much thinking (i.e. inner chatter or inner movies) going on in the mind. So there’s the same kind of sensory deprivation that goes on if you’re in a neutral buoyancy tank heated to skin temperature and sealed off from external light and sound. In those kinds of circumstances the mind gets a bit dreamy, and odd things happen.

A classic is swirling lights. This is different from the steady radiance of a true nimitta. Or dream-like imagery, such as faces, may appear in the mind’s eye. Or the body may feel like it’s leaning to one side (although it isn’t) or as if it’s floating. So-called out-of-body experiences probably belong in the same category.

These are distractions. They don’t help us become more absorbed in meditation.

If this second kind of experience arises then they’re best ignored. Paying attention to them is like getting more absorbed in a dream that arises when you’re lying in bed, half-awake; you’ll simply retreat further from lucid attention, even though you may feel like you’re fully awake and mindful.

What’s needed here is to become more grounded in the vividness of our actual physical experience, as opposed to the illusory experiences that the mind is conjuring up for us. See if you can notice the sensations of the body and the breathing more clearly, so that your mind is filled with sensory experience rather than deprived of it. You might want to observe, for example, how three different sensations of the breathing are related to each other: say, the air flowing in and out of the airways in the head, the movements of the ribcage in the upper back, and the sensations in the belly. Giving yourself a challenge like this will help you to be more attentive to and absorbed in your moment-by-moment physical experience.

How to tell the difference

True nimittas are stable and esthetically pleasing. The other kind of experience are sometimes trippy, scary, physically uncomfortable, or disorientating.

Although they’re not helpful to pay attention to, these para-nimittas are a good sign! They only arise when the mind is starting to quiet down, so although there isn’t enough depth of experience in the body, they show that something positive is happening. And people who are prone to para-nimittas often experience true nimittas as well.

And if you don’t experience either true nimittas or para-nimittas, that’s OK. Not everyone experiences these things, and although true nimittas are helpful, they’re not essential.

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Finding meditation’s intrinsic rewards

The mind is pulled in two different directions in meditation.

Peace, calm, and joy are the intrinsic rewards that meditation offers, and in theory that reward system should help keep you anchored in your direct, moment-by-moment experience. That can happen, and in fact that’s a good description of the experience of jhana (dhyana in Sanskrit). Jhana is a state of “flow” in which meditation becomes effortless because the rewards of joy, pleasure, and calmness keep you immersed in your present-moment experience. The rewards of meditation can pull you into your practice. That’s the first pull.

But it’s not always easy to experience those rewards. There’s another pull, which we’re all too familiar with: the pull of our distractions. This pull is much stronger. We’ve evolved to have minds that are constantly searching around looking for things that are wrong. Our ancestors’ survival (and thus our present-day existence) depended on a heightened awareness of anything that might threaten our chances of continuing to exist. And although our lives are pretty safe compared to the days when you had perhaps a one in three chance of dying violently, those circuits are still active.

So your ability to become absorbed in calmness and joy is hampered by the mind obsessing about some future event you’re anxious about, or a careless word from a friend that hurt your feelings, or some pleasant experience you hope will happen.

The parts of your brain that are responsible for those patterns of thought have been around for a long time and have had a lot of practice in getting your attention. They’re deeply wired into the rest of the brain and have the ability to hijack the brain’s “higher” centers, which are more recently evolved.

And so the powers of distraction are strong. You can let go of a distracted train of thought and return to your sensory awareness of your moment-by-moment experience, only to find you’ve become distracted again, long before you had a chance to get to the “rewards” of peace, calmness, of joy.

Two approaches I’ve found are useful for helping break out of this dynamic are these:

1. Really appreciate the experience of the breathing.

There is a shift in the quality of your experience when you disengage from a distraction. The shift may be slight, but it happens. It’s there. There’s just a little more calm, a little less tension.

Practice noticing those shifts. Really appreciate them. Allow yourself to feel that you’re coming home as you return to the breathing. You can even say words like “Yes,” or “Thank you,” or “Coming home again.”

Doing this will help to enhance your experience of the intrinsic rewards of meditation, so that they become stronger, easier to notice, and more compelling.

2. Disengage from distractions respectfully and empathetically

Treating your distractions as the enemy is a mistake. They’ve evolved to keep us safe and alive. Those are important tasks, and we should appreciate that they are what our distractions are trying to do. They’re not trying to mess up our meditation practice. They’re not trying to make us tense, stressed, upset, or depressed — even if that’s what they end up doing. From their point of view, they are crucial to our survival, and our happiness doesn’t even register to them.

So first, stop reacting to your distractions. This is common advice, of course, but accept that distraction simply happens. It’s no big deal. You can just let go and return to the breathing.

But before you do, say “Thank you.” Say “Thanks. I’ll deal with that at a more appropriate time,” or “Thanks. It can wait, though,” or “Thank you. Later.” Maybe you can come up with phrases that are better than mine.

If you’re signaling to those parts of the brain that their input is valued and will be attended to at the right time, they’re more likely to stop bugging you. Otherwise, they’ll think that their crucial role in keeping you safe is being ignored, which means they think you’re endangering yourself, which means they have to try even harder to get your attention.

This two-fold approach, of valuing but politely disengaging from distraction, while also savoring any increase in calmness, can help make our distractions less insistent and our moment-by-moment sensory experience more compelling. It can help us get more quickly to the rewards that meditation offers.

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Why meditation is for people who “can’t meditate”

Are you one of those people who think, “Oh, I could never meditate. My mind’s too busy!”?

I’m here to tell you that having a busy mind is the very best reason to meditate, not a reason to avoid it! After all we start going to the gym because we’re out of shape, not because we’re already fit. Meditating helps our busy minds become calmer.

Of course, just as when you start going to the gym the first thing you notice is how out of condition you are, it’s often a shock when we first meditate to discover just how unruly our minds are. But that’s OK. That’s something we just learn to accept.

As we meditate, we start to recognize that it’s OK to have a lot of thinking going on. We learn that when we try to fight with or repress our thinking, it just makes us tense, and gives us a sense of failure. A lot of what we do in meditation involves paying attention to our breathing. Of course we quickly lose our focus and get distracted, but whenever we catch ourselves having got caught up in a train of thought, we let go of the thinking and return to the breathing again. We learn to see this as a process: follow the breathing, get distracted, return to the breathing. Rinse and repeat.

Those moments when we notice that we’ve been distracted and return to the breathing are very important. Our first instinct may be to curse ourselves — “Aargh! I’ve been distracted again!” — but what’s really going on is something worth celebrating: you’ve returned to mindful awareness. You’ve come home. So you can remind yourself to appreciate these little successes. This helps you to feel good about meditating. In a way, the more you get distracted, the more opportunities you have to feel good about coming back to the breathing again!

Something I want to stress is that a very ordinary but very amazing thing has happened when you realize you’ve been distracted. Your consciousness has changed its state in a subtle but quite radical way.

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When you were caught up in a train of thought you had no choice, no free will, no mindful awareness. You hadn’t decided to think about whatever was on your mind. You weren’t aware you were doing it. You had no ability to disengage from the thoughts. You were on automatic pilot. You were in a trance-like state.

This kind of distracted thinking is rather like dreaming. It was only when you “woke up” and mindful awareness, for whatever reason, re-emerged, that you realized that you were caught up in a story-line and were able to make a conscious choice to let go of it. In that moment of awakening from the daydream, you became free.

People think that meditation is some kind of trance. But it’s the opposite. It’s waking up from the trance of distracted thinking.

The moment you step back into mindful awareness, you move from being a kind of automaton to being more fully human. You’re free to choose where to direct your mind. You’re free to return your attention to your breathing rather than to engage in distracted thinking that, for the most part, makes you angry, tense, anxious, or depressed.

You became capable of taking responsibility for your own mind and even your own destiny.

You’re also free to change the emotional quality of your mind. You can choose not to be impatient, and to accept that it’s OK that you were distracted. You can choose to be kind to yourself, and to be kind to your mind, returning your attention to the breathing with patience and gentleness, as you might return a baby bird to its nest.

Choosing to go back to the breathing, rather than to be distracted, changes the mind in the long-term. Choosing to be patient and kind with ourselves also changes the mind long-term. We become calmer. We become kinder. We become better able to deal with life’s difficulties.

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Enjoying the play of your inner toddler

child playing

We can experience different kinds of distracted thinking in meditation.

There are obvious, compelling, and “in your face” thoughts in which we tend to become completely immersed. These are the full-blown distractions where we completely forget that we’re meant to be meditating, and instead become submerged in our inner dramas. We dip in and out of these all the time in meditation, returning to the practice every time mindful awareness reappears.

Then there are lighter background thoughts that babble on in the background, even as we continue to pay attention to the meditation practice. So we’ll be following the breathing, for example, while random thoughts keep popping up. Perhaps these thoughts take the form of a commentary on our experience, or perhaps they are completely unrelated to the meditation practice. But they’re not usually so emotionally compelling that we get caught up in them.

I mainly want to talk a little about this second kind of thinking, and how we can relate to it.

Regard your inner chatter fondly, as if you’re listening to a toddler talking to itself while playing.

So, if you’re aware of an inner voice chattering away while you follow your breathing, you can try regarding that voice fondly, as if you were listening to a toddler talking to itself while playing. When a child talks like that it’s usually charming and funny and endearing. It’s not the kind of thing we tend to get upset about.

The way we relate to our inner talk is often more of a problem than the thoughts themselves. When we start resisting our thoughts, wishing that they would go away, the resistance itself is a painful state of mind, and it’s also likely to give rise to distractedness. Our thoughts of “I wish this would stop” throw us off-balance, and we find that suddenly we’re back into becoming seriously distracted again. Our distractions resist our resistance, and before we know it we find they’ve “tricked” us into being unmindful.

Just allowing those babbling thoughts to be present helps us to prevent this happening. It also helps us to be more kind and accepting.

Taking a tolerant and playful attitude toward random thoughts, which is what you’re doing when you regard them as being like the sounds of a young child playing, lets you simply get on with the meditation. The thoughts are still there, but they no longer bother you. In fact you not only don’t mind them, but can be amused by and feel fondness for them. This is immeasurably more enjoyable and helpful than resisting them!

Of course this doesn’t work so well with the first type of thinking I mentioned — the compelling kind. Those thoughts tend to be emotionally loaded, which is why we find ourselves repeatedly drawn into them. What helps there is to give our compelling thoughts plenty of space, and I discussed in a recent article.

When the mind is constricted our thoughts seem larger, and they’re harder to resist. It’s a bit like being trapped in a long car-ride with a child’s constant demands for attention. It drives us crazy! To quiet the inner child down, you need to give it plenty of space to play. Once you’ve done that, you’ll often find that it just quietly gets on with its own thing, and you can enjoy its babbling as you get on with doing your own thing. Eventually, perhaps, the toddler will take a nap, and you can enjoy the refreshing calm of a quiet and spacious mind.

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The most important thing right now, is right now

tree blossoms

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 in the other party. Living in an environment where resources were scarce, our sensory desires motivated us to seek and hold on to food and other essentials. Self-doubt promoted caution, so that we didn’t recklessly put ourselves in danger, and also helped us fit into a hierarchical social group where not everyone could be the leader.

Although we still do face threats, uncertainties, scarcity, and so on, for the most part the kinds of mental states I’ve been describing don’t really help us in modern life. In fact they hinder us in many ways, and rather than protect us they mostly cause us to suffer. The circuitry in our brains connected with these states is still there and keeps looking for things to get anxious, angry, greedy, or doubtful about. Sometimes that circuitry gets out of control and has a destructive effect on our lives, as with stress, social anxiety, and depression.

Even outside of pathological conditions, though, these mental states diminish our wellbeing. We’re always happier when we’re mindfully attentive to whatever we’re doing, even if it’s just our breathing, than when the mind is off wandering.

The thing, then, is how do we convince ourselves that our distractions are not actually important for our happiness, and that mindfulness is what’s truly important?

The Buddhist tradition offers lots of ways to do this, including reflecting on the drawbacks of our distractions (“Anxiety doesn’t solve my problems, it just makes it harder to tackle them”). But one of my favorite approaches is to drop in a gentle reminder that it’s valuable to disengage from distracted thinking—that it’s important to be mindful.

In the past I’ve used the phrase “But right now … right now.” I’ve also used “It can wait.” I’ve found them both to be very useful.

My current phrase is, “The most important thing right now, is right now.” This is a simple reminder of priorities. In a sense there’s nothing “wrong” with anxiety, doubt, and so on. Having those things show up isn’t a sign of failure. It’s not a weakness. It’s not a sign that you’re a bad person. They’re simply part of your old programming, and tend not to make you happy or bring you a sense of contentment. Instead, they stir us up emotionally and create worlds of pain. What is a higher priority, what is important for us to do, is to be mindful of our present-moment experience.

The second “right now” in “The most important thing right now, is right now” is pointing to everything that’s arising in our direct sensory experience. Sounds, light, the body, our feelings are all arising right now. Paying attention to those in a mindful way allows the mind to calm, our body to let go of tensions, and our emotions to come to rest in a sense of contentment, or even joy.

This “mantra” suggests exploration. What is “right now?” That’s for us to find out, through mindful exploration.

So as you find yourself coming out of a period of distracted thinking in your meditation, and re-emerging in a more mindful state, try dropping in the phrase “The most important thing right now, is right now,” and let it direct your attention to what’s truly important, which is your immediate sensory reality.

One student, Zia, wrote to me to let me know how the words had changed as she practiced with them:

Over several days, the reminder “The most important thing right now, is right now” has morphed in my mind into “All that matters right now is right now”. At some times, it further morphs into “ALL that matters right now is right now”. The capital “ALL” brings more of a sense of the vastness, the divinity, that is contained in the present moment and that becomes more accessible through attention.

This is a beautiful reminder that we can treat phrases like these as living things that you’re inviting to share your life, rather than objects that you keep around. Let them adapt, grow, and evolve.

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Help, I need my device

phone addiction

I used to begin my day with a cigarette and a cup of a coffee. Now I begin my day with a meditation and a cup of coffee. But I have to admit, increasingly I can see that my day often begins with looking at one of my devices.

How many of you begin your day with the cell phone, the iPad, or the computer?

I was asked to do some training on digital addiction with some artists and geeks, and I was alarmed after some research to realize that I too am teetering into digital addiction.

If we rely on the dictionary definition of addiction, ‘the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing or activity, or a dependency, dependence, habit or problem’, we can at least begin to entertain the idea that many of us fall into the category of digital addiction.

You might be saying: “What’s the issue, it’s not a matter of life and death?” Sadly the number of road accidents caused by using the cell phone is on the increase, and that means more lives taken due to this insidious addiction. It’s illegal in many places to text and drive, or to be talking on the phone if you’re not hands-free, and yet we still do it, despite the fact we are putting our life and others’ at risk. Another definition of addiction is continuing a habitual behaviour despite the negative consequences. And texting while driving can be a matter of life and death.

So why are many of us prey to this new addictive habit?

Digital technology is seductive. When we hear that ping on one of our gadgets it’s almost like candy for the brain. Messages can make us think we are needed and wanted, and they encourage us to stay online. The more ‘likes’ we receive on our posts, the more pumped-up our self esteem becomes.

Facebook has recently introduced emoticons — a heart, a thumbs up, a smile — all of which can be experienced as affirming. Other emoticons, like a scowl, angry face or tears, can potentially deflate our egos. We can have a false sense of thinking we know what others are thinking and feeling. However for many people Facebook provides a sense of connection, even if they are alone at home staring at a screen. When it’s our birthday we can receive hundreds of messages. Before the advent of Facebook some of us would have been lucky if we received more than three birthday cards.

Technology has been designed to appeal to our senses. Games such as Candy Crush are replicated in the supermarket, and become as addictive as cigarettes and sugar. So many urban environments are digitalized that even if we don’t own a device we can still experience a cognitive overload from all the digital images we are surrounded by.

There is also the overload of emails. Some people spend half their working day attending to their inbox, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat accounts. Many of us check our social media accounts ten or more times a day.

So what can we do?

There is a company called Unless I Hear Differently that offers a simple tip to improve communication. If you are trying to make a decision over email and people are not getting back to you, this company suggests you write the phrase, “Unless I hear differently, this is what I’m going to do…” This phrase can cut down a whole slew of emails if you are trying to make a decision. It fosters a bias for action without weeks of trying to get an agreement.

Here is a list of other things you can do to help you live more peacefully in this digital era:

  • Put your phone on airplane mode while you are working
  • Put your phone on silent
  • Close the your browser on your lap top
  • Put your email autoresponder on for a couple of hours
  • Disconnect your phone from your lap top, iPad, or computer so you do not hear the ping every time someone sends you a message

Try one of these and see what happens. Perhaps you will find out just how attached you are to your gadget.

The next time you wake up to checking your messages on a device, consider buying one of those old fashioned alarm clocks to wake you up.

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Stepping out of compulsive thoughts, and into freedom

Gold Fish Jumping to Empty Bowl

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 reality drama in which we’re mindlessly immersed. When we’re distracted in this way we’re in an altered state of consciousness, in which we lack self-awareness: we’re not aware we’re distracted, we’re not aware we’re fantasizing, and we’re participating in the drama of our experience but we’re no longer monitoring or observing our experience.

Especially for those who are relatively new to meditation, there can be a tendency to be disappointed, annoyed, or self-critical when we emerge from these hypnotic bubbles. But with practice we can learn to cultivate patience and kindness as we accept that the mind wanders, appreciation as we value our return to mindfulness, and persistence as we bring the mind gently back to the breathing. People who’ve been meditating for a long time can get pretty good at relating to distractions in that way. They maybe are (sometimes) a little less distracted, but they’re a lot less bothered by the distractions they do have.

But there’s one other thing that I’ve recently been bringing in to my meditation at the point where I realize that I’ve just emerged from a dream-like period of distraction. What I’ve been doing is I note the fact that the train of thought I was immersed in seemed compelling when I was, so to speak, inside it, and yet now that I’m viewing it from the outside it appears undesirable and unsatisfying.

When we’re inside these hypnotic, dream-like states, they entirely capture our attention. They hold us spellbound. They’re irresistibly compelling. And yet, when the bubble eventually bursts, I find them to be rather lame! Noticing this lameness helps me to stay more disengaged from them. Of course other distractions will come up, and I’ll get lost in those too, but noticing the unsatisfactoriness of my distractions immediately after they’re over helps my mindfulness to have more momentum. I feel clearer. Sharper. More empowered. More content.

And just as my distractions appear more unsatisfactory, so the simple richness of my present-moment experience seems even more satisfying by contrast. I realize that this is where I want to stay. The calmness seems calmer. The body feels more alive. Yes, this is home.

Observing the unsatisfactoriness of our distractions also works with the less compelling thoughts that flit through the mind without causing us to lose our mindfulness altogether. We can watch them go by and realize that they have nothing to offer us but disappointment and frustration.

This practice is one of “noting” the characteristic (lakkhana) of dukkha (which can mean unsatisfactoriness, suffering, or even pain.) It seems to fit rather neatly with verse 278 of the Dhammapada: “All fabricated states of mind [sankharas] are unsatisfactory [dukkha]. When one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering [dukkha].”

The word dukkha is used in two senses here. First, our distractions (sankharas, or “fabricated states of mind”) are seen as unsatisfactory. Second, seeing the unsatisfactoriness of our distracted states of mind — craving, irritation, anxiety, avoidance, doubt — helps us to turn away from the dukkha (suffering) that these kinds of thoughts give rise to. For all of these distractions have the effect of reducing our levels of well-being.

And so, seeing that our distractions are unsatisfying—indeed are incapable of providing real satisfaction—we turn away from the suffering they bring. Noting the unsatisfactoriness of our distractions is, in fact, an insight practice. It takes us closer to awakening.

I’ve suggest trying this practice for yourself. Very simply, just notice, as you emerge from each distraction, how the train of thought appears to you now. Does it seem alluring? Does it seem unpleasant? Is it something in between?

Do note that there may be some part of your mind that is still drawn to the distraction. This isn’t surprising, since moments before you’d been entirely absorbed and seduced. But on the whole you may find yourself turning away from the distraction, seeing it as it really is — unsatisfying. And you may find yourself, unexpectedly, with a fuller appreciation of the present moment.

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How to become happier by appreciating the wonderful impermanence of distraction

Swarm of starlings

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 on the fact of thoughts arising. We experience, perhaps, a moment of inner calm, but then there comes a thought. That thought disappears, and immediately there’s another one. And another, and another. So we focus on the fact that thoughts keep arising.

But for every arising of a thought, there’s a passing away of a thought. No thought ever hangs around indefinitely. They don’t pile up in the mind, in a great heap. Yes, they arise. But they also pass away.

And our experience starts to seem very different when we allow ourselves to focus on the passing of thoughts rather than their arising.

Just watch your mind for a while, right now, and notice that each of the thoughts that appears spontaneously disappears!

You didn’t have to do anything to get rid of any of these thoughts. They got rid of themselves, because their very nature is impermanent. They are inherently transitory.

You may have felt a sense of joy as you realized that your thoughts are constantly vanishing, getting rid of themselves. It’s very encouraging to focus on that aspect of them, rather than the fact that they keep getting created.

Rather than going — oh, drat, here’s another thought — we can notice — oh, great, that’s another thought gone. We don’t necessarily think those words, although it’s not a problem if we do, and in fact it can be helpful to have that kind of thought pass through the mind—we can notice that that thought is impermanent too! But we can simply notice the passing of thoughts and, perhaps, feel happy about that fact.

And our feeling happier because we realize that thoughts, so to speak, “self-liberate,” we feel more confident. And when we feel more confident, we don’t feel the same compulsion to think that we felt before. So we may find, as we shift our focus to notice the impermanence of our thoughts, that the mind becomes calmer.

In effect, what we’re doing here is to bring an element of insight into our meditation practice. Insight, or vipassana, is the act of questioning, or examining, the nature of our experience. The most simple way to do that is to directly observe that any experience we may have, whether it’s the experience of a breath, the experience of an aching knee, or the experience of a thought, is impermanent.

Directly observing the impermanence of our experiences in this way is liberating. It helps, as the Buddha said, to divert the mind from habits that cause suffering:

“All fabricated mental states are impermanent” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

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How to improve your attention span through meditation

girl dressed as superheroYour 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 score points, but even when you see the possibility of doing so. You see the promise of getting to a new level in a computer game, and once again there’s a dopamine hit. The movie has quiet parts, where you’re less engaged and the mind wanders, but then the story evolves and you get to see some action, or a shift in the plot and want to know what happens next. Another dopamine hit.

Dopamine is the brain’s “promise of a reward” chemical. It keeps you motivated. Dopamine is in effect saying to your brain, “Keep going! Something good is just around the corner!”

Movies and games have built-in mechanisms for delivering dopamine-based rewards. That’s why we like them. Meditation, less so.

Sometimes meditation is naturally rewarding. We might notice that the mind is becoming a little calmer, and feel good about that. And those kinds of experiences keep you motivated. But when people meditate, especially early on, they mostly notice how distracted they are! This is less encouraging, which is probably why most people give up meditating after the first few days or weeks.

We all have trouble paying attention, and have distracted thoughts popping into our heads that take us away from the task we’re trying to focus on, such as noticing the breathing. There’s a tendency at first to assume that there’s something wrong when this happens, and to think that we can’t meditate. And that sense of “failure” produces very unpleasant feelings that we want to escape from by ceasing to continue the exercise. But in fact it’s normal to get distracted, and if we accept that we can just keep returning to the meditation practice over and over again.

It can be a little shocking, and disappointing. This saps our motivation, making us want to give up.

In meditation, the reward often has to be consciously induced. We can do this by deliberately celebrating small signs of progress. For example, the mind is always going to go wandering, and become distracted. But it always returns to mindful awareness! In meditation, we can either curse ourselves for getting distracted again or celebrate regaining our mindfulness again. Which we choose makes a big difference to our perseverance.

If that seems artificial (which is to say that you’re choosing to believe the demotivating thought rather than the one that motivates you) then you might want to give yourself a little reassurance instead, by saying something like, “It’s OK. This happens to everyone. I’ve returned to mindful attention now, and that’s the important thing.”

Once you’re learned to be a bit less disappointed in distraction and begun to accept it as a normal part of the meditation process, then you start to more consciously celebrate your many, many returns to mindful awareness.

Doing this will help you to stick with the practice. However, you’ll find that your attention span improves not just in meditation, but in other areas of your life too, since you’ve learned an important principle of motivation: criticism deflates, rewards inspire!

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