This is a 2 part series on this week’s topic ‘Dealing with Distractions’. I wanted to offer some reflections on this idea because something in life always grabbing at our attention. How we deal with those distractions will vary from moment to moment and there is not a fixed rulebook on the most appropriate way. Mindfulness however can act as a basis for understanding, managing and dealing with those distractions so that we don’t create suffering for ourselves and others.
Distractions in Life
Life is always vying for our attention. We try to focus on our project at work and email after email comes in, we jump over to them like an addict only to notice half way through the day we’ve made next to no progress on what we’d initially set our mind to. Alternatively, we get up with the kids and think “Today I’m going to get through all that washing and clean the house”, but half through the morning your son’s nappy leaks and you end up with poo on the carpet and the washing still sitting there unfinished. (no joke, happened to my wife last week – glad I was at work!). At the end of the day you collapse and feel exhausted and flustered like you’ve made no progress. Life doesn’t always go as we expected and there are many distractions, but there are some things we can do to ease our sense of struggle.
Internal and External Distractions
There are both internal and external distractors in life. While at first glance it may seem that the internal ones are harder to change because they are more abstract and less tangible, external distractions can be equally hard to adjust or remove because they are more solidified and consistent.
If we’ve build up a set of conditions around us (job, house, mortgage, child, sport etc) then these can constantly pull us away from what we feel we want to do in our hearts. Listening to this internal urge may help us realise that we need to quietened down some of the clutter in our lives. We can’t however just quit our job, sell the house, get a divorce, put the kids of the street and retreat off to a monastery. Mindfulness though can help us come to see what is creating the issues in our life and navigate a path, over time, to a more meaningful lifestyle. So while some external distractions can take time to change, others are much easier, and we must be equally mindful of the opportunities to to quieten these simple external distractors. By simply turning off the TV and PC, we can just sit and enjoy a cup of tea with ourselves and family more often.
Internal distractions can be equally as challenging. We want to stay focused on something and our minds jump in with “Hey, did you turn off the iron” or “Make sure you get shaving cream when you go shopping” or “Must remember to transfer that money to the credit card”. Knowing how to quieten these down is what our meditation practice is for. Being less tangible, more abstract forms of distractions, can make them seem almost impossible to navigate. Without meditation, the momentum of our minds can seem tricky to stop, and the internal distraction can be constantly pulling us away from our current task or focus of attention.
Our Reactions to Distractions
Notice how you respond and react to the distraction, both internal and external ones. For example, when we are sitting in meditation and someone is sniffing behind us we’ll notice the thought arise “I wish they would be quiet”, or we may hear noise out on the street and we think “I wish that dog would shut up”, or our own thoughts keep going and we think “I wish my mind would just stop thinking!”. When these things arise, notice that it is not the distraction that upsets us but it is our response to them that creates our suffering. We get annoyed at them. We must come to understand that life is not going to stop for us and so distractions are always going to arise, in life and in the meditation. If we notice this then we empower ourselves to actualise a change in how we are perceiving the world and the things that arise for us. We move from a life blaming things around us, to a life in which we look to ourselves as the focus of responsibility and thus we can change the way we are experiencing the world.
Distractions and the Meditation
So meditation allows us a method of practice that manages distractions in two main ways. It focuses the mind on a meditation object, and, it allows us to see through the illusion of the distractions themselves.
Focusing on the meditation object not only concentrates the mind, irrespective of the distractions that are coming up, but it also allows the internal noise to come to rest, which eventually ceases our own internal distractions. This ability to concentrate is a skill and in Buddhism they call it Right Concentration, the ability to sustain the mind the meditation object. This requires the right amount of effort and resolve to sustain the mind at that point of concentration (in Buddhism called Right Effort and Right Resolve (or Right Intention)). When the mind does this, it is called Samadhi, sustained attention on just one point of concentration. The seperation of doer and meditation object ceases and there is ‘just one’ point of attention. There is at this moment, no seperation and thus no one to get distracted or no ‘other’ thing to distract. It is a complete cessation of distractions and the mind rests in a sustained way on that point of focus.
Insight is the other aspect of meditation that allows us to manage distractions. While we can hold the mind still and become very adept at concentration, this still requires ongoing effort. Insight, called Right View in Buddhism, is the ability to see the true nature of things. When this occurs the nature of the distraction is seen through, and thus its appearance no longer has a hold on us or upsets us. The distractor no longer affects our sense of calm and ability to concentrate. It is here was start to experience a freedom from distractions in an effortless way and we release ourselves from the struggle or effort to sustain concentration. Mindfulness because effortless and self-sustaining.
In Part 2 tomorrow I talk about the balance between intention and distractions, the nature of mind and distractions, how we distract ourselves as a coping mechanism, and lastly ‘how to apply’ all of this.