with Distractions - II
there you are meditating beautifully. Your body is totally immobile,
and you mind is totally still. You just glide right along following
the flow of the breath, in, out, in, out...calm, serene and
concentrated. Everything is perfect. And then, all of a sudden,
something totally different pops into your mind: "I sure wish
I had an ice cream cone." That's a distraction, obviously. That's
not what you are supposed to be doing. You notice that, and
you drag yourself back to the breath, back to the smooth flow,
in, out, in...and then: "Did I ever pay that gas bill?" Another
distraction. You notice that one, and you haul yourself back
to the breath. In, out, in, out, in..."That new science fiction
movie is out. Maybe I can go see it Tuesday night. No, not Tuesday,
got too much to do on Wednesday. Thursday's better..." Another
distraction. You pull yourself out of that one and back you
go to the breath, except that you never quite get there because
before you do that little voice in your head goes, "My back
is killing me." And on and on it goes, distraction after distraction,
seemingly without end.
What a bother. But this is what it is all about. These distractions
are actually the whole point. The key is to learn to deal with
these things. Learning to notice them without being trapped
in them. That's what we are here for. The mental wandering is
unpleasant, to be sure. But it is the normal mode of operation
of your mind. Don't think of it as the enemy. It is just the
simple reality. And if you want to change something, the first
thing you have to do is see it the way it is.
When you first sit down to concentrate on the breath, you will
be struck by how incredibly busy the mind actually is. It jumps
and jibbers. It veers and bucks. It chases itself around in
constant circles. It chatters. It thinks. It fantasizes and
daydreams. Don't be upset about that. It's natural. When your
mind wanders from the subject of meditation, just observe the
When we speak of a distraction in Insight Meditation, we are
speaking of any preoccupation that pulls the attention off the
breath. This brings up a new, major rule for your meditation:
When any mental state arises strongly enough to distract you
from the object of meditation, switch your attention to the
distraction briefly. Make the distraction a temporary object
of meditation. Please not the word temporary. It's quite important.
We are not advising that you switch horses in midstream. We
do not expect you to adopt a whole new object of meditation
every three seconds. The breath will always remain your primary
focus. You switch your attention to the distraction only long
enough to notice certain specific things about it. What is it?
How strong is it? and, how long does it last? As soon as you
have wordlessly answered these questions, you are through with
your examination of that distraction, and you return your attention
to the breath. Here again, please note the operant term, wordlessly.
These questions are not an invitation to more mental chatter.
That would be moving you in the wrong direction, toward more
thinking. We want you to move away from thinking, back to a
direct, wordless and nonconceptual experience of the breath.
These questions are designed to free you from the distraction
and give you insight into its nature, not to get you more thoroughly
stuck in it. They will tune you in to what is distracting you
and help you get rid of it--all in one step.
Here is the problem: When a distraction, or any mental state,
arises in the mind, it blossoms forth first in the unconscious.
Only a moment later does it rise to the conscious mind. That
split-second difference is quite important, because it time
enough for grasping to occur. Grasping occurs almost instantaneously,
and it takes place first in the unconscious. Thus, by the time
the grasping rises to the level of conscious recognition, we
have already begun to lock on to it. It is quite natural for
us to simply continue that process, getting more and more tightly
stuck in the distraction as we continue to view it. We are,
by this time, quite definitely thinking the thought, rather
than just viewing it with bare attention. The whole sequence
takes place in a flash. This presents us with a problem. By
the time we become consciously aware of a distraction we are
already, in a sense, stuck in it. Our three questions are a
clever remedy for this particular malady. In order to answer
these questions, we must ascertain the quality of the distraction.
To do that, we must divorce ourselves from it, take a mental
step back from it, disengage from it, and view it objectively.
We must stop thinking the thought or feeling the feeling in
order to view it as an object of inspection. This very process
is an exercise in mindfulness, uninvolved, detached awareness.
The hold of the distraction is thus broken, and mindfulness
is back in control. At this point, mindfulness makes a smooth
transition back to its primary focus and we return to the breath.
When you first begin to practice this technique, you will probably
have to do it with words. You will ask your questions in words,
and get answers in words. It won't be long, however, before
you can dispense with the formality of words altogether. Once
the mental habits are in place, you simply note the distraction,
note the qualities of the distraction, and return to the breath.
It's a totally nonconceptual process, and it's very quick. The
distraction itself can be anything: a sound, a sensation, an
emotion, a fantasy, anything at all. Whatever it is, don't try
to repress it. Don't try to force it out of your mind. There's
no need for that. Just observe it mindfully with bare attention.
Examine the distraction wordlessly and it will pass away by
itself. You will find your attention drifting effortlessly back
to the breath. And do not condemn yourself for having being
distracted. Distractions are natural. They come and they go.
Despite this piece of sage counsel, you're going to find yourself
condemning anyway. That's natural too. Just observe the process
of condemnation as another distraction, and then return to the
Watch the sequence of events: Breathing. Breathing. Distracting
thought arises. Frustration arising over the distracting thought.
You condemn yourself for being distracted. You notice the self
condemnation. You return to the breathing. Breathing. Breathing.
It's really a very natural, smooth-flowing cycle, if you do
it correctly. The trick, of course, is patience. If you can
learn to observe these distractions without getting involved,
it's all very easy. You just glide through the distractions
and your attention returns to the breath quite easily. Of course,
the very same distraction may pop up a moment later. If it does,
just observe that mindfully. If you are dealing with an old,
established thought pattern, this can go on happening for quite
a while, sometimes years. Don't get upset. This too is natural.
just observe the distraction and return to the breath. Don't
fight with these distracting thoughts. Don't strain or struggle.
It's a waste. Every bit of energy that you apply to that resistance
goes into the thought complex and makes it all the stronger.
So don't try to force such thoughts out of your mind. It's a
battle you can never win. Just observe the distraction mindfully
and, it will eventually go away. It's very strange, but the
more bare attention you pay to such disturbances, the weaker
they get. Observe them long enough, and often enough, with bare
attention, and they fade away forever. Fight with them and they
gain in strength. Watch them with detachment and they wither.
Mindfulness is a function that disarms distractions, in the
same way that a munitions expert might defuse a bomb. Weak distractions
are disarmed by a single glance. Shine the light of awareness
on them and they evaporate instantly, never to return. Deep-seated,
habitual thought patterns require constant mindfulness repeatedly
applied over whatever time period it takes to break their hold.
Distractions are really paper tigers. They have no power of
their own. They need to be fed constantly, or else they die.
If you refuse to feed them by your own fear, anger, and greed,
Mindfulness is the most important aspect of meditation. It is
the primary thing that you are trying to cultivate. So there
is really no need at all to struggle against distractions. The
crucial thing is to be mindful of what is occurring, not to
control what is occurring. Remember, concentration is a tool.
It is secondary to bare attention. From the point of view of
mindfulness, there is really no such thing as a distraction.
Whatever arises in the mind is viewed as just one more opportunity
to cultivate mindfulness. Breath, remember, is an arbitrary
focus, and it is used as our primary object of attention. Distractions
are used as secondary objects of attention. They are certainly
as much a part of reality as breath. It actually makes rather
little difference what the object of mindfulness is. You can
be mindful of the breath, or you can be mindful of the distraction.
You can be mindful of the fact that you mind is still, and your
concentration is strong, or you can be mindful of the fact that
your concentration is in ribbons and your mind is in an absolute
shambles. It's all mindfulness. Just maintain that mindfulness
and concentration eventually will follow.
The purpose of meditation is not to concentrate on the breath,
without interruption, forever. That by itself would be a useless
goal. The purpose of meditation is not to achieve a perfectly
still and serene mind. Although a lovely state, it doesn't lead
to liberation by itself. The purpose of meditation is to achieve
uninterrupted mindfulness. Mindfulness, and only mindfulness,
Distractions come in all sizes, shapes and flavors. Buddhist
philosophy has organized them into categories. One of them is
the category of hindrances. They are called hindrances because
they block your development of both components of mediation,
mindfulness and concentration. A bit of caution on this term:
The word 'hindrances' carries a negative connotation, and indeed
these are states of mind we want to eradicate. That does not
mean, however, that they are to be repressed, avoided or condemned.
Let's use greed as an example. We wish to avoid prolonging any
state of greed that arises, because a continuation of that state
leads to bondage and sorrow. That does not mean we try to toss
the thought out of the mind when it appears. We simply refuse
to encourage it to stay. We let it come, and we let it go. When
greed is first observed with bare attention, no value judgements
are made. We simply stand back and watch it arise. The whole
dynamic of greed from start to finish is simply observed in
this way. We don't help it, or hinder it, or interfere with
it in the slightest. It stays as long as it stays. And we learn
as much about it as we can while it is there. We watch what
greed does. We watch how it troubles us, and how it burdens
others. We notice how it keeps us perpetually unsatisfied, forever
in a state of unfulfilled longing. From this first-hand experience,
we ascertain at a gut level that greed is an unskillful way
to run your life. There is nothing theoretical about this realization.
All of the hindrances are dealt with in the same way, and we
will look at them here one by one.
Desire: Let us suppose you have been distracted by some
nice experience in meditation. It could be pleasant fantasy
or a thought of pride. It might be a feeling of self-esteem.
It might be a thought of love or even the physical sensation
of bliss that comes with the meditation experience itself. Whatever
it is, what follows is the state of desire -- desire to obtain
whatever you have been thinking about or desire to prolong the
experience you are having. No matter what its nature, you should
handle desire in the following manner. Notice the thought or
sensation as it arises. Notice the mental state of desire which
accompanies it as a separate thing. Notice the exact extent
or degree of that desire. Then notice how long it lasts and
when it finally disappears. When you have done that, return
your attention to breathing.
Aversion: Suppose that you have been distracted by some
negative experience. It could be something you fear or some
nagging worry. It might be guilt or depression or pain. Whatever
the actual substance of the thought or sensation, you find yourself
rejecting or repressing -- trying to avoid it, resist it or
deny it. The handling here is essentially the same. Watch the
arising of the thought or sensation. Notice the state of rejection
that comes with it. Gauge the extent or degree of that rejection.
See how long it lasts and when it fades away. Then return your
attention to your breath.
Lethargy: Lethargy comes in various grades and intensities,
ranging from slight drowsiness to total torpor. We are talking
about a mental state here, not a physical one. Sleepiness or
physical fatigue is something quite different and, in the Buddhist
system of classification, it would be categorized as a physical
feeling. Mental lethargy is closely related to aversion in that
it is one of the mind's clever little ways of avoiding those
issues it finds unpleasant. Lethargy is a sort of turn-off of
the mental apparatus, a dulling of sensory and cognitive acuity.
It is an enforced stupidity pretending to be sleep. This can
be a tough one to deal with, because its presence is directly
contrary to the employment of mindfulness. Lethargy is nearly
the reverse of mindfulness. Nevertheless, mindfulness is the
cure for this hindrance, too, and the handling is the same.
Note the state of drowsiness when it arises, and note its extent
or degree. Note when it arises, how long it lasts, and when
it passes away. The only thing special here is the importance
of catching the phenomenon early. You have got to get it right
at its conception and apply liberal doses of pure awareness
right away. If you let it get a start, its growth probably will
out pace your mindfulness power. When lethargy wins, the result
is the sinking mind and/or sleep.
Agitation: States of restlessness and worry are expressions
of mental agitation. Your mind keeps darting around, refusing
to settle on any one thing. You may keep running over and over
the same issues. But even here an unsettled feeling is the predominant
component. The mind refuses to settle anywhere. It jumps around
constantly. The cure for this condition is the same basic sequence.
Restlessness imparts a certain feeling to consciousness. You
might call it a flavor or texture. Whatever you call it, that
unsettled feeling is there as a definable characteristic. Look
for it. Once you have spotted it, note how much of it is present.
Note when it arises. Watch how long it lasts, and see when it
fades away. Then return your attention to the breath.
Doubt: Doubt has its own distinct feeling in consciousness.
The Pali tests describe it very nicely. It's the feeling of
a man stumbling through a desert and arriving at an unmarked
crossroad. Which road should he take? There is no way to tell.
So he just stands there vacillating. One of the common forms
this takes in meditation is an inner dialogue something like
this: "What am I doing just sitting like this? Am I really getting
anything out of this at all? Oh! Sure I am. This is good for
me. The book said so. No, that is crazy. This is a waste of
time. No, I won't give up. I said I was going to do this, and
I am going to do it. Or am I being just stubborn? I don't know.
I just don't know." Don't get stuck in this trap. It is just
another hindrance. Another of the mind's little smoke screens
to keep you from doing the most terrible thing in the world:
actually becoming aware of what is happening. To handle doubt,
simply become aware of this mental state of wavering as an object
of inspection. Don't be trapped in it. Back out of it and look
at it. See how strong it is. See when it comes and how long
it lasts. Then watch it fade away, and go back to the breathing.
This is the general pattern you will use on any distraction
that arises. By distraction, remember we mean any mental state
that arises to impede your meditation. Some of these are quite
subtle. It is useful to list some of the possibilities. The
negative states are pretty easy to spot: insecurity, fear, anger,
depression, irritation and frustration.
Craving and desire are a bit more difficult to spot because
they can apply to things we normally regard as virtuous or noble.
You can experience the desire to perfect yourself. You can feel
craving for greater virtue. You can even develop an attachment
to the bliss of the meditation experience itself. It is a bit
hard to detach yourself from such altruistic feelings. In the
end, though, it is just more greed. It is a desire for gratification
and a clever way of ignoring the present-time reality.
Trickiest of all, however, are those really positive mental
states that come creeping into your meditation. Happiness, peace,
inner contentment, sympathy and compassion for all beings everywhere.
These mental states are so sweet and so benevolent that you
can scarcely bear to pry yourself loose from them. It makes
you feel like a traitor to mankind. There is no need to feel
this way. We are not advising you to reject these states of
mind or to become heartless robots. We merely want you to see
them for what they are. They are mental states. They come and
they go. They arise and they pass away. As you continue your
meditation, these states will arise more often. The trick is
not to become attached to them. Just see each one as it comes
up. See what it is, how strong it is and how long it lasts.
Then watch it drift away. It is all just more of the passing
show of your own mental universe.
Just as breathing comes in stages, so do the mental states.
Every breath has a beginning, a middle and an end. Every mental
states has a birth, a growth and a decay. You should strive
to see these stages clearly. This is no easy thing to do, however.
As we have already noted, every thought and sensation begins
first in the unconscious region of the mind and only later rises
to consciousness. We generally become aware of such things only
after they have arisen in the conscious realm and stayed there
for some time. Indeed we usually become aware of distractions
only when they have released their hold on us and are already
on their way out. It is at this point that we are struck with
the sudden realization that we have been somewhere, day-dreaming,
fantasizing, or whatever. Quite obviously this is far too late
in the chain of events. We may call this phenomenon catching
the lion by is tail, and it is an unskillful thing to do. Like
confronting a dangerous beast, we must approach mental states
head-on. Patiently, we will learn to recognize them as they
arise from progressively deeper levels of our conscious mind.
Since mental states arise first in the unconscious, to catch
the arising of the mental state, you've got to extend your awareness
down into this unconscious area. That is difficult, because
you can't see what is going on down there, at least not in the
same way you see a conscious thought. But you can learn to get
a vague sense of movement and to operate by a sort of mental
sense of touch. This comes with practice, and the ability is
another of the effects of the deep calm of concentration. Concentration
slows down the arising of these mental states and gives you
time to feel each one arising out of the unconscious even before
you see it in consciousness. Concentration helps you to extend
your awareness down into that boiling darkness where thought
and sensation begin.
As your concentration deepens, you gain the ability to see thoughts
and sensations arising slowly, like separate bubbles, each distinct
and with spaces between them. They bubble up in slow motion
out of the unconscious. They stay a while in the conscious mind
and then they drift away.
The application of awareness to mental states is a precision
operation. This is particularly true of feelings or sensations.
It is very easy to overreach the sensation. That is, to add
something to it above and beyond what is really there. It is
equally easy to fall short of sensation, to get part of it but
not all. The ideal that you are striving for is to experience
each mental state fully, exactly the way it is, adding nothing
to it and not missing any part of it. Let us use pain in the
leg as an example. What is actually there is a pure flowing
sensation. It changes constantly, never the same from one moment
to the next. It moves from one location to another, and its
intensity surges up and down. Pain is not a thing. It is an
event. There should be no concepts tacked on to it and none
associated with it. A pure unobstructed awareness of this event
will experience it simply as a flowing pattern of energy and
nothing more. No thought and no rejection. Just energy.
Early on in our practice of meditation, we need to rethink our
underlying assumptions regarding conceptualization. For most
of us, we have earned high marks in school and in life for our
ability to manipulate mental phenomena -- concepts -- logically.
Our careers, much of our success in everyday life, our happy
relationships, we view as largely the result of our successful
manipulation of concepts. In developing mindfulness, however,
we temporarily suspend the conceptualization process and focus
on the pure nature of mental phenomena. During meditation we
are seeking to experience the mind at the pre-concept level.
But the human mind conceptualizes such occurrences as pain.
You find yourself thinking of it as 'the pain'. That is a concept.
It is a label, something added to the sensation itself. You
find yourself building a mental image, a picture of the pain,
seeing it as a shape. You may see a diagram of the leg with
the pain outlined in some lovely color. This is very creative
and terribly entertaining, but not what we want. Those are concepts
tacked on to the living reality. Most likely, you will probably
find yourself thinking: "I have a pain in my leg." 'I' is a
concept. It is something extra added to the pure experience.
When you introduce 'I' into the process, you are building a
conceptual gap between the reality and the awareness viewing
that reality. Thoughts such as 'Me', 'My' or 'Mine' have no
place in direct awareness. They are extraneous addenda, and
insidious ones at that. When you bring 'me' into the picture,
you are identifying with the pain. That simply adds emphasis
to it. If you leave 'I' out of the operation, pain is not painful.
It is just a pure surging energy flow. It can even be beautiful.
If you find 'I' insinuating itself in your experience of pain
or indeed any other sensation, then just observe that mindfully.
Pay bare attention to the phenomenon of personal identification
with the pain.
The general idea, however, is almost too simple. You want to
really see each sensation, whether it is pain, bliss or boredom.
You want to experience that thing fully in its natural and unadulterated
form. There is only one way to do this. Your timing has to be
precise. Your awareness of each sensation must coordinate exactly
with the arising of that sensation. If you catch it just a bit
too late, you miss the beginning. You won't get all of it. If
you hang on to any sensation past the time when it has memory.
The thing itself is gone, and by holding onto that memory, you
miss the arising of the next sensation. It is a very delicate
operation. You've got to cruise along right here in present
time, picking things up and letting things drop with no delays
whatsoever. It takes a very light touch. Your relation to sensation
should never be one of past or future but always of the simple
and immediate now.
The human mind seeks to conceptualize phenomena, and it has
developed a host of clever ways to do so. Every simple sensation
will trigger a burst of conceptual thinking if you give the
mind its way. Lets us take hearing, for example. You are sitting
in meditation and somebody in the next room drops a dish. The
sounds strike your ear. Instantly you see a picture of that
other room. You probably see a person dropping a dish, too.
If this a familiar environment, say your own home, you probably
will have a 3-D technicolor mind movie of who did the dropping
and which dish was dropped. This whole sequence presents itself
to consciousness instantly. It just jumps out of the unconscious
so bright and clear and compelling that it shoves everything
else out of sight. What happens to the original sensation, the
pure experience of hearing? It got lost in the shuffle, completely
overwhelmed and forgotten. We miss reality. We enter a world
Here is another example: You are sitting in meditation and a
sound strikes your ear. It is just an indistinct noise, sort
of a muffled crunch; it could be anything. What happens next
will probably be something like this. "What was that? Who did
that? Where did that come from? How far away was that? Is it
dangerous?". And on and on you go, getting no answers but your
fantasy projection. Conceptualization is an insidiously clever
process It creeps into you experience, and it simply takes over.
When you hear a sound in meditation, pay bare attention to the
experience of hearing. That and that only. What is really happening
is so utterly simple that we can and do miss it altogether.
Sound waves are striking the ear in a certain unique pattern.
Those waves are being translated into electrical impulses within
the brain and those impulses present a sound pattern to consciousness.
That is all. No pictures. No mind movies. No concepts. No interior
dialogues about the question. Just noise. Reality is elegantly
simple and unadorned. When you hear a sound, be mindful of the
process of hearing. Everything else is just added chatter. Drop
it. The same rule applies to every sensation, every emotion,
every experience you may have. Look closely at your own experience.
Dig down through the layers of mental bric-a-brac and see what
is really there. You will be amazed how simple it is, and how
There are times when a number of sensations may arise at once.
You might have a thought of fear, a squeezing in the stomach
and an aching back and an itch on your left earlobe, all at
the same time. Don't sit there in a quandary. Don't keep switching
back and forth or wondering what to pick. One of them will be
strongest. Just open yourself up and the most insistent of these
phenomena will intrude itself and demand your attention. So
give it some attention just long enough to see it fade away.
Then return to your breathing. If another one intrudes itself,
let it in. When it is done, return to the breathing.
This process can be carried too far, however. Don't sit there
looking for things to be mindful of. Keep your mindfulness on
the breath until something else steps in and pulls your attention
away. When you feel that happening, don't fight it. Let you
attention flow naturally over to the distraction, and keep it
there until the distraction evaporates. Then return to breathing.
Don't seek out other physical or mental phenomena. Just return
to breathing. Let them come to you. There will be times when
you drift off, of course. Even after long practice you find
yourself suddenly waking up, realizing you have been off the
track for some while. Don't get discouraged. Realize that you
have been off the track for such and such a length of time and
go back to the breath. There is no need for any negative reaction
at all. The very act of realizing that you have been off the
track is an active awareness. It is an exercise of pure mindfulness
all by itself.
Mindfulness grows by the exercise of mindfulness. It is like
exercising a muscle. Every time you work it, you pump it up
just a little. You make it a little stronger. The very fact
that you have felt that wake-up sensation means that you have
just improved your mindfulness power. That means you win. Move
back to the breathing without regret. However, the regret is
a conditioned reflex and it may come along anyway--another mental
habit. If you find yourself getting frustrated, feeling discouraged,
or condemning yourself, just observe that with bare attention.
It is just another distraction. Give it some attention and watch
it fade away, and return to the breath.
The rules we have just reviewed can and should be applied thoroughly
to all of your mental states. You are going to find this an
utterly ruthless injunction. It is the toughest job that you
will ever undertake. You will find yourself relatively willing
to apply this technique to certain parts of your experience,
and you will find yourself totally unwilling to use it on the
Meditation is a bit like mental acid. It eats away slowly at
whatever you put it on. We humans are very odd beings. We like
the taste of certain poisons and we stubbornly continue to eat
them even while they are killing us. Thoughts to which we are
attached are poison. You will find yourself quite eager to dig
some thoughts out by the roots while you jealously guard and
cherish certain others. That is the human condition.
Vipassana meditation is not a game. Clear awareness is more
than a pleasurable pastime. It is a road up and out of the quagmire
in which we are all stuck, the swamp of our own desires and
aversions. It is relatively easy to apply awareness to the nastier
aspects of your existence. Once you have seen fear and depression
evaporate in the hot, intense beacon of awareness, you want
to repeat the process. Those are the unpleasant mental states.
They hurt. You want to get rid of those things because they
bother you. It is a good deal harder to apply that same process
to mental states which you cherish, like patriotism, or parental
protectiveness or true love. But it is just as necessary. Positive
attachments hold you in the mud just as assuredly as negative
attachments. You may rise above the mud far enough to breathe
a bit more easily if you practice Vipassana meditation with
diligence. Vipassana meditation is the road to Nibbana. And
from the reports of those who have toiled their way to that
lofty goal, it is well worth every effort involved.