Meditating With Distraction

November 30, 2018 § 2 Comments

It common while meditating to find yourself thinking rather than attentively watching the breath. When you do, the instruction is to take note of the distraction by labeling it as ‘thinking’ and then return to watching the breath. Although this simple act may seem inconsequential it is the foundation of awakening.

Meditation is the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment. This statement should be understood as descriptive, meaning that it describes what goes on during meditation more than it tells you what to do. Anyone who’s taken up the practice knows it to be true. During meditation you rarely sit with unwavering attention on the present moment. The mind wanders. You stray from the breath. ‘Waken’ to the fact that you’re thinking and return to the breath where, after a time, you again become distracted.

In simple terms, waking is a recognition that you’ve strayed from watching the breath. What takes your attention away is called a distraction, which includes environmental or physical conditions of the body, such as excessive noise or pain in the legs. Usually when Buddhists speak of distraction though they mean thinking (which includes concepts, imagery and the emotions). It is important to note that waking to thinking does not mean stopping thinking. It means not being carried away by it.

In his book, “Opening the Hand of Thought,” Kosho Uchiyama spoke of three kinds of distraction. The first he called chasing thoughts, by which he meant ‘to follow some initial thought with more thought.’ The second is drowsiness or nodding off. The third is when you forget where you are and what you’re doing. Of this latter type he wrote, “Without being aware of it, we may start associating with or carrying on a dialogue with some vivid figure… that has been totally fabricated within our own act of chasing after thoughts.”

To Kosho Uchiyama’s list I’d like to add a fourth type of distraction. This is the “I” thought. The “I” thought exists both as a singular thought and as a thought that is attached to, and identified with, other thoughts and things. As a singular thought it is your sense of self or sense that you are, however vague that feeling might be. When the “I” thought attaches to other things it produces thoughts that identify it as ill or healthy, worthy or unworthy, smart or stupid, and a whole host of other concepts that combine into an individual idea that defines who and what you are.

In the sense that a thought is about a thing and never that thing itself, the “I” thought, whether it stands alone or as attached, is not the ‘real’ you. It is a fabrication, just like the characters you have dialogues with in Uchiyama’s third type of distraction are fabrications. It differs from these other fabrications only in its tendency to persevere throughout your life. (Reminiscent of Einstein’s, “…reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent illusion.”) As fabrications go it is very useful in navigating your way through life. But when it comes to meditation it is a distraction that you need to wake up from if you want to discover your true nature.

When you sit with awareness on the breath the “I” thought sits with you, as a subtle sense of a self that stands in opposition to the breath. It is this thought that creates the sense of separation you have with life. When you wake to the “I” thought the instruction is the same as waking to any other thought. You label it as ‘thinking’ and then return to your breathing. However, as the “I” thought is very persistent, no effort need be undertaken to stop it. As with any other distraction the aim is to continuously return to your breathing as best you can.

Perhaps you heard or read of someone who said she suddenly became one with everything. That, for example, there was no longer a bird singing; there was just singing. Consider this in terms of what is written above. Does it not seem the experience of oneness would be the natural result of the “I” thought dropping away, taking with it that sense of separation from the world as it goes? And does it not seem equally likely that as you practice waking from your own sense of self that you, too, will have this experience? Assuming, of course, you don’t let that thought distract you.

Advertisements

Meditating On The Breath.

November 7, 2018 § 3 Comments

Many meditation instructions focus on the breath, citing it as a convenient meditation object because the breath accompanies us all our lives. The instruction is simple. Sit in a quiet place, keep the back straight and, without trying to control it in any way, focus on the breath and come back to it from each distraction.

Sometimes the instruction includes counting breaths up to ten and then restarting from the number one, especially when the count is lost. Sometimes it tells us to focus on the breath as it enters the nostrils. Most instructions give the initial aim as calming the mind and freeing it of distractions. Notably, none of the instructions include seeking higher states of consciousness or using meditation for self-improvement.

A while ago I had an experience that helped me understand breath meditation, although I did not realize it at the time. I was riding my bicycle in a park frequented by birds and bird watchers. With the sun bright behind me, a shadow suddenly crossed my path. Stopping. I looked up to see an osprey. I watched as the magnificent raptor displayed its aerial talent just meters above the field in front of me. At one point it dove, and I thought, “It’s diving into the ground.” It was only then that I noticed that I hadn’t been thinking. I was just watching, while the thinking part of me hung in the background, waiting to start up again.

As mentioned, it was only later that I realized that my osprey experience was a lesson in meditation. It is possible, I found, to just sit and watch something without thinking about it. This ‘watching’ does not exclude whatever else may be going on in my inner or outer field of attention. Nor does it exclude thought from occasionally popping up. It is only when these other things take me away from the watching that they become distractions. And that’s what meditation on the breath is: watching, returning each time you’re distracted.

Watching may be described in two ways. The first is paying attention.

One of the things you learn through meditation is how seldom you actually pay attention to anything. Instead of remaining focused on the breath, your attention moves and drifts from one thing to another, one thought to another. Very seldom does it stay on the breath for any length of time.

You also discover just how conditioned you are to not look in certain directions. A habit that keeps suffering alive by limiting your ability to see opportunities that may, for example, take you out of an unhealthy relationship or a bad job. Conversely, you also discover your tendency to only look at certain things, such as whether people are approving of you or not. So, though it may seem counterintuitive, learning to pay attention to one thing frees you to look at many things and in new directions.

The second way to describe watching is somewhat subtler. It is the awareness of being aware.

Breathing is an activity that is always in the periphery of your awareness. It is only when you stop and pay attention to it, however, that you become aware that you’ve been aware of it all along. This awareness of being aware is what is cultivated when meditating on the breath.

Awareness of being aware is subtle because we naturally tend to focus on the objects of awareness, rather than the awareness itself. It is like looking in a mirror and seeing the reflections but not the mirror. When we meditate, we are trying to isolate the mirror amid the reflections. We are trying to become aware of being aware and realize that we are that awareness.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for November, 2018 at August Meditations.

%d bloggers like this: