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.


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§ 2 Responses to Meditating With Distraction

  • Arpan says:

    What’s yoyr view on importance of posture ? I have a bad posture and it’s hard for me to sustain any sort of straight backed posture for long periods.


    • In a meditation class I once saw a young woman who sat in the full lotus position with perfect posture. The only time I’ve seen that since is in videos and photos of monks and nuns in temples!

      The literature on meditation stresses posture but with respect to comfort and level of awareness. You want to assume a position that provides both. If you can sit in a traditional meditation pose, good. If not, then you need to find one that works for you. That’s good, too.

      Personally, I have to adjust the cushions I sit on to account for the asymmetry of my body and a persistent ‘discomfort’ on my right side. In years past I also used my breathing to relax my shoulders, as they were chronically tense. I imagine that everyone (except maybe that young woman mentioned above) needs to figure out some variation that works for them alone. And how long to sit at any given time. You certainly don’t want to aggravate any medical condition by sitting too long or in the wrong way for your body.

      When experimenting for the best posture, remember that you want a certain level of comfort and awareness that allows you to keep your focus on your chosen meditation. If you don’t have that, then try something else. Maybe break up your meditation into periods of sitting and walking meditation. But don’t be too quick to give up on a position just because your getting too sleepy or your level of pain starts to rise. The mind doesn’t like discipline and it has a number of “you’re doing it wrong” tricks up its sleeve to call on.

      It is the same for all of us. Whatever you meet on the path is your path. Your bad posture may be what’s leading you into greater level of awareness as you try to adjust to it. It may lead you into greater compassion for those with the same condition or for those who are worst off than you. It may lead you to Tai Chi as a meditative practice. Work with it and, like any good teacher, it’ll show you the way.


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