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Dealing With Distraction

April 25, 2012

“I’m just sitting there, minding my own business, when PING, PING, PING, these things just come at me from all directions! Sounds, thoughts, emotions, even feelings in my body. One distraction after another and it’s NOT comfortable. I don’t like it and I’m wondering if this is how it’s supposed to be.”

“I keep finding myself sitting down to meditate with good intentions, and then I hear music from my neighbor’s apartment, or my cell phone vibrating, or my leg starts hurting, and I can’t really meditate because of all these distractions. I think I need to find a quieter place to practice or somehow shut out all these sounds and thoughts so I can actually focus on my breath.”

I have an issue with the word “distractions” when it comes to meditation, and you probably ought to know I have issues with a lot of words. “Try” and “success” and “acceptance” are just a few, but they are probably topics for another post someday. Pardon me while I come back from that distraction to make a bold (and possibly provocative) statement: Nothing is a distraction in the practice of mindfulness.

See, I told you it was provocative. Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you are already questioning the time you have spent in reading this up to this point. Perhaps you have already moved on and you aren’t even reading this post anymore and I’m writing to the empty cyberspace that you recently inhabited to read this blog. That’s OK. I’m willing to patiently stay on task and true to my intention, even with your abrupt departure.

And that’s my point.

When I say that nothing is a distraction in the practice of mindfulness, what I mean is that no thing (and this could be a sound, a thought, a sensation, a smell, whatever) is inherently a distraction in and of itself. These are simply phenomena that might arise while you are practicing meditation. Much like any experience that arises while meditating, it may arrive unbidden, unanticipated and unannounced. But it still has no power within it to become a distraction. It just is what it is.

So where does the possibility of distraction arise? Well, here’s where you come in, my friend. When that annoying sound that your roommate makes when she butters her toast becomes your own momentary, yet all-consuming personal obsession, you have made toast-buttering into a distraction. When you chase after the tingling in your right knee with an inner struggle about how to make it stop before amputation is necessary, you have left your breath and entered the distraction zone. Or maybe you are contemplating the lunch date you have planned with Dustin and where that rendezvous might lead, and awareness of sitting is somewhere in the background. You get the picture, you know the stories that can unfold in the blink of an eye or a tick of the (noisy) clock on the wall.

The point is, that we know that the universe (in the form of roommates, bodies, brains and the occasional lonely kitty) will regularly serve up a whole host of items worthy of (and begging for) your attention. But the awesome power of the practice of mindfulness is that we can begin to develop a different relationship with these co-dependent attention suckers. We can slowly, over time and practice, simply note their arising in our field of awareness and remain steady with our attention upon the breath or whatever we intended to attend to. Let them come and go, tap us on the figurative shoulder and whisper “can you come out and play today?” All that we need do is gently acknowledge their presence and calmly continue to practice. It is only when we invest our energy (in the form of attention, thinking, analysis, struggle, etc.) in these phenomena that they become distractions.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it out. The next time you engage in the formal practice of mindfulness, see if you can take this stance of “No Distractions” for some period of time and observe what happens when things arise. And you know they will. After all, even when we are feeling some degree of success (there’s another of those words!) at keeping our attention on the breath, other stuff is arising right? The hum of traffic outside the window, the touch of clothing on the skin, the random memory of Aunt Peg’s famous tuna salad. It all flows by and sometimes we aren’t distracted by it. There is an awareness that it’s present, but we can stay on task too. We allow its presence without the need to engage with it.

See what happens when you try this more gentle allowing of “distractions” and please report back what you notice. We would love to hear how you found this reframing of distraction. (And send the recipe for the tuna salad if you think it’s worth a taste.)


One Comment leave one →
  1. mindful4health permalink
    June 30, 2012 2:03 am

    Thanks for your insightful and humorous thoughts on ‘distractions’. Love the “can you come out and play today?” metaphor/visual and the summarizing statement: “We allow its presence without the need to engage with it”. I also try to help my participants (and myself) welcome anything/everything into our formal practices because ‘they’re there anyways’…so because it ‘fits’ with what I already practice, I will pass along some of your funny commentaries to my participants. Great blog, by the way!

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