(This is a guest post by Christopher Heath)
When you are learning to meditate, you will come into all sorts of problems. I have said this before, but it deserves repeating as often as possible: the problems are the point. To be distracted during meditation is to be given the fodder with which you can deal with future distractions. In life, we only learn the hardest lessons after the greatest falls. It is only by failing that we are able to learn how not to fail. The reason it sounds cliché is because it is absolutely true, a basic fact of being alive in human form. If you want to learn the big lessons, you have to mess up big time first. It is the same with meditation (it being, of course, a part of life). In meditation, there are enormous lessons to learn. Lessons of the kind of magnitude which words don’t do justice to. However, to learn those lessons – not just know about them, but really learn them – you need to fail first.
This is another way in which failing is never really failing. When you fail, you learn how not to fail in that particular way again. With the right approach, then, even the worst failures are actually the greatest lessons.
But back to the meditation practice. One major area of concern for those who are new to meditation is that they are constantly being distracted by the thoughts in their heads. There is no doubt about it: it can be incredibly frustrating. However, frustration is not the useful response. The useful response is to acknowledge the distraction, and move on. Of course, this is easier said than done. But once again: that is the whole point of the practice.
Surely there are some practical tips? Well, yes. The first thing I would say is that it helps to develop a sense of kindness towards oneself. Many of us are too harsh on ourselves for what we perceive to be failures. This is as much a result of the insane way our world is ordered as anything else. But this approach doesn’t work, in life or on the cushion. Instead, learn to be gentle with yourself. Saying to yourself: ‘It’s okay. Keep going.’ is one of the most powerful tools that we have at our disposal.
Beyond that, it might help you to use something known as the Masahi Noting technique. This is a simple (and powerful) tool for keeping the mind focused on the object at hand (i.e. the breath). Noting is really a meditation tradition in its own right, and its practitioners might be displeased with its appropriation here. However, it is useful for our purposes too. In the Noting technique, you simply note everything which occurs in your awareness under a generic umbrella term.
For example, if a thought occurs, you note it ‘Thinking’. If you like, you can get more specific (worrying, remembering, anxious, etc.) However, in my experience the quickest progress is made by being generic. If an itch occurs, note it: ‘Itching’. Using this method, you can quickly and readily find a way to draw your attention back to the breath: ‘Breathing.’ You can then continue noting for each breath (‘In. Out.’) However, this is not necessary, and in my view, might even get in the way of the practice. Whatever works for you is what you should go with, though. Perhaps Noting is the key for you personally. At the very least, it is a useful tool for when distractions occur.
Generally, the most common and most prominent distraction will take the form of a thought about a worry. These are the thoughts that fill our minds all day long, and that is precisely what we are gradually getting away from. You will notice, as your practice deepens, that the further you get into the truth of things, the louder and more obtrusive your worry-thoughts become. All experienced meditators know this scenario, for example: you gain some insight, you feel a sense of peace come over you, and then suddenly you feel a huge wave of anxiety about something you said a decade ago. This is often the way: the greatest highs are followed by the deepest lows. There is a lesson in that, too.
What can we learn from the fact that worrying is the most common distraction? What is trying to distract whom, and from what? Answering these questions is as good as being enlightened, so don’t rush to understand just yet. But ponder on this: why does the mind feel the need to be worried about something? Have you ever noticed that there is always something wrong in your life? Always something going on? Always something to think about? Is it possible that culture moves at a much faster pace than evolution, and that our minds are struggling to catch up with the world they created? At first, the rational mind did great things. We made tools. We learned language. Now look. We live in an insane data-laden world which makes no sense to our natural bodies. Our rational mind is whirling out of control, thinking: what in hell is going on here?
I put it to you: the rational mind has had its day. Let sleeping dogs lie. It is time for a new kind of consciousness to take hold. That will be the next stage of our evolution: to look at the very nature of existence with a fresh perspective.
Distractions are important because:
a. We can’t do much about what our mind does – and that is the lesson.
b. It is only by drawing our attention back from distractions, and to the breath, that we are able to learn how to draw our attention back from distractions, and to the breath.
c. Nothing worth having comes easy.
About the author : Christopher Heath is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Most of his work centers around themes of spiritual development, with a particular focus on mindfulness as a daily practice. In short, he really pays attention. He blogs at LiteraryStories.com