Distractions in Meditation

As soon as we start to meditate, we find out how distracted we really are. Sometimes we are so distracted, that we can’t meditate at all. So, what are these distractions, and what can we do about them?

When we meditate we set an intention to sit quietly and focus our attention on one thing, such as the breath or a mantra, whilst at the same time, trying not to get caught up in our thoughts.

But that’s often easier said than done. What usually happens is that all these thoughts – be they memories, plans for later, conversations we’ve had or need to have – just come flooding in and we find ourselves getting involved in thinking about all kinds of stuff. 

So, if we want to be more intentional about our practice, we’re going to have to learn how to manage our distractions, and to do that, we’re going to have to understand what they are.

All sorts of things can distract us when we’re trying to meditate, but most of them will fall into just a couple basic categories, which we can broadly class as internal or external. Internal distractions are our thoughts, of course, whilst external distractions include anything we might be aware of from our senses, such as sounds, bodily sensations and visual experiences.

Most external or sensory distractions are relatively easy to manage, though some can be much more difficult. For example, the hum of distant traffic, the sound of rain falling on the roof or any other kind of constant background noise will be much easier to ignore than, let’s say, music or the sound of people talking within earshot.  

Indeed, the sound of people talking, maybe in a corridor or on the street outside, is probably the most distracting distraction of all as it is almost impossible not to try and listen in.

But the most important point to note in the case of all these external distractions is that the real distraction is not the sound or sensation itself, but our response to it. The real distraction is the voice in our heads commenting on how distracting whatever it is might be. 

So, what we can we do about these different kinds of distractions?

Well, first of all, let’s just remind ourselves of what we are doing in meditation. Meditation is the practice of taking our attention away from our thoughts. Whatever they may be. Important or trivial. And that applies to sounds, sensations and so on as well. Remember, it’s the thought about that sound or sensation that is the real distraction, not the sound itself.

The voice in our head, the constant commentary, the endless flow of thoughts – that’s the most distracting distraction of all. But the way we deal with distracting thoughts is just the same as the way we deal with any other kind of experience in meditation. We observe and notice. And what we will notice as we observe our thoughts is that we are always in them. There is always a ‘me’ somewhere in the thought, playing the star of the movie in our mind’s eye. Thoughts are subjective experiences. We experience them as I, me and mine.

But they’re not, really. And meditation is how we learn to see that.

Some of our thoughts might just be random nonsense, in which case it might be quite easy to dissociate ourselves from the sense of being the thinker. When we do this, when we see the thought as an object of experience rather than a subjective experience, as something I observe rather than as something I am, then we immediately create a separation between me and my thought, and that alone can sometimes be enough to free ourselves from its grip. The thought is no longer me, it’s just a thought, just a piece of information or experience floating across the screen of our consciousness.

However, some thoughts, most of them in fact, are rather more demanding than that, they insist on our involvement, there is some kind of emotional attachment between our sense of self and the content of that thought. But the principle is the same. Meditation is about learning to see our attachments; that is, all the various phenomena with which we identify as I, me, or mine. Seeing our thoughts, whatever they may be, objectively rather than subjectively is the key to being able to let them go. 

Watch the video for the full explanation of this important topic, and a few more tips on how to deal with distractions and calm the mind.

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