Mindfulness In Plain English – Henepola Gunaratana – Distractions in Meditation

Extracts from Chapter 11 & 12

From the point of view of mindfulness, there is really no such thing as a distraction.

So there you are meditating beautifully. Your body is totally immobile, and you mind is totally still. You just glide right along following the flow of the breath, in, out, in, out…calm, serene and concentrated. Everything is perfect. And then, all of a sudden, something totally different pops into your mind: “I sure wish I had an ice cream cone.” That’s a distraction, obviously.

These distractions are actually the whole point. The key is to learn to deal with these things. Learning to notice them without being trapped in them. That’s what we are here for. The mental wandering is unpleasant, to be sure. But it is the normal mode of operation of your mind. Don’t think of it as the enemy. It is just the simple reality. And if you want to change something, the first thing you have to do is see it the way it is.

The distraction itself can be anything: a sound, a sensation, an emotion, a fantasy, anything at all. Whatever it is, don’t try to repress it. Don’t try to force it out of your mind. There’s no need for that. Just observe it mindfully with bare attention. Examine the distraction wordlessly and it will pass away by itself.

Despite this piece of sage counsel, you’re going to find yourself condemning anyway. That’s natural too. Just observe the process of condemnation as another distraction.

Don’t strain or struggle. It’s a waste. Every bit of energy that you apply to that resistance goes into the thought complex and makes it all the stronger. So don’t try to force such thoughts out of your mind. It’s a battle you can never win. Just observe the distraction mindfully and, it will eventually go away. It’s very strange, but the more bare attention you pay to such disturbances, the weaker they get. Observe them long enough, and often enough, with bare attention, and they fade away forever. Fight with them and they gain in strength. Watch them with detachment and they wither.

Mindfulness is the most important aspect of meditation. It is the primary thing that you are trying to cultivate. So there is really no need at all to struggle against distractions. The crucial thing is to be mindful of what is occurring, not to control what is occurring.

Remember, concentration is a tool. It is secondary to bare attention. From the point of view of mindfulness, there is really no such thing as a distraction.

The purpose of meditation is not to achieve a perfectly still and serene mind. Although a lovely state, it doesn’t lead to liberation by itself. The purpose of meditation is to achieve uninterrupted mindfulness. Mindfulness, and only mindfulness, produces Enlightenment.

By distraction, remember we mean any mental state that arises to impede your meditation. Some of these are quite subtle. It is useful to list some of the possibilities. The negative states are pretty easy to spot: insecurity, fear, anger, depression, irritation and frustration.

Craving and desire are a bit more difficult to spot because they can apply to things we normally regard as virtuous or noble. You can experience the desire to perfect yourself. You can feel craving for greater virtue. You can even develop an attachment to the bliss of the meditation experience itself. It is a bit hard to detach yourself from such altruistic feelings. In the end, though, it is just more greed. It is a desire for gratification and a clever way of ignoring the present-time reality.

Happiness, peace, inner contentment, sympathy and compassion for all beings everywhere. These mental states are so sweet and so benevolent that you can scarcely bear to pry yourself loose from them. It makes you feel like a traitor to mankind. There is no need to feel this way. We are not advising you to reject these states of mind or to become heartless robots. We merely want you to see them for what they are. They are mental states. They come and they go. They arise and they pass away. As you continue your meditation, these states will arise more often. The trick is not to become attached to them. Just see each one as it comes up. See what it is, how strong it is and how long it lasts. Then watch it drift away. It is all just more of the passing show of your own mental universe.

Concentration slows down the arising of these mental states and gives you time to feel each one arising out of the unconscious even before you see it in consciousness. Concentration helps you to extend your awareness down into that boiling darkness where thought and sensation begin.

Let us use pain in the leg as an example. What is actually there is a pure flowing sensation. It changes constantly, never the same from one moment to the next. It moves from one location to another, and its intensity surges up and down. Pain is not a thing. It is an event. There should be no concepts tacked on to it and none associated with it. A pure unobstructed awareness of this event will experience it simply as a flowing pattern of energy and nothing more. No thought and no rejection. Just energy.

During meditation we are seeking to experience the mind at the pre-concept level.

Most likely, you will probably find yourself thinking: “I have a pain in my leg.” ‘I’ is a concept. It is something extra added to the pure experience.

Thoughts such as ‘Me’, ‘My’ or ‘Mine’ have no place in direct awareness. They are extraneous addenda, and insidious ones at that. When you bring ‘me’ into the picture, you are identifying with the pain. That simply adds emphasis to it. If you leave ‘I’ out of the operation, pain is not painful. It is just a pure surging energy flow. It can even be beautiful. If you find ‘I’ insinuating itself in your experience of pain or indeed any other sensation, then just observe that mindfully. Pay bare attention to the phenomenon of personal identification with the pain.

Your timing has to be precise. Your awareness of each sensation must coordinate exactly with the arising of that sensation. If you catch it just a bit too late, you miss the beginning. You won’t get all of it. If you hang on to any sensation past the time when it has memory. The thing itself is gone, and by holding onto that memory, you miss the arising of the next sensation. It is a very delicate operation. You’ve got to cruise along right here in present time, picking things up and letting things drop with no delays whatsoever. It takes a very light touch. Your relation to sensation should never be one of past or future but always of the simple and immediate now.

Mindfulness grows by the exercise of mindfulness.

Once you have seen fear and depression evaporate in the hot, intense beacon of awareness, you want to repeat the process. Those are the unpleasant mental states. They hurt. You want to get rid of those things because they bother you. It is a good deal harder to apply that same process to mental states which you cherish, like patriotism, or parental protectiveness or true love. But it is just as necessary. Positive attachments hold you in the mud just as assuredly as negative attachments.



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