Distraction is a fact of life for everyone. It seems that we are in fact in love with distractions, after all, what is the newest gadget and how will it make my life better is all we seem to ask ourselves? Everything new is just another distraction from our own sometimes very desperate unhappiness. So it seems to me that distraction is at the very core of so many of our problems. It is without a doubt the single biggest challenge most if not all meditators face. The great news is that once one has begun to take control of the runaway train of one’s thoughts, the results can often be seen in everyday life as well, not just on the meditation cushion. Many beginning meditators think that they cannot meditate or that they are especially distracted after only one or two sittings. This could not be further from the truth. It is simply that this is the first time you have meditated and you have realised just how distracted you normally are. With time and some subtle effort, we can learn to effectively work with distractions in your meditation.
The first technique is crucial to learn and is the basis for all of the other techniques. We must learn to recognise WHEN we are distracted and then without any judgement or further thought return to the focus to our meditation. This is easier said than done, noticing that you are distracted takes time and attention and then to NOT hop on the “oh man I was distracted again” train of thought is also not so easy to do. So how do we learn to notice that we have been distracted?
Buddhists learn to use their totality or total being to notice distraction, and we do this by using our body, speech, and mind. With our body, we must learn to sit correctly, control our breath, and use a mala.
The ever so subtle practice of correct meditation posture is our foundation grounding and connects us in our practice. Our breath brings our attention inwards, the repetition of mantras, and calming effect of good respiration ties us there. The mala unifies our body, speech, and mind in action and in essence.
Using our speech to hinder distraction normally involves the use of mantras. A mantra is a phrase in Tibetan or Sanskrit such as Om Mani Padme Hung or Karmapa Chenno that is repeated thousands of times. As one repeats without stopping we are creating a feedback loop in our awareness. When we are distracted we notice that we are saying a mantra and are gently reminded that we are still meditating and we can return to the meditation without self-judgement.
Controlling the mind within meditation can largely depend on how successful you have been in integrating the aforementioned skills on the cushion. It is very important not be bring ones everyday habits into the meditation rather one must bring the habits of meditation into your everyday. On the level of mind, there are things one can do here as well, these techniques are rather advanced and are better left to the experts to explain but I will touch on one of my favourites to peek your curiosity. It is really genius actually, how the best way to control one’s distractions is to use distractions themselves. This is done in two ways, by noticing that you are distracted and then trying to hold that distraction in mind as long as you can without finding a new one. (impure focus) And two (pure focus), the meditation itself is usually constructed in such a way as to constantly supply the mind with guess what? A new distraction. The difference here is that this is a “distraction with a goal”. This distraction is designed to use our desire to keep our focus on what we want. Take for example a Chenrezig or loving eyes meditation. During the building up phase of the meditation, we are guided to all his amazing attributes such as the mala, lotus, the wish-fulfilling jewel, and his deerskin. We are even flashed with the amazing white, red, and blue lights that shine in and deeply penetrate our head, throat, and heart chakras. Within this framework, the meditation gives us plenty to focus on and to be “distracted” with. Each of these archetypical distractions sends us a deep message on the subconscious level, and they are beautiful as well which keeps us coming back for more. This is exactly like hanging a carrot in front of a donkey when trying to get him to go. Now I am not saying that you are an ass but you get my point here, don’t you?
So don’t be frustrated with distractions they can be the fuel that supports your meditation practice. Using the tools I have described above you can master them and transform them into useful friends supporting your practice. Transformation is after all at the core of many of Vajrayana Karma Kagyu teachings.