The attainment of one-pointedness of the mind and senses is the best of practices—superior to all.
—Sri Shankaracharya, A Thousand Teachings, 8th century
For most meditators one-pointed concentration is a goal, but not a reality. We do our best to manage distractions when they arise, yet often find them managing us instead. One way of handling distractions is to let them pass without giving them new energy. In the process, our concentration is naturally strengthened. But sometimes it helps to spend a moment identifying the sources of our distractions, because in the sorting-out process, we learn to better understand ourselves. We witness the mental and emotional attachments that linger within us, and weaken their hypnotic power to distract us.
Our concentration, though improving, is still interrupted by thoughts and images from far-flung corners of our consciousness.
Over 20 centuries ago, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, the sage Vyasa listed five states of mind related to the concentration process, each revealing something about the power of distraction. A mind can be:
disturbed and thrown about (kshipta)
stupefied and bewildered (mudha)
fully arrested in concentration (niruddha)
Vyasa set the bar high. He pointed out that the first two states of mind are not fit for concentration at all. Why? Because a disturbed mind cannot shake the agitations that haunt it. And a stupefied mind is worse. It mistakes something debilitating, such as an addiction or an obsession, as rewarding and beneficial—bewildering itself in the process.
Even for such minds, there is hope. The eight rungs of yoga include practices for those who are stuck in the first two states of mind. For those of us struggling with addictions or other fierce attachments, the yamas (“restraints,” such as non-harming), niyamas (“observances,” such as contentment), yoga postures, relaxed breathing, and systematic relaxation can help. Spending several months or longer practicing these rungs will help bring order and self-control to the mind.
Most meditators, however, inhabit the third state of mind (distracted) and are aiming to get to the fourth state (one-pointed). Our concentration, though improving, is still interrupted by thoughts and images from far-flung corners of our consciousness. We wonder whose turn it is to vacuum. We complain about the color of the paint on the wall. We ponder what the neighbors should name their new baby. In no particular order, here’s my list of meditation’s top ten distractions and some practical tips for resolving them.
1. Processing Recent Thoughts. At the beginning of any meditation the most common distraction is the thought you were having just before beginning to meditate. If you have been watching a movie, you’ll see memorable scenes from it. If you were working on your checking account, it’s the missing check or the unexpectedly large balance that will occupy your thoughts. The mind needs time to process current thoughts before turning to meditation. It may be helpful to give the mind a moment for them. Then move on.
2. Following Random Thoughts. In his book Confessions, St. Augustine complained that even when he was deep in thought, his mind could be distracted by inconsequential events. While horseback riding, he might catch sight of a dog chasing a rabbit, and off his mind would go—following the chase, if only in his imagination. Augustine lamented, “…in how many of the most minute and trivial things my curiosity is still daily tempted, and who can keep the tally of how often I succumb?” In a similar way, if we are not attentive, when an innocuous thought occurs in meditation, we may find ourselves pursuing it and its associations for minutes on end. In meditation, remind yourself from time to time that you are meditating. If you realize you have gotten sidetracked, simply come back to your focus.
3. The Song in Your Head. Certain distractions have staying power, like tunes that play over and over in your mind. That ’60s lyric of Bobby Vee, “like a rubber ball, I’ll come bouncing back to you,” captures the idea perfectly. The resilience of repetitive thoughts makes them feel obsessive. But relax your breathing, settle into your meditation, and in a short time the offensive visitor will be gone.
4. Pain. Physical pain causes thoughts associated with it to circle round and round. Strategies for relieving pain preoccupy half of the circle, while pain itself fills the other. A better approach to managing pain is to join with it—to inspect it without fear or malice. Think to yourself: “To the best of my ability, let me be with this pain and learn from it.” It is especially important to maintain relaxed diaphragmatic breathing to accomplish this task. Since breathing is agitated and constricted by pain, you can create a more supportive inner environment by relaxing your breath. In this way, even a mind in pain can meditate. Pain loses its ability to distract.
When sleepiness persists, hold on to the sensations of your breath. It will keep you present when all else is vanishing.
5. Sexual Fantasies. In the yoga tradition it is said that sex is a psychological urge as much as a physical one. Unlike other urges, the pleasure of sex can be satisfied by thinking or dreaming about it. This makes it a particularly potent distraction. Sexual thoughts engage the part of the mind that finds satisfaction in imagination—not the higher mind. The good news is that sexual energy can be sublimated in meditation. When it is, its agitating quality is transformed. But how? Stillness and a patient focus on breathing—on the energetic qualities of inhaling and exhaling—are an important key to managing steamy fantasies. As you exhale, feel the pleasant sensations that accompany the emptying of the lungs. Then, as you fill the lungs, feel the nurturing sensations of the inhalation. Patiently feel each breath and let your nervous system quietly relax.
6. Dozing Off. It’s not uncommon for beginning meditators to imagine themselves to be awake during a guided meditation, when in fact they are snoring loudly enough to disturb a classroom full of students. Strange, dreamlike images (hypnagogic imagery) distract the mind, and consciousness itself becomes fuzzy, sliding almost inevitably toward sleep. When meditation is over, the sleeping meditator may claim to have heard all the instructions of the teacher, when, in fact, none of them registered. These are desperate times in meditation. The whole edifice of practice—consciousness itself— is caving in. When sleepiness persists, hold on to the sensations of your breath. It will keep you present when all else is vanishing.
7. The Myth of Silence. In the yoga tradition, meditators use a mantra as their object of concentration. The mind rests in the sound of the mantra, which in turn fills the mind. But legend has it that in meditation, the mind becomes silent. Thus, it seems likely to some meditators that mantra recitation is a relatively simple practice that should be abandoned soon after it is started. Although the thought, “It’s time to stop the mantra,” may seem reasonable, it is really a distraction. Quiet and inward as it is, meditation is a discipline. We are training the mind to rest in a one-pointed focus. Attaining silence of the mind does not mean abandoning the mantra, for that causes the mind to lose its focus. Silence in meditation is something much deeper; it is a silence of the inner, witnessing mind. Any hope of reaching such silence depends upon completely resting the mind in the mantra, and then letting the inner witness awaken. Stay with your mantra in meditation and let your doubts about concentration go.
8. Emotions and Desires. The file drawers of memory contain our wants, wishes, and desires. Like cues entered into a computer search engine, these states of desire (kama) spawn endless thoughts. “Do not like, do not dislike; all will then be clear,” advised the Chinese Buddhist master Seng-Ts’an. “Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee. All things are passing…” was St. Teresa of Avila’s version. Despite such wise advice, we often identify with our desires and feed them new energy in the quiet of meditation. While it can be difficult not to do this, the act of meditating is specially designed to help us remain centered in the face of such emotional agitation. Neither suppressing desires nor blindly acting on them will help. To enhance concentration, allow thoughts to discharge their emotional energy, and refrain from adding to them—that’s the key.
9. An Unsettled Posture. A variety of distracting thoughts result from one simple source—the way we sit. If your posture is not quite right in the beginning of your practice, imperfections will be magnified as time passes. Common problems include clothing that binds at the back of the knees, an improper support for the hips, discomfort in the hips or ankles, loss of circulation to the feet, rounding in the lower back, sharp pain in the upper back, discomfort in the shoulder joints, and neck pain. Since the urge to fix these problems will only increase as you continue to sit, it may make sense to promptly interrupt your meditation to make adjustments. Correct your posture, provide better support for your hips, or rearrange your clothes as necessary. Over time, you may need to address misalignments in your sitting posture through a balanced asana practice.
When a needy ego lies behind a distracting thought, its subtle influence can be hard to recognize.
10. Ego. Woven into the fabric of many an internal dialogue is an over-sized ME. What do I want? When will my needs be understood? What will this do for me? When a needy ego lies behind a distracting thought, its subtle influence can be hard to recognize. Yet the ego is a source of distraction—for under its sway, we see only ourselves and not the Self that dwells more deeply in us. Nine hundred years ago the Sufi mystic Ibn al-’Arabi wrote intriguingly of the ego’s limitation and of the path leading beyond it:
When my Beloved appears,
With what eye do I see him?
With His eye, not with mine,
For none sees Him except Himself.
The solution to the inordinately loud and distracting voice of ego is trustful surrender (also known as the niyama Ishvara pranidhana)—a willingness to see things through “His eye,” not ours. It is trustful surrender that shelters us and keeps us safe from ourselves. By making our ego small, and by finding comfort in humility, we come closer to the aim of meditation. Distractions gradually pass and we rest in a more stable state of concentration—in the presence of our innermost Being.