How to deal with distraction during meditation? Below is a transcript of the 2nd mindfulness FAQ session, presented by Brighton Mindfulness Centre, where Jon Wilde is interviewed by Gerard Evans and discuss the question “How to deal with distraction during meditation?”. The full one hour video can be accessed by clicking here for our main Mindfulness FAQ page. Other Mindfulness questions are answered in this and other videos on this site.
Gerard: That’s a perfect time to ask you a question that could have been made for this second really. And this is from Rita in Spain who says, I keep getting distracted during meditation. What am I doing wrong?
Jon: Rita thank you for your question. You’re not doing anything wrong. This is mindfulness practice. Mindfulness practice is noticing that you’re being distracted. If you’re noticing that you’re being distracted, you’re being mindful. Here is a thing mindfulness is not promising miracles. Mindfulness is not promising anything that’s not actually very easy to grasp. What I mean by that is that it’s not saying that mindfulness is not saying that it can do away with distractions. Life is endlessly distracting. Mindfulness is simply saying can we be aware in that moment that we are being distracted. Can we bring our attention gently back to the here and now to this present moment experience? Which is let’s be absolutely clear about it.
The only moment that we’ve got. Always now. And someone might say well yesterday was yesterday. But yesterday was also now when it was now. Tomorrow you know the future is unwritten. We don’t know what’s going to come tomorrow. We have ideas about the future but we only ever have now. And so what I’d say to Rita is keep noticing that you’re being distracted.
Gerard: I wonder if distraction is almost an unhelpful word because it is how your brain works. Your brain has thought, your brain constantly has thoughts in its default state. Well certainly in modern life in its default state perhaps hundreds of years ago things were a bit healthier and less stressful. So distraction it is almost a judgmental word in a funny kind of way. no one’s doing anything wrong. Is just like you said gently bringing yourself back. Never chiding yourself. For the way that your brain works anyway. I’m just trying to put a bit of space in between those thoughts perhaps.
Jon: Yeah because in a way in terms of our thoughts and you know distractions can be more than thoughts. They can be sounds, they can be smells. But if we’re talking here about how we’re distracted by our own thoughts. Yes that is how the mind naturally works in a way. That we’re kind of constantly being pulled in this direction in that direction. Now most of us carry around these things for smartphones that on the positive side link us to the world and in lots and lots of wonderful aspiring ways and on the other hand become something that’s so convenient that many of us struggle to leave these things alone. So you get that side to side when you walk past a restaurant we see a couple there and their food being served and both steering at Smartphone screens and they’re not saying a word. And it’s something very sad about that.
And so you might say what’s the mindful thing to do if you notice that you are sitting a nice restaurant with a plate of wonderful food in front of you and you find yourself steering at the screen checking on your emails. Scrolling through your Facebook feed. Checking out what news the Guardian is delivering at that particular moment. All these things that most of us do habitually. The mindful thing is not to sort of feel guilt and shame. The mindful thing is simply to notice…
Gerard: Without judgment.
Jon: Without judgment. Without judging yourself but also without judging you know these things are like a modern day addiction. Your smartphones or tablets and they become so convenient in our lives that to many of us they feel like sort of extension of their own body. Some people actually feel genuinely bereft if they’re separated from their phone for long periods or if they run out of juice halfway through a train journey. And it’s very easy to judge others and it’s very easy to judge ourselves. The simple thing to do though is simply to notice that you are out of the moment. You are staring at a screen and you have not got any particular interest in what that screen is showing you. The mindful thing to do would be simply to turn it off. Put it away and actually enjoy the meal. To actually notice what you’re eating and how it smells and how it’s served and what it tastes like.
Gerard: But also I think perhaps to realize that those things have become almost natural reactions. When my phone battery went dead the other week when I was at Stansted airport, for all the mindfulness I’ve studied I still had that kind of immediate reaction of not being best pleased with the situation. I suppose what I’m saying about not judging anything. These things won’t necessarily stop happening at various intervals so that she get less. But when they do is just a question of bringing yourself back to the moment. You can’t avoid things happening. But you can control how you react to them.
Jon: Yeah if we are talking about thoughts that’s what the mind does. Again minds wander. That’s what minds do. That’s particularly what the modern mind does. And so mindfulness isn’t saying that’s a terrible thing we need to put a stop to this. It’s accepting that that’s what the mind does. With practice and this is in a way going back to the question earlier about how long is it going to take to actually work. Hopefully throughout an eight week course a person would notice the difference. They might find that they are responding more in situations rather than reacting for example. They might start finding a little bit of space around thoughts and feelings and situations. So if they feel possibly less overwhelmed.
Gerard: Yeah less panicky.
Jon: Less panicky. Maybe they might find round about the middle, they seem to be travelling lighter. The burdens in their life that they are carrying, the burdens of the past and the weight of the future. What the holds they might be traveling — all these things. I think it’s really a case of there’s no two ways around this. Meditation is central to the practice. It’s a meditation based practice certainly in my experience committing to that practice and actually enjoying it.
Jon: This is not a word that’s often used.
Gerard: No and we probably sound a bit overly serious talking about it right now because I suppose is the formality of having a microphone on but we normally don’t talk about it with this tone of voice.
Jon: No that’s right. Is something I look forward to doing on a daily basis?
Gerard: Yeah me too. It’s a treat.
Jon: Yes it’s a treat. This is real me time. And that might sound really kind of selfish but the fact is that after a meditation generally speaking I do feel more settled. My mind does feel stiller and I do feel more responsive and less reactive to life. It doesn’t just benefit me because even if a day throws up challenges and let’s face it most days throw up challenges for all of us. Small big media is that it actually makes the world a better place. If I’m nicer to people and I’m calmer and less reactive, then it’s not just good for me. I think quite often meditation is sold in a particular way to people. The normal image of a meditator is beautiful woman or sort of well toned man. Normally there is sunset involved.
Gerard: On a rock.
Jon: There is nothing wrong with that because there’s people out there who will be having that meditative experience. For most of us it’s absolutely a bit more mundane than that but the mundane here might involve sitting on a chair in your kitchen and meditating. But in a sense meditation is meditation whether you’re sitting on some beautiful beach in Goa with the sun behind you and whatever else that kind of package involves to me I don’t need to be meditating on the beach in Goa. I can have a perfectly wonderful meditation.
Gerard: At a bus stop in I Lewisham.
Jon: At a bus stop in Lewisham. I had some wonderful typically late night when you look up at the bus sign and you are hoping for a bus to arrive in two minutes and it says 55 minutes or something like that. So that’s a good illustration I think of a good point to raise because you can do a number of things if you are sitting at a bus stop whether you have had a lovely night or not so lovely night. The last thing you want to hear is that the next bus is going to take 55 minutes. Or there’s no one around to chat with whatever.
Gerard: So then you project into the future, aren’t you?
Gerard: So you are thinking okay I’ve got this time right now and that gives me a bit of space to enjoy the now for the next 55 minutes.
Jon: To enjoy the now. You could sit there for fifty five minutes and gnash your teeth and bemoan the state of public transport in London or wherever. Or even turn it back on yourself and say why is it always me?
Gerard: Why didn’t I leave five minutes earlier?
Jon: Why do I always miss that bus? And any number of things. But you could actually sit there and you don’t even need to arrange yourself in a meditation posture and shut your eyes and meditate. You can simply be awake to the moment. You can notice the play of light from you know you can notice the traffic. You can notice the rain on window screens. Any number of things. The whole world out there that’s worth been interested in.
Gerard: And is the whole world inside returning to the breath. I think is really useful in those situations as well. I think as the eight week course goes on, as your meditation experience goes on generally I find any way that I sort of find myself returning to the breath regularly and it builds a sort of symbolic neural association perhaps with when I’m meditating in more silent or easy places and times. My brain immediately goes back to that when I go back to the breath. So I see what people call an anchor.
Jon: Yes. Going back to habits earlier I mean as much as anything mindfulness is an undoing of our habits. As much as its learning new tricks, new skills is about the word. It’s also about unlearning habits that are sort of deeply embedded in us. Those grooves have been well worn on my negative spirals of thought and our compulsion to think about certain negative things in our lives and to ruminate about the past and try and fix the past which is impossibility or to somehow control the future which is an equally absurd notion. What mindfulness is really teaching us is to simply be. And simply being can become a habit. You know with practice it can become a habit.
So you do start whether you’re sitting on a beautiful beach in Goa. Or sitting at that rainy windswept bus stop in Lewisham, it’s equally possible in both instances to simply be with that moment. To simply notice what’s around you. And there might be people out there thinking well I’d much prefer the beach in Goa than the rain swept bus stop in Lewisham. But if you’re at the bus stop in Lewisham make the bus stop in Lewisham.
Gerard: Yeah and just wish for the beach.
Jon: If you spend those 55 minutes bemoaning the state of public transport and thinking about wishing that you were in Goa rather in Lewisham you’re wishing your moment away. Why would you want to wish your life away? Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing to occasionally have thoughts about what a nice holiday Goa would make or San Francisco.
Jon: If you fancy a holiday in San Francisco save up your money and go to San Francisco but don’t spend all your time wishing that you’re in San Francisco when you’re somewhere else.
Gerard: And don’t spend the next six months of saving your money waiting for that moment to make everything alright. Because everything can be alright right now. San Francisco can be a bonus.
Jon: Yeah. And good luck with getting San Francisco perfect as well because you might just end up in San Francisco missing your dog, missing your home, missing your mates.
Gerard: Missing the bus.
Jon: Well they do have buses in San Francisco. So you can equally find yourself at a bus stop in San Francisco thinking well this is even more of grind than waiting for a bus in Lewisham.
Gerard: That was only 55 minutes.
Jon: So in a way it’s kind of easier to simply be in the moment wherever you are.