One of the great things about mindfulness practice is that there are no inherent distractions. Whatever we think is a distraction is simply something else to notice. At the beginning of a retreat, we often offer the instruction to settle the attention on the breathing to collect and quiet the mind. With that instruction, people sometimes have the idea that if anything pulls them away from the breath, it is a problem. The instructions that we offer are actually more inclusive: if we’re paying attention to the breathing and some other experience is pulling us, or it feels like there is a conflict around being with the breath, then we don’t need to stay with the breath, instead we can bring our attention to the very thing we think is the distraction.
The sense of being distracted from the breath can happen different ways. For instance, we might be attending to the breath, and a sudden sound happens: someone coughs or sneezes, or a car door slams outside; the attention very naturally leaps to the sound and then the sound ends just as suddenly. People often say that such sounds distract them from their meditation. But what actually happened in that situation? First, the mind was paying attention to the breathing, and then a sudden sound arose and the mind paid attention to that. Often, right after the sound ends we start thinking: “Who made that sound that disturbed my meditation? I need to get back to the breath. I was so settled before that sound happened.” The sound is long gone, yet the thoughts continue. The thing actually disturbing us in that situation is the thoughts! If we can simply recognize that sound is happening, just for a moment, then when the sound ends, we can just notice the next experience: perhaps a body sensation, or an emotion. Or we might choose to reconnect with the experience of breathing, without adding any fanfare about how distracting the sound was.
Another way we might experience a sense of being distracted from the breath: we are paying attention to the breath while another experience is happening simultaneously: a body sensation, a pain or an itch. We might notice the experience, consciously let it go, and come back to the breath. Yet the experience pulls us again, and again, making it difficult to stay with the breath. At times it might be possible to stay with the breath, but it feels like we’re forcing the attention on the breath. If there is a feeling of conflict between the breath and another experience, it might be time to turn our mind
ful awareness towards that experience, what ever it is, and simply let go of trying to stay with the breath.
Aside from assorted “distractions” at our senses, we sometimes feel disturbed by states of mind, like restlessness, dullness, sleepiness, or anxiety. We might have the idea: “I can’t meditate with the mind in this state.” We might think we have to change the state of the mind in order to meditate, or just give up the meditation altogether and wait for another time when the mind is less sleepy or anxious. If this happens, we might be holding to some idea of what meditation is: we might think meditation means being able to choose to pay attention to the breath and to stay with the breath. That is one form of meditation, but sometimes our mind is not in a state to be able to direct the attention in that way. For instance, if you have the thought “I’m too sleepy to meditate,” I’d like to suggest that you might have enough awareness to turn your attention to the sleepiness itself!
Mindfulness is like a mirror; it reflects whatever comes in its path. A mirror is not impacted by what it reflects, it simply reflects; beautiful things, ugly things, large things, small things. Sometimes a mirror is coated with steam, and we might have the view that the mirror isn’t reflecting very well. In that situation, the mirror is not reflecting what we would like it to reflect; yet if we think about what is actually happening, the mirror is doing its job perfectly. It is perfectly reflecting every drop of water on the surface of the mirror; it is just not doing what we want it to do.
Certain states of mind, like dullness or sleepiness are like the mirror coated with steam. Sometimes we can rouse some energy, which might shift the mind into a brighter state, which might be like opening the bathroom door to allow steam to clear from the mirror. At other times there is very little we can do about a sluggish dull mind, and it may not be possible to direct the attention to a particular experience, such as the breath. Yet it is possible, more often than we might think, to actually recognize the mind is dull or foggy. Mindfulness can clearly know dullness, much as the mirror perfectly reflects the steam.
Does it feel like something is disturbing your meditation? Perhaps that very disturbance is asking for attention.