Rev. Aiden Hall, Turning Wheel Buddhist Temple

I am sitting at my desk working at something, giving it all my attention, and suddenly I realise I am looking out of the window. Although I had been intending to work on the task in front of me, somewhere along the way I have become distracted. I am not really quite sure how the distraction happened or why, or even when. I don’t really know very much about it.

How can we train with distraction whilst we are distracted?

That’s one of the interesting things about distraction—it is in the nature of distraction that when we are distracted, we don’t even realise we are distracted. It’s not until, for some reason, we come back to awareness again that we realise we were distracted. In reflecting on this, we know that we have not really been present for a while, but we can’t look back and identify the exact moment when we went from diligently doing the thing we were engaged in to vacantly staring out of the window. Because of this, it is hard to explore the states of mind that lead to distraction. So how do we find a way into working with this area?

During the time that we are distracted, we aren’t consciously aware of our thoughts and surroundings in the way that we are when we are focussed. Rather than being grounded in the reality of who we are, where we are, and what we are doing, we are just caught in a fantasy, or some kind of dream world for a while, without even realising it. We are just being pulled along by our senses.

If I am gazing out of the window, it might be the sense of sight that is distracting me, but a lot of the time I find it is more the mind sense, that sixth sense which is aware of memories, thoughts, feelings and other mental objects. We include it with sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch when we talk about the senses. Perhaps I am thinking about what is going to happen next week, tomorrow or later on in the day, or something that happened in the past. So even when I’m staring out of the window, often I’m not really watching the rabbits or watching the trees bend in the wind—my eyes happen to be looking that way, but actually I’m thinking about something completely different.

Exploring the symptoms of distraction

So how is it that we suddenly realise that we have been distracted? Part of it is that the thing we get distracted by, although it might seem very interesting for a while, can only hold our attention for a certain time. Eventually our interest in it wanes and we get bored with it, and that is part of what brings us back to what we are doing. There is clearly more going on than that, but if the thing we got distracted by was really very interesting and that high level of interest carried on, it seems quite likely that the distraction would just keep rolling on.

But in the everyday world, looking out of the window isn’t actually that compelling, and the distractions that are around me that I get caught up in, even the mental ones, are actually finite. I wear them out, sometimes quickly, sometimes after quite some time, and end up coming back to what it is that is in front of me. Sense data can also be a trigger for realising we are distracted, whether it is a sound we hear that reminds us of our surroundings, like the phone ringing, or just a physical need to change position. This can cut short our distraction and reconnect us with our physical reality.

Although it is clearly good that I do come back to awareness, whatever that is triggered by, I am still left in the position that I haven’t really seen or understood the mechanism of distraction. It’s not that when we come back to awareness we need to go back over the past and analyse it, that would just be drawing conclusions from our memories, rather than actually seeing what is going on directly. But nevertheless there is something about not having been aware of it that calls for further investigation.

The infinitely distracting internet

One area which I find helpful in looking at this is the way I use the internet. In contrast with most areas of our lives, where distractions are finite (there are only so many things in the room, or looking out of the window, that are really that interesting), it seems that on the internet distractions are essentially infinite.

If I go to look at something on the BBC website, for example, I might be intending to just look at one particular thing, but on any page that I might visit there is a link to something else that looks very interesting, and which I can easily be distracted by.

I might have just gone to look at the weather forecast, but maybe on that page there is a link to an article on some human fossils that have been found in China, which might be a new species of human we didn’t know about—and that looks quite interesting. And then on that page there is a link to an article on a so-called ‘Goldilocks’ planet orbiting a distant star, which might support life—interesting. And then on that page there is another link to something else, and so it goes on.

There are all these interesting subjects available at the click of a mouse that I didn’t realise I was so interested in. But there they are; they are presented in a way that is deliberately very enticing, and I can easily convince myself that this is something that I really ought to know about. And the infinite nature of the internet is, that I click on it and have a look (and, yes, it might be entertaining or inspiring or educational), but then there is another link to something else…(looks interesting)… I follow that, and I can easily just go on endlessly in that way.

The YouTube distraction loop

Similarly, I’m sure there are, by a factor of many times, more hours of video on YouTube than any one person can possibly watch in a single lifetime. But they have a very clever way of arranging things so that there is a handy selection of other videos, somewhat related to the thing you have been looking at, which you might just be interested in.

You may start off by looking at something as mundane as a product review for a washing machine, say, but then when you have watched that there is some other related video, which looks like it might be helpful. And then after you have seen that one there is another selection of videos somewhat related to that one. At least one of those will probably look interesting, so you have a look at that, and before you know it you have been going from one to another to another—with less and less relevance to washing machines!

One of the helpful things in a monastery is that when I get into that sort of infinite YouTube loop, there is usually some kind of cue that tells me there is something else I ought to be doing. Perhaps I hear the bell ringing for a meal or a ceremony, or something like that, and I suddenly realise it has been—however long—10 minutes, 20 minutes, 3 hours! Hopefully not that long.

But however long it has been, I find it is quite similar to the experience of just getting lost in thoughts: although I have been in full control of my own mouse buttons at all times, there is also a sense in which I was just getting carried away by the sense data. Even if I was being educated or entertained, it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing, and when I look back on it I can see that it was actually a bit of a waste of time.

The rising tide of unease

This feeling that it is a bit of a waste of time is part of what gives us a clue that we are drifting into distraction. Because internet distractions are pretty much infinite, and can just go on and on, I find that I do gradually begin to notice, even in the midst of the distraction, this sense of unease with how things are.

If this was just a looking-out-of-the-window type distraction, then at this point I might come back to my original task, but the infinitely interesting nature of the internet keeps me distracted, allowing the feeling of unease to continue to grow and encroach on my awareness. Some part of me knows that I am not really wanting to do this, and that knowing gradually comes into the view of the conscious mind.

As this feeling grows, I slowly begin to be more aware of what my motivations are in continually clicking on link after link. I start to get a sense of when I gradually shift from being focussed on what it was that I went to look at, to there being a sense of actually wanting a distraction. Perhaps I am wanting something to take me away from the seeming mundaneness of what I am doing.

This feeling of the mind putting its ‘hooks’ out in this way is an important one to notice—I’m just looking for anything to grasp onto that might be more interesting or more entertaining than what I am doing at the moment.

The subtle nature of suffering

At this point it becomes clearer that the sense of unease that I feel is an aspect of what the Buddha was pointing to in the first noble truth: the existence of dukkha. We often translate this word as suffering, but the word dukkha also covers the much subtler areas of unease, unsatisfactoriness and discontent. In the second noble truth, the Buddha explains that dukkha is caused by clinging, or attachment. Another way of describing this is that we are not fully accepting the present reality, but instead wanting things to be different from how they actually are.

In the present instance, the fact that I am looking for something more exciting shows that on some level I don’t really think that how things are at the moment is quite good enough. I am searching for fulfilment in something exterior, because I feel that something is missing. This feeling of something missing may be partly related to the task I am meant to be doing, but it probably also has a lot to do with not being able to fully accept myself as I am. On some level I feel that there is something missing in me, and I am looking for things from outside to fill this gap.

This is a very productive area to explore, both in formal meditation and as we go about our daily lives. People often come to a spiritual or religious practice because they have a sense of something missing, and hope that the practice will somehow supply the missing bit, or at least help them to find it.

My experience of the practice so far has been that it actually leads me to question why it is that I think there is something missing in the first place. There is an assumption there that I come to question. And as I let go of this assumption, it is no longer about finding what might be missing, but about looking at and valuing what is actually here. This is not the same as assuming that there isn’t anything missing—that would just be replacing one assumption with another—it is to be willing to recognise and let go of any assumptions that I have, and to look and see what the real state of things actually is.

I find that just being willing to sit still and feel the unease, and to see the effect that following distraction has on me, is a helpful way of exploring this area, whether it’s during formal meditation, or on the computer, or in any other aspect of daily life. And as I explore this sense of unease, I find that I am then in a much better position to see whether I really do want to click on this next link.

It might be very interesting, I might gain some knowledge that I don’t have now, but however much knowledge I gain, in the end I can’t know everything. And I can’t do everything; I can spend this time following these links, or I can keep focussed on what I was actually intending to do. For all of us there are things we want to do in our lives, and during this next 10 minutes do I really want to be learning about the life cycle of the Inner Mongolian tree-rat (which is actually rather interesting because it turns out that they…), or would I rather switch off the computer and go for a walk?

Distraction during meditation

Linking this back to sitting meditation; here it is a slightly different situation in that there isn’t a task that we are trying to get done; we’re willing just to be here and to see what’s going on in the mind and to notice what happens to be here right at the moment. Sometimes this can be that we suddenly realise we’ve been distracted, and sometimes it is more a sense of being present and aware. It is very tempting to judge the aware mind as being better than the distracted mind, but actually we are not trying to make it be one thing or another. That would be either “trying to think” or “trying not to think”[1].

It’s much more of a sense of trusting the meditation and realising that even though sometimes we are distracted and sometimes we are more focussed, all these thoughts are like waves on the surface of the sea—sometimes the sea is calm and sometimes it is choppy. But the sea is not just the waves on the surface, and meditation is not just about thoughts and feelings. If we are fascinated with the waves on the surface, then we miss the vast depth of the ocean.

Meditation during distraction

In giving ourselves to the meditation and being willing to come and sit, there is an act of great trust there, and part of that is trusting that even when we seem to be distracted, nevertheless we are still sitting. We are still existing as a human being—we are still right here, right now, and that existence doesn’t depend on the extent to which we are aware of it. We don’t have to force ourselves to always be self-conscious and self-aware. We can just allow things to be how they are, and trust that. If how things are at the moment is distraction, then that is what we sit with.

It is part of the nature of the mind that even were we to try to control it and always be focussed, there would still be times when we couldn’t keep that up, and would become distracted. That is just coming face to face with the reality of how we are. In meditation we see this over and over again. The compassionate nature of meditation is to accept that this is part of our human nature, and part of how our minds are.

Trusting the true wish

But there is more to meditation than these passing states of mind, because we can also trust the true wish, the intention that brings us to meditation. We know that we want to give ourselves to this, and we have a sense of why it seems good to do, even if we can’t necessarily put that into words. We are willing to sit still whether or not there is distraction, and this prods us to look at what “sitting still” actually means when we are distracted.

What is the “activity and stillness together” of meditation which is still being expressed, whether my mind seems to be focussed or whether it seems to be scattered? Can meditation only go on when my mind is one particular way and not when it’s another way? Does it depend on circumstances and conditions to that extent?

If we think that, then it would mean that for much of our life we would be excluded from meditation, and as human beings whose minds do wander, how could we ever come to know the truth? Again, this is an area that we must each explore for ourselves in meditation—not making any assumptions, but being willing to look and see how things actually are.

Distractions arising within meditation

I find that looking at the nature of distraction in these different ways helps me to have less of a confrontational attitude towards distractions. They are not so much difficulties to be eradicated, but rather a part of the rich experience of being a human being. But I also don’t have to be a slave to them. Distractions may be here one minute and gone the next, or may stay around for longer, but meditation leads us to a growing sense of what it is that is sitting still, within which these ever-changing movements of the mind are arising, abiding, and passing away.

1. A reference to the line “…, neither trying to think, nor trying not to think; just sitting, with no deliberate thought, is the important aspect of serene reflection meditation.” This is from the translation of Great Master Dōgen’s Fukanzazengi (Rules for Meditation) in The Liturgy of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives for the Laity, 2nd Ed. (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 1990) p. 98. [Return]

This article is an edited extract of a talk given at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in February 2011. It is based on an article that appeared in the Journal of the OBC in Spring 2011, which is used with the kind permission of the OBC.