When we meditate, usually it is our discursive thoughts that are the main distraction. When we see the “stuff” that can arise in our mind, identifying with the seeing rather than the mental chatter is the beginning of a more perfect practice. Thoughts are not the enemy. They are included in our meditation practice. The instant that they are recognized is an instant of mindfulness. It is our prajna, or insight, that sees.
As we get bored with our favorite detours—fantasies, plans, worries, whatever—we finally slow down enough to notice our breath. The breath goes out, then there’s space. It’s so ordinary, simple and precise.
Then a more relaxed boredom begins to take place as we mix our mind with space. Ultimately, even the breath takes the background as we become aware of a timeless, seemingly panoramic space. We hear the birds of Spring, which have been singing all along. We are not distracted by their songs, as their singing is included in our practice as moments of nowness in an ocean of space.
Then the neighbor’s lawnmower starts up and we are rattled. We feel almost unseated by the noise.
Or, we suddenly remember that we’ve not paid the power bill and feel we must get up off the meditation cushion pronto to do so.
Or, we drift off into sleep, waking many minutes later with a jerk as our head bobs us back into consciousness.
Usually the bit of adrenaline that arises with the jolt that wakes us keeps us awake for the rest of the meditation session. We then return attention to the breath, perhaps lifting the gaze, and start afresh. This is the mark of practice.
In the same way, not acting on the seemingly big deal thought that tempts us to abandon practice is a sign that we have faith in the continuity of mindfulness on, and off, the cushion. We have faith that we will remember to pay the bill, water the garden, etc.—post-meditation.
And, as we sit through the roar of the lawnmower, knowing that it cannot last forever, we are prioritizing and committing further to practice. Training in sitting through our internal distractions prepares us for not being easily distracted by those that are external. We are learning to hold our seat. This is the mark of being tamed and able to be with whatever arises.
But I confess even after years of practice I find this challenging. I recognized a habitual “flight rather than fight” response. I have the instincts of a deer. I am good at running. When the going gets tough, I’m inclined to get going. But I have learned slowly to recognize this tendency and to stay with uncomfortable situations on and off the cushion—as when not doing so—I often run into worse situations. At the very least, I have found it wise to slow down rather than to speed away.
But even rushing and missing a step and falling down, can wake us if we don’t waste that wakeful energy by emoting. The result of such a moment of shock can turn instantly into full-blown mindfulness if we allow it to. Surprises, careless mistakes, and even little slips or accidents can restore our mindfulness-awareness on the spot so that, without judgment, but with a bit of humor, day rolls into night as one big meditation session. The kasung slogan, “When you lose your mind, come back” conveys this. Sitting meditation trains us to rest the mind in the present—whatever the ever-changing present is like. In so doing we develop the mind’s potential to be awake and flexible in a variety of situations. By unloading our self-concerns and opening to the vastness of the world as it is, we train in being present in all situations ranging from the blissful, the dull, to the adverse. And when it comes to “distractions”, we begin to see that it is our own emotional response that inclines us to turn away from being mindful. Each time we lean into a difficult situation, whether persevering in practice through noise or illness or standing our ground and listening to an angry display, we train in being more peaceful, and less impulsive and reactive.
Great teachers demonstrate this steady awareness 24/7. How they arrive at this is through practicing through the internal and seemingly external distractions of life.
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