Talking Dharma – Talking Distractions
Distraction means more than just being aware of how many times you check your phone or Facebook. Distraction is the foundation of the self-biased mind. It is the way that we try and make sure that we do not have to experience things we don’t like about ourselves, others and the world around us. The downside is they are also the things that prevent us from opening up to the awakened mind experience, which only has the opportunity to arise when no distractions are present. In our everyday world, distractions are everywhere, all of the time. This thing we call mind has a range of little screens, middle size screens and giant screens that lighten up with flickering thought images that often have no real substance to them.
We are so easily distracted, we complain to ourselves. But what is really behind all this distractedness? It is easy to think that the relentless external sensory experiences are the problem, but what we are surrounded by are just ever changing things and nothing more. The objects of our world are just there, innocently, just being what they are. Noises are just noises, sights are just sights, objects are just objects, smartphones are just smartphones, computers are just computers, thoughts are just thoughts. That is why it may be more helpful to consider that distractions are an external thing that do cause difficulties, but also allow us to rationalise them by blaming external conditions instead of taking responsibility ourselves. Whereas the language of the wandering, or monkey mind ensures that we internalize the experience and take responsibility so we can actually do something about it.
Outside of meditation, no matter how much awareness you muster, there is always going to be distractions. It’s not helpful to kid ourselves about this. It’s not as if we are doing anything wrong or need to be experiencing guilt or need to beat ourselves up. You may run away to a little cave or your special place and stay there all alone, but distractions will follow you wherever you go. You can’t get rid of distractions, but through consistent awareness meditation practice, you can make changes that will see you being less reactive towards them and being more responsive to them.
Awareness meditation practices help us to develop a calm and stable mind. It gives us greater focus and concentration and is an effective way of overcoming ordinary distractedness. However, in terms of the Dharma journey, this systematic application of meditation practice is only a start. It is important to realize that the point of working with your wandering mind is not just to be more focused on whatever you are doing. Although that is helpful, it is only the first step. Getting a better handle on your mind so you are not tossed about by distractedness is just a preliminary measure.
Most people tend to like Dharma practice that is not too threatening. They choose practices that confirm what they are doing and help them to do it better. Instead of looking into the fundamental state of being, they prefer to relate to meditation as a self-improvement exercise, like going to the gym and working out. They can then bask in the satisfaction of becoming more mentally and physically fit. This is great, but it does not come close to addressing the depths of what distraction is all about. When distractions come up we can deal with them, but we need to look deeper. What really fuels our distractedness? What is behind this ongoing restlessness? The Dharma journey requires that we develop the courage to look beyond our distractedness to what lies behind it. It requires us to question what distraction is really about, what we are distracting ourselves from and why. On this journey we need to peel away, layer by layer, every level of distraction until we reach a kind of ground zero.
According to the Buddha, distraction is classified, along with such things as laziness and inattentiveness, as one of the twenty destabilizing factors of the mind. It arises when the natural flow of sense perceptions is joined with and tainted by our emotions. In other words, distraction is fueled by the usual suspects of wanting, not wanting and confusion. So distraction is not just some mental tic. It is highly emotional. The approach of learning how to gently encourage our mind back when it wanders is a reactive process, but one where we are learning how to respond as is appropriate to the distraction.
As we get a little better at responding to external distractions, we discover an even more gigantic mountain of internal distractedness. We begin to notice how it is not just a matter of reacting to something outside us, we ourselves are continually creating distractions. We find that we seem to need distractions, so we continually think them up and keep them going. They are our companions, our pets. They allay that sense of fear of thought-less-ness or no-thing-ness.
The wandering mind is the world of our subconscious gossip, a kind of on-going drone of thought fragments and opinions. It is the mind of entertainment changing from one channel to the next in search of something more entertaining. If there are no immediate distractions, it will manufacture new distractions on the spot. So we are engaged in a continuous distraction project, keeping the distractions and entertainments flowing without interruption. There is an air of desperation about both of these self-created rivers of distractedness. What is actually happening is we think that if we keep all this distractedness going, we will not have to look at who we are, we will not have to experience what is happening right now.
But the Dharma journey is one of removing these smoke screens and facing facts. It is an unmasking process. It is pretty scary to realize how reliant we are on this whole scheme, and even scarier when we realize that this continual distraction project may collapse at any time. Distraction is fuelled by our constant struggle to secure ourselves in relationship to others and to the environment. That project in turn is fuelled by our fear of letting go and our lack of trust in ourselves. It is as if we are on guard all the time, afraid to miss an opportunity to strike and continually wary of potential threats or attacks. Based on these emotional impulses, our mind is pulled this way and that. To relate to this level of distractedness, we need not only to pull back the wandering mind but also to lessen its fuel supply: the push and pull of emotions.
Working with distractions is a long-term project. We may begin with a romantic idea of embarking on the Dharma journey. But as we stick with the practice, that romanticism fades away and we are left with a gradual wearing down process. We find we have less and less wiggle room. It is a shock to realize that we cannot just take our good old self and improve it, but that we have to start over completely. It’s like a major liquidation sale. All our distractions and entertainments, everything’s got to go. As our distractedness begins to crumble, we are faced with disappointment and pain. Our dreams and illusions begin to evaporate. Everywhere we turn, we get thrown back on ourselves. There is no escape. No matter what is happening, we have become used to being able to fabricate alternate scenarios, so we could never be pinned down. We did not have to fully commit to anything; there was always a way out. But now we are stuck. We are confronted with our own worrying and disappointment.
With no one to keep us company, we can’t even keep ourselves company, we are confronted with our utter aloneness. There is nothing to do and nothing to hang on to. We are alone, lonely, it is bleak. Everything we relied on turns out to be a sham, a mental construct. We hit a wall. But when we reach the point where we can no longer cover up what we have been doing or force our experience to bend to our will, something happens. We begin to relax. Although at first the notion of utterly abandoning our smoke screen of distractions is threatening, even terrifying, if we stay with that experience even a little, the smoke begins to clear and we can start to see in a completely new way.
It’s a bit like the analogy of the light at the end of the tunnel. At that darkest point of disappointment and frustration, maybe those times when you may have considered giving up altogether is when the Dharma journey towards awakening really begins. It is there that the communication can begin to take hold, not as an intellectual ego boost for the self-biased mind, but as a deep-rooted transformative process that reaches right down to the core of our being.
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