Deliverance from Distraction
In category I concentration, a key hindrance is distraction. Distraction we will learn is usually caused by sensory craving and aversion, or some other non-sensual craving. We will see that as we learn more and more about craving and the process of dependent origination of suffering, the mind gets more and more calm and receptive to intentions. This is the result of deliberate training that anyone can do. We first want to notice that distraction is occurring, so when we engage with the object we have a main intention of centering on that object, but we also want a higher-level awareness of what’s going on in the mind. We have to know we are distracted before we can come back to the object.
To develop this skill, we need to have an awareness that distraction is actually occurring in order to bring the mind back to the intended object. In earlier phases, sometimes thought trains are not recognized as a detour from the intention to focus on the object. There is no meta-level awareness of what the mind is doing, so we become identified with the thoughts, and don’t wake up to the fact that we were trying to focus on the breath.
The key practice at this stage, is to hold an intention to (i) follow the breath and (ii) notice mind wandering. You cannot force this to happen, it simply happens of its own accord under the right conditions, and through mastery of the process and conditions for noticing dullness and returning to the object. Typically, the mind is either imbalanced in the energy factors and the concentration factors. The key is to bring balance to the mind by utilizing the energy and patterns that are already present. For example at the start of a session when you have been encountering lots of mind wandering in recent sits, you can set an intention to notice mind wandering as soon as it occurs. This just means stating to yourself mentally that’s what you are trying to do. You can also think the intention without it necessarily being a sentence. And you should also refresh that intention by consciously taking a moment to decide to notice mind wandering. Do this 8-10 times throughout the sit, aiming to develop an intuition about when to refresh the intention.
Then, keep going, and if mind wandering arises again, simply refresh the intention, and you notice you’re off track whenever you notice, no problem. This is a normal function of mind and quite alright. We can appreciate the momentary mindfulness that we are cultivating. Eventually the mind wakes up from wandering more and more quickly, until the mind never fully leaves the object of meditation, and the distractions are of a transient and superficial nature. That is mastery of the skill of suppressing gross distractions.
There are a few helpful devices to help calm and settle the mind, and to wrangle in the mind when you find it continually getting lost in thought, or restless and irritable, or other persistent problems:
- Setting intention at the ends of breaths. You can set an intention to notice each end of the breath, when the outbreath turns into the inbreath, and vice versa. On each breath there is an intention to notice just the end of that breath and that intention is refreshed for each breath. This keeps the mind very immediate in the current breath, and the intention is refreshed every breath.
- Try to notice as many “discreet” sensations in the breath cycle. There are a multitude of different sensations involved with breathing- the expansion and contraction of the diaphram, the sensations of air moving through the nose, and the sensations of energy and prana that are secondary to the breath itself, movements of body against supports, etc. All of these are related to the breathing process, and can be included as “the breath” when engaging with the breath.
- Trying to uncover as much subtlety in the breath process as possible – simply having the intention to see subtle details of what we experience is the way to build this skill. It keeps the mind engaged with the object, and makes it into a game, which functions in a useful way in our brains. It can be balanced with the intention to maintain awareness of the bigger picture.