Anyone who has meditated knows that over and over again we turn the mind toward the sensations of the breathing, to building kindness, or to some other object of meditation, and over and over again we find ourselves distracted by some random train of thought.
Distractions are seductive, but make us unhappy
Our thoughts are strangely seductive. And yet they rarely make us happy. In fact research shows that distracted thinking is a source of suffering. We’re much happier when we are mindfully attentive to our experience.
The Buddha in fact classified our distracted thoughts into five categories: longing for pleasant experiences, ill will, worrying, avoidance, and doubting ourselves. All five of these hindrances, as they’re called cause unhappiness.
So why do we keep getting drawn towards doing something that makes us unhappy?
Why are we so drawn to distractedness?
Early Buddhist teachings talk about a number of “cognitive distortions” (vipallasas), one of which is seeing things that cause suffering as sources of happiness. And that’s what’s going on here. The mind assumes that if we long for pleasure, pleasure will happen, that if we hate what we don’t like, it’ll go away, that if we worry about things, this will fix them, that if we avoid things we don’t like, they’ll go away, and that if we doubt ourselves and make ourselves miserable, someone will come and tell us everything’s OK.
So on a certain, very deep, level, we’re convinced that distractedness is where happiness is found. Even though it isn’t.
Being mindful of the body is the way to happiness
Where happiness does lie is in mindful attention — mindfully attending to the physical sensations of the body, to feelings, to thoughts, and to how all of these things affect each other in ways that either contribute or detract from our wellbeing.
Simply observing the breathing and other sensations in the body, patiently returning to it over and over when we get distracted, brings peace. This is the basis of meditation.
It’s in the body that peace lies. That’s where we find happiness.
A practice for retraining the mind
So as a practice, I suggest the following.
First, let the eyes be soft. Let the muscles around the eyes be relaxed. Let the eyes be focused softly.
Then, begin to connect with the sensations of the body, feeling the movements of the breathing as soft waves sweeping through the body.
As distractions arise, and you begin to extract yourself from them, see if you can have a sense of distracting thoughts being in one direction, and the body in another direction.
On each out-breath, remind yourself that the sensations of the body are where you want your attention to be by saying something like the following:
- This [the body] is where happiness is found.
- This is where peace is found.
- This is where patience is found.
- This is where joy is found.
- This is where calm is found.
- This is where ease is found.
- This is where security is found.
- This is where confidence is found.
- This is where contentment is found.
- This is where love is found.
- This is where awakening is found.
As each breath sweeps downward through, say one of the phrases above, or something like them. You can make up your own phrases. You can repeat phrases, but see if you can mix them up a bit in order that the practice doesn’t become mechanical.
How this works
Essentially all positive qualities are supported by mindfulness rooted in the body, so you can just let various qualities come to mind and remind yourself that it’s through awareness of the body that they will arise.
Let the words accompany the breathing, strengthening your intention to notice and appreciate the body mindfully.
In the short term, the repeated reminders to observe the body will help to keep your mind on track. There’s less opportunity for distraction to arise and take over your mind.
In the long term, you might find that you start to realize that the body — rather than distractions — is home. It’s where growth happens. It’s where you want to keep turning your attention. It’s where you want to be. And your attention will naturally gravitate there.