Once you’ve established a consistent meditation practice, it’s easy to hit a plateau and feel like you’re not progressing. When you feel like you’ve hit a wall in your practice, it’s time to start refining your meditation by overcoming the three great distractions.
The first and most immediate obstacle on the path of meditation is sitting still. Many people think that meditation is all about sitting still, and they fear they couldn’t possibly be so statuesque. But in fact, meditation is not about sitting still. Meditation is about holding a one-pointed attention on a single object without wavering or mind-wandering. Now, sitting still certainly helps achieve one-pointedness because it gives the mind very little to focus on, but stillness itself is not the goal of the practice.
For beginners, sitting with a straight back for prolonged periods can be tiring, or cause aches and pains. These distractions are normal and don’t usually last more than a few days.
But there are subtler physical distractions. Any physical sensation that pulls your attention away from the object of meditation is something to be overcome in order to refine your one-pointedness.
When a physical sensation distracts you from focusing on the object of meditation, first try to acknowledge the sensation and then gently return your attention to the object of meditation without reacting to the distraction. Often, the sensation will quickly dissipate and you’ll find it easier to relax into your practice. But if the sensation continues to distract you, then try changing the object of meditation to the distracting sensation itself. By focusing all of your attention on the physical sensation, you are not breaking your meditation. You are continuing to hold a single-point of attention, but you’re just changing the object you’re focusing on.
Observe the sensation with full attention and awareness. Anything that is observed will change, including physical sensation. You’ll find that most sensation will change or disappear almost as soon as you observe it fully.
If even then the sensation continues to distract you—an itch on the nose, for example, or a sleepy foot—then you may give yourself permission to react to the sensation—by scratching the itch, or changing positions, etc. But here’s the key: react in slow-motion, with full mindfulness on the action itself. So if you’re giving yourself permission to scratch your nose, move your arm in super slow-motion, observing the sensation of your arm moving through the air and scratching the nose. When the motion is complete and the physical sensation has been resolved—the itch has been scratched—then gently bring your attention back to the original object of meditation.
In this manner, methodically deal with any physical sensations that arise during your meditation. Keep a general tally of how many times you moved per session. Each time you meditate, try to stay within that range. Over time, gradually reduce the number of times you permit yourself to move. After a few weeks or months, you will find that you are effortlessly sitting still. This stillness will be a beneficial byproduct of the practice, but remember that it’s not the goal. The goal is to deepen your meditative state, and stillness can help you do that, so it’s a stepping stone, not a goal in itself.
2. Emotional Distractions
Emotional distractions can be handled much the same way that physical distractions are, but with one additional step. First, you must locate the emotion in your physical body.
For example, if you are in a meditation and your attention is suddenly broken by boredom, frustration or anger, then you should search your body for where exactly you feel this emotion. Is the anger in your belly, in your chest, in your shoulders? Locate the emotion as a physical sensation in the body.
Once you’ve located the emotion as a physical sensation, then proceed as you would as if the sensation were purely physical. First, acknowledge the sensation and then gently return to the original object of meditation. If that doesn’t work, then flood the sensation with full attention, temporarily setting the sensation as a new object of meditation. Keep your attention on the sensation until it dissipates or changes enough for you to return to the original object of meditation without being distracted by the feeling.
In this manner, you can subdue any emotions that may overwhelm you during meditation. What’s especially exciting about this technique is that it works even when you’re not in meditation. So if you end up becoming emotionally overwhelmed while facing a stressful situation in real life, then try to locate where you’re feeling the emotion in your body, then flood that area with attention, and watch as the emotion is subdued.
3. Mental Distractions
The most difficult distractions are not from external sensations but from inner mind-wandering. The mind, in the absence of external distractions, will amplify its own activity to entertain itself. Overcoming the mind’s tendency to wander off into its own ramblings is much more difficult than the physical and emotional sensations, but it can be done.
The key is not trying to stop the mind from wandering. Many people who intentionally try to halt their internal dialogue end up frustrated and stressed. Such practitioners usually quit their practice in the long run. Instead, you should expect the mind to wander and don’t get frustrated with yourself when it does. Trying to stop thinking is as impossible as trying to un-read the words on this page.
Instead, rather than trying to stop thinking, you should start hunting it down. So when your mind is distracted from the object of meditation by a stray thought, immediately congratulate yourself for noticing that thinking is happening. Give yourself positive feedback—a sense of success, triumph and satisfaction for noticing mind-wandering in action. Then, remind your mind the purpose of your meditation—to maintain one-pointed attention on the object of meditation without wavering or mind-wandering. Then, gently return your attention to the original object of meditation and start again.
After a few moments, when you again notice that your mind has wandered away from the breath, congratulate yourself immediately for noticing the mind-wandering. Remind your mind the purpose of your practice and then gently return to the original object. Repeat as needed until your session is finished.
You’ll notice that after just a few days of practice, your mind will wander less and less, until after just a few months, your mind doesn’t wander at all. Achieving this level of absorption will bring you into much deeper states of profound insight and realization.