Distractions are everywhere, all the time. Little screens, middling
screens, gigantic screens. Instead of Plato’s cave, we each create our own little cave and live in a
world of flickering images devoid of real substance. We literally screen off our actual world, with all
its ruggedness and rawness, and fit whatever is happening into a virtual world of sound, pictures,
and videos we carry in our pockets.
We are so easily distracted, we complain to ourselves. But what is really behind all this distractedness? It is easy to
think the relentless external stimuli are the problem, but what we are surrounded by are just phenomena, 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 the Buddhist teachings talk more in terms of
wandering mind than distractions. When we think in terms of
distractions, we look outward and blame external conditions for
our jumpiness. When we think in terms of wandering mind, we
look inward for the source of our problem. We take responsibility.
The fact is that distractions won’t ever disappear. You may run
away to a little cave and stay there all alone, but distractions
will follow you wherever you go. You can’t get rid of distrac
tions, but through meditation practice, you can change how
you react to them. It is like the story of Odysseus and the
Sirens, who enticed seamen off their course and onto the reef
to their deaths. To survive, Odysseus had himself tied to the
mast and told his crew to seal their ears.
Like the sirens, distractions pull us off course. The word “dis
traction” means to be pulled away. When you are distracted, it
feels as if something outside of you has captured your attention.
Distraction is also referred to as desultoriness, from the Latin root
meaning “skipping around.” So another aspect of distraction is to
be scatterbrained, mentally jumpy. Buddhism calls this “monkey
mind.” In response, like Odysseus, we can bind ourselves to the
mast of discipline by means of mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation, also known as calm abiding,
helps us develop a more 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 spiritual path, this pragmatic application of meditation
practice is only a start.
It is important to realize that in the buddhadharma, the
point of working with your distractedness or wandering
mind is not just to be more focused on whatever you are
doing. Although that is extremely useful, it is only the first
step. Getting a better handle on your mind so you are not
tossed about by distractedness is just a palliative measure.
Basically, we tend to like spiritual practices that are not
too threatening, practices that confirm what we are doing
and help us do it better. Instead of looking into our fun
damental being, we prefer to relate to meditation as a self-
improvement exercise, like going to the gym and working
out. We 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
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? Embarking on the
dharmic path 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 path we need to
pare away, layer by layer, every level of distraction until we
reach a kind of ground zero.