The real problem with Distraction

~Judith Lief

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.

Monkey Mind

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 really 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? 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.

Lees verder