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Working With Distraction in Meditation: It's (Mostly) Child's Play

Managing distraction with skill and kindness.

Key points

  • Distraction is an inevitable and troublesome part of meditation.
  • We can't ignore distractions, but we can manage them.
  • It can help to use tactics from other familiar moments of distraction, like managing a crying baby at dinner.
Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock, altered with Photomania
Source: Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock, altered with Photomania

Whether we identify as mindful newbies or seen-it-all veterans, the basic tactics of meditation we all work with are quite simple to frame out:

  1. Pick a thing in our conscious awareness to attend to.
  2. Attend to it, until we are distracted from that attention.
  3. Once aware of #2, go back to #1.

Pretty clear-cut, it would seem, whether working with one target like our breath or with the whole field of experience. We watch it, we lose it, and we regain it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But the simplicity of the recipe does not reflect the complexity of the actual activity. In our own practices, as well as in guiding patients and students in their own work, we can and do struggle with the sequence, especially in what to do with that persistent fouler of a placid moment of observation: distraction.

Distraction, writ large, is really any phenomenon in the moment that may compete with the chosen target of our awareness in meditation. Like with life off the cushion, distraction is inevitable. But it also generates an opportunity to develop some mindful identification of, and some adaptation to, that complex moment.

In Practical Mindfulness' guidance on working with bodily suffering (in Chapter 8), I use physical pain as an example distractor, the "shiny keys" pulling our awareness away. But distraction can pop up from any realm of our experience—other physical inputs, a provocative emotional state that arises, and especially loops of thought that hijack the intended plan. Even alterations in the quality of the watching itself (slipping from "chattery" hyper-awareness to dull/slowed awareness) can wax and wane, generating its own flavors of distraction.

So, what to do? No one tactic is fully and reliably effective. But I do have some tips, and four options I think are useful to keep in mind. In my noodling for a spot-on metaphor, a contemporary model of managing distraction with skill and kindness, one popped right in from my past experience as a parent (and maybe, uh, probably, as a former toddler, too).

Think... "baby at a bistro."

Um, Do You Have a Kid's Menu?

The scene is familiar to most of us in one role or another: a family out to eat, or friends getting together with a kiddo in tow for a bite. (Boy, we missed these for a couple of years!) The simple wonder of catching up, trading updates and memories and stories, is right there—a basic, lovely ritual of belonging. Right after the orders are in, the menus are collected, and perhaps the scramble commences for a hunk of bread from the just-delivered basket, a building tension begins to emanate from the high chair or the stroller.

Our little angel gets restless. We love our bundle of joy (BOJ), but, um, [expletive of choice here]. To strangle the metaphor (too much?), a bundle of distraction (BOD) is introduced into the field, we could say. As above, what to do?

First, one of the things not to do is to play-act like the distraction is not crashing the party. Parents who attempt to fully ignore said BOJ find no solution there. Ignoring or (God forbid) screaming at the little one generally yields poor results, as any decent parent knows or learns. Similarly, said BOD will not abide being ignored. All phenomena in the field of the moment are valid and worth some attending to, so deniers beware. The bundle abides. (Picturing Jeff Bridges in Pampers works here.)

In terms of preparation, yes, by all means, we should do that, like we might decide on a table in the corner, with a window nearby. Similarly, a brief "me, right now" scan at the beginning of any sitting is helpful, to know what co-existing, perhaps competing distractors are present right from the get-go. “Meditating today with a [sore neck] [simmering anxiety about the performance review] [running a cognitive spreadsheet in how the hell to pay the rent this month]" is a common catch-and-release moment in proceeding into sitting on any given morning.

Moreover, the "bundle" may truly be bundled: a thought phenomenon that generates its own reactive emotional and physical soundtrack. A launching "body/heart/head/all of me" sequence can be helpful here, with, say, one cycle of in- and out-breath with each realm, to tune in to the conditions of the moment.

While there may be concurrent distractors from the outset of a sitting, there is also the prospect of a distraction arising during the sitting. My advice applies to both: treat the BOD kindly, like that squalling BOJ at a restaurant. That said, I have four options to offer, based on the intensity of the tantruming distraction.

  • At the very least, if the suffering is mild but present and yanking us from an intended awareness practice, “give it a seat nearby,” akin to keeping our kiddo within smiling distance, perhaps with an occupying toy. (With our three boys, neither my wife nor I traveled without an EHW—“Emergency Hot Wheel”—in the pocket. Oddly, none of our adult sons are now on the NASCAR circuit.) Note the BOD briefly, giving it a little nod of identification, then return to the initial intention as the main event. If/as the distractor occasionally intrudes, turn briefly to it and witness it, even "breathe into" it as was done in that initial scanning bit; then back to the plan. It’s what we got today, and that’s OK.
  • If the distraction is more intense, more “code yellow” (heh) in terms of intruding on our intended practice, well, the parenting metaphor here changes to “sit BOJ on the lap and jiggle.” For breath practice, the task changes to “there's a breath, and ... [BOD]” We are watching them both, together. It’s not easy, but not impossible, either. As our well-laid plan to focus on, say, three-point breath practice is intruded upon by some persistent and distracting shoulder pain, or grievance, or longing anticipation of a date that night, disappointment may well arise, as can pity or self-criticism. It’s all worth observing, or trying to.
  • If the squalling BOD is truly overcoming our efforts to hold to the plan, we will likely need to attend fully to that squalling kiddo. (This often involves stepping away from the table, BOJ in arms, and performing that clumsy jiggle dance. Who said there'd be no dancing?) One "turns into” the distraction—switching to the BOD itself and attending to it specifically and fully as the object of our attention. By focusing on it in bare awareness or via “breathing into” it, we can learn. We may experience its ebbs and flows of intensity, and what characteristics the BOD may co-generate—judgments of grievance, helplessness, frustration. There's even some gratitude if the distraction wanes or eases off, eventually allowing for a return to the prior scheduled programming. The moment—intention, attention, distraction, adaptation—can have its own novel value. Yeah, kids can teach us so much.
  • One other option needs noting, for reasons of compassion and common sense: Sometimes if it's just troubling to continue—too much struggle, too much distraction, the effort just driving more suffering—then we can just stop and call it done for now. Pay the bill and take our little one to the park, or back home for a nap. We can take a break and if conditions improve and try to go back later to sitting with the prior intention.

Or call it a day. This is healthy training in coping, not the Spanish Inquisition. (No one expects that advice.)

References

Sazima MD, G.(2021) Practical Mindfulness: A Physician's No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners. Miami, FL:Mango Publishing.

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