Why is it so hard to recover from distraction?

If we’re meditating, for example, and the mind starts to wander, what stops us from immediately regaining focus? Why don’t we abandon our distracting thoughts as soon as we notice them? Why don’t we return to concentrating on our chosen focal point, such as our breathing, quickly and without further ado?

In fact, we always possess the option to make an instant recovery. If we become consumed by worries, memories, and questions while we’re trying to meditate, it’s our right to spontaneously abandon the whole lot. No matter how tangled and furious our thoughts grow, it’s our prerogative to drop them all and never look back.

Even if our worries are ten levels deep, even if, say, we’ve imagined a difficult conversation in which we said one thing which caused another person to act in an certain way which made us respond in a certain way which caused a new problem which we tried to solve in a mistaken way that created yet another conflict… we have the option to drop this tortured, hypothetical scenario and turn our attention back to the feeling in our belly as it expands and contracts with each inhale and exhale. We can make this attentional transition from tortuted-thought-world to calm-belly-sensation in a split second, if we choose. We always possess the option of a quick transition, but we don’t always take it, because of three beliefs that interfere.

The first belief is that exertion requires a cool-down period. When we’re worrying — or thinking about anything very intently — we’re exerting ourselves. Our intuitions tell us that mental exertion should work like physical exertion. After a strenuous run, it’s best to walk for a while before sitting down. And so we might assume that after a strenuous thinking session, we need to come down from our thinking slowly and gradually, not stopping all at once. But we can stop all at once, without risk of injury.

The second belief is that when we pause work of any sort, we should try to bring our effort to a temporary closure. We should “bookmark” what we’ve done. We should find a way to remember where we left off so we can pick it up again later. Worrying, ruminating, or daydreaming can feel like “work” in that we’re exploring possibilities and “learning” about situations we might experience later. There’s a sense that we need to reap some value from our investment in all this cogitation. Before we turn away from our present jumble of thoughts, we feel compelled to bring some order to that jumble. We feel we should reach whatever temporary conclusions we can. We should take note of any ideas that might need a follow-up. But that’s all unnecessary: if we’ve been trying to meditate and our minds have started doing “work” that we didn’t ask for, we’re free to spontaneously ditch that work without first trying to organize it or prepare it to be resumed or extract any value from it whatsoever.

The third belief is that if we’ve wasted time, we should regret the waste. Any time we spend worrying or daydreaming can feel like wasted time. Meditation was “supposed” to be our opportunity to find calm, but our uncontrollable thoughts got in the way, causing us to squander the calm we could have had. We feel responsible for losing this opportunity — after all, those interfering thoughts were “ours,” weren’t they? We assume it’s beneficial to feel guilty about wasting time. The guilt will “teach us a lesson” that will help us avoid similar waste in the future. But guilt has no utility in meditation. It’s yet another source of mental activity that leads us away from our chosen point of focus.

Once we relinquish these three limiting beliefs — once we see that we don’t need a cool-down period after strenuous thinking, that we don’t need to organize or preserve the outcome of that thinking, and that we don’t need to regret the time we’ve spent on that thinking — the path is clear for immediate recovery from any distraction.

Mind-wandering might seem impossible to control. The force of distraction might seem unstoppable. But we have an advantage in this struggle that we don’t always recognize. Our thoughts, if indeed they are our “adversaries,” have no substance — they’re immaterial. So we don’t need to “fight” our thoughts. We don’t need to bushwhack our way out of the dense forest of our thoughts. We can escape that forest by simply placing our attention outside of it. We can recover from any distraction at lightning speed, with a simple shift in where we focus our attention.

Even if no particular recovery endures, we can keep making these recoveries, again and again. During a meditation session, we might get lost in forest of thought and stay lost for a minute or two. But then suddenly, we might experience a few moments of absolute peace. The peace comes after we notice our thinking, abandon it, and shift our attention instantly and entirely back to the sensations of breathing. A few moments later, again, we’re lost in a forest of thought, but again, we recover; again we find another few moments of exquisite calm.

Just like a physical room might be cluttered with junk, our mind might seem to be “cluttered” with unwanted thoughts. But our mind’s clutter is different from physical clutter. Our mind’s clutter does not need to be sorted and placed in drawers and closets and storage bins, or thrown in trash bags and lugged out to the street. Our mind’s clutter can be made to evaporate all at once, just by draining that clutter of the attention that keeps it alive.

When we execute this maneuver of suddenly abandoning our current thoughts and focusing on the belly instead, we can take inspiration from the Common Tern and other birds that plunge-dive. We might see these birds flying one way and another above the surface of the water, in a fashion that seems chaotic, just like our thoughts are chaotic. But when a tern flying parallel to the water spots a fish, it makes a dramatic and seemingly random move. It faces the water, and all of a sudden, it nosedives upon its prey. To see this from afar, one might think the bird had gone mad, so abrupt is this dive, or perhaps it had been shot and was falling by gravity after a sudden death, but no, this is all intentional and masterfully choreographed. Like the Common Tern, we might spend time “flying” in the atmosphere of our thoughts, moving this way and that, but when we remember our goal — calm, emptiness — we can nosedive toward it. Abruptly. All of a sudden. We don’t need to wait or make a gradual transition. We have the option of taking the shortest possible path.

Meditating can feel like sitting in front of a TV flipping channels. We’re flipping from thought to thought and we can’t stop flipping. The remote control has a button to shift the channel lower, a button to shift it higher, and we’re stuck pressing those two. But there’s also a button to turn the damn TV off. It takes the same amount of effort to press any of these buttons; if we want calm, all we need to do is move our finger by a centimeter or so and press the POWER button so the TV turns off. All we need to do is abandon the constellation of thoughts in our mind and turn our attention to the way our belly feels as we inhale and exhale. What’s so hard about that? It’s not hard, in and of itself. What’s hard is that the thoughts return, seemingly of their own accord; the TV turns back on, seemingly of its own accord. We’ve got to shut it off again, and again, and again. But shutting it off is easy each time, a simple press of a button and wham! All the commotion and drama of a soap opera suddenly ends and we’re left with total quiet, just like that.

It should be said that immediate recovery from distraction is not the only form of recovery. There’s a way to recover where we witness our thoughts passively, with increasing detachment, as they gradually dissipate from our minds. There’s a way where we focus on our good fortune for having noticed our thoughts and we cultivate gratitude for the opportunity to recover. But there’s also the plunge-diving approach, where we suddenly, abruptly shift our focus back to our chosen target, as soon as we remember that target, where we plunge-dive into the awareness of belly sensations, with no preparation, ceremony, or elaborate transition. This plunge-diving tactic is an important and useful skill to cultivate if indeed we want more calm, more freedom from distraction. ■

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