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Dealing with distractions

We all like the idea of meditation, but the reality can be quite a different thing because all those pesky thoughts keep getting in the way of our nice calm mind. So what do we do about all the distractions?

As with most things, it depends mainly on our determination. If we’re honest with ourselves, we indulge our distractions rather than making a strong determination to overcome them. After a while (usually about 2 minutes…) meditation starts feeling like hard work, and a nice easy thought comes waltzing along and we’re off thinking about a TV show because it takes less effort.

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says ‘distraction is the worst obstacle to our spiritual development.’ Seriously, the worst? It doesn’t feel a little bit of mental wandering is that big a deal. But that’s the problem: it’s not a little bit of distraction, is it? It’s a whole whopping great lot of distraction! It’s very easy to let our meditation – and, indeed, our whole life – become nothing but following one distracting thought after another. That is why distraction is so dangerous.

So how do we fight this tendency? Well, we don’t. Fighting distractions doesn’t work: when we try to push them away, we are still focusing on them, and end up making the problem worse. It’s like saying ‘don’t think about a pink elephant.’ Rather than fighting against distractions, we have to simply loose interest in them. Instead of saying to ourselves ‘I must stop thinking this (really important and interesting) thought’ we say ‘it doesn’t matter.’ Just that: this distracting thought doesn’t matter, so we can let it go.

I know many of our distractions seem important, and saying they don’t matter sounds dismissive; but just try it. If we can stop being interested by and invested in those thoughts just for the brief period of our meditation, we can experience some real space and clarity in our mind: then we are in the right space to judge what is actually important. A lot of our distractions will turn out to be needless worries; others we will have to give some energy to, but now we can do it in a relaxed way without the same pressure we felt before.

Half empty

I’m naturally a pessimist; I’ve had to work very hard to reduce that tendancy, and it still periodically rears it’s ugly head. So I’ve really had to think about what pessimism and optimism are. As the pessimists among you will know, pessimism doesn’t really feel like pessimism; it seems like we’re just being realistic. To an extent, I think that’s true: pessimism is realism mixed with discouragement.

And a lot of what is called optimism seems unrealistic: you can’t just believe ‘it will all turn out for the best’ because sometimes that is simply untrue. ‘You’ll get better soon’ is a platitude, because you can’t know that; one of the multitude of illnesses we catch will turn out to be fatal. And aging certainly won’t just go away because we put on some rose-tinted glasses.

Now you’re thinking that I sound really pessimistic! No, I just believe our optimism needs to be based on reality. Buddha said we need to know the truth of suffering; that view only feels pessimistic if we don’t also believe that it can get better.While we need to look realistically at the nature of suffering, we also need confidence that we can free ourselves from this. This is renunciation, and it’s a uplifted mind – an optimistic mind – because we know we’re moving in the direction of real freedom. If we lack that confidence – if we don’t believe in our own potential to be completely released from suffering – then we end up feeling pessimistic instead.

Pessimism is actually not realistic, however it feels, because we are holding onto the negative characteristics of our situation and not recognizing it’s changability. Yes, things do tend to get worse if we do nothing to fix them; but, they also have the potential to get better, if we apply a spiritual solution. So if we take a realistic look at our world (in all it’s horror and it’s glory) with wisdom, we will become an optimist, because renunciation is ultimately the supreme form of optimism.

Today will be a good day

Why was today a good day? Because lots of things went wrong, and that was fine by me.

Normally, we tend to judge our day by external things – whether our plans worked out or went pear-shaped, whether we managed to avoid difficult situations or ended up in at the deep end. But from a spiritual point of view, what is more important is not what happens, but how we deal with the things that happen. The old Kadampa teachers used to say that the real way to see if we’re making progress is to check each year: ‘do I have less than before, and am I happier?’ If we can maintain a happy mind even when in more and more challenging situations, this is a real sign of progress: then we can be confident that today will be a good day.

car breakdownToday, for example, my car wouldn’t start. A friend advised me ‘it’s just a little stone on the path; just put it to one side’ and I thought ‘OK, I can do that,’ and stopped worrying.

Of course, I still had to fix the car. Changing my mind had made me relax, but it didn’t make the car start! So I made lots of phone calls and spent lots of money, and all of that gave me a headache. So, I applied the same reasoning again: getting upset about having a headache will not make it go away, so I will just accept the way things are. Then because my mind was peaceful, I started to relax, and my headache began to go away.

So today counts as a win: not because nothing went wrong, but because I used the challenges to help me develop my mind.

This is the real essence of Buddha’s teachings on transforming adverse conditions. We have to let go of the idea that things will always go our way: this is an impossible wish. Instead, we find different – better – mental responses to our problems.

“If we learn to accept unavoidable suffering, unhappy thoughts will never arise to disturb us. There are many difficult and unpleasant circumstances that we cannot avoid, but we can certainly avoid the unhappiness and anger these circumstances normally provoke in us. It is these habitual reactions to hardship, rather than the hardship itself, that disturb our day-to-day peace of mind, as well as our spiritual practice.

We do not need to become unhappy just because things do not go our way. Although until now this has indeed been our reaction to difficulties, once we recognize that it does not work we are free to respond in a more realistic and constructive way.”

– Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, How to Solve our Human Problems

Once we have accepted that things will keep going wrong, we are free to learn how to develop more constructive mental attitudes, so that – with practice – we can confidently say ‘today will be a good day, because whatever happens I know I will be able to keep a peaceful mind.’

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