a bother. But this is what it is all about. These distractions
are actually the whole point. The key is to learn to
deal with these things. Learning to notice them without
being trapped in them. That's what we are here for.
The mental wandering is unpleasant, to be sure. But
it is the normal mode of operation of your mind. Don't
think of it as the enemy. It is just the simple reality.
And if you want to change something, the first thing
you have to do is see it the way it is.
you first sit down to concentrate on the breath, you
will be struck by how incredibly busy the mind actually
is. It jumps and jibbers. It veers and bucks. It chases
itself around in constant circles. It chatters. It thinks.
It fantasizes and daydreams. Don't be upset about that.
It's natural. When your mind wanders from the subject
of meditation, just observe the distraction mindfully.
we speak of a distraction in Insight Meditation, we
are speaking of any preoccupation that pulls the attention
off the breath. This brings up a new, major rule for
your meditation: When any mental state arises strongly
enough to distract you from the object of meditation,
switch your attention to the distraction briefly. Make
the distraction a temporary object of meditation. Please
note the word temporary. It's quite important. We are
not advising that you switch horses in midstream. We
do not expect you to adopt a whole new object of meditation
every three seconds. The breath will always remain your
primary focus. You switch your attention to the distraction
only long enough to notice certain specific things about
it. What is it? How strong is it? and, how long does
it last? As soon as you have wordlessly answered these
questions, you are through with your examination of
that distraction, and you return your attention to the
breath. Here again, please note the operant term, wordlessly.
These questions are not an invitation to more mental
chatter. That would be moving you in the wrong direction,
toward more thinking. We want you to move away from
thinking, back to a direct, wordless and nonconceptual
experience of the breath. These questions are designed
to free you from the distraction and give you insight
into its nature, not to get you more thoroughly stuck
in it. They will tune you in to what is distracting
you and help you get rid of it all in one step.
is the problem: When a distraction, or any mental state,
arises in the mind, it blossoms forth first in the unconscious.
Only a moment later does it rise to the conscious mind.
That split-second difference is quite important, because
it time enough for grasping to occur. Grasping occurs
almost instantaneously, and it takes place first in
the unconscious. Thus, by the time the grasping rises
to the level of conscious recognition, we have already
begun to lock on to it. It is quite natural for us to
simply continue that process, getting more and more
tightly stuck in the distraction as we continue to view
it. We are, by this time, quite definitely thinking
the thought, rather than just viewing it with bare attention.
The whole sequence takes place in a flash. This presents
us with a problem. By the time we become consciously
aware of a distraction we are already, in a sense, stuck
in it. Our three questions are a clever remedy for this
particular malady. In order to answer these questions,
we must ascertain the quality of the distraction. To
do that, we must divorce ourselves from it, take a mental
step back from it, disengage from it, and view it objectively.
We must stop thinking the thought or feeling the feeling
in order to view it as an object of inspection. This
very process is an exercise in mindfulness, uninvolved,
detached awareness. The hold of the distraction is thus
broken, and mindfulness is back in control. At this
point, mindfulness makes a smooth transition back to
its primary focus and we return to the breath.
you first begin to practice this technique, you will
probably have to do it with words. You will ask your
questions in words, and get answers in words. It won't
be long, however, before you can dispense with the formality
of words altogether. Once the mental habits are in place,
you simply note the distraction, note the qualities
of the distraction, and return to the breath. It's a
totally nonconceptual process, and it's very quick.
The distraction itself can be anything: a sound, a sensation,
an emotion, a fantasy, anything at all. Whatever it
is, don't try to repress it. Don't try to force it out
of your mind. There's no need for that. Just observe
it mindfully with bare attention. Examine the distraction
wordlessly and it will pass away by itself. You will
find your attention drifting effortlessly back to the
breath. And do not condemn yourself for having being
distracted. Distractions are natural. They come and
this piece of sage counsel, you're going to find yourself
condemning anyway. That's natural too. Just observe
the process of condemnation as another distraction,
and then return to the breath.
the sequence of events: Breathing. Breathing. Distracting
thought arises. Frustration arising over the distracting
thought. You condemn yourself for being distracted.
You notice the self-condemnation. You return to the
breathing. Breathing. Breathing. It's really a very
natural, smooth-flowing cycle, if you do it correctly.
The trick, of course, is patience. If you can learn
to observe these distractions without getting involved,
it's all very easy. You just glide through the distractions
and your attention returns to the breath quite easily.
Of course, the very same distraction may pop up a moment
later. If it does, just observe that mindfully. If you
are dealing with an old, established thought pattern,
this can go on happening for quite a while, sometimes
years. Don't get upset. This too is natural. just observe
the distraction and return to the breath. Don't fight
with these distracting thoughts. Don't strain or struggle.
It's a waste. Every bit of energy that you apply to
that resistance goes into the thought complex and makes
it all the stronger. So don't try to force such thoughts
out of your mind. It's a battle you can never win. Just
observe the distraction mindfully and, it will eventually
go away. It's very strange, but the more bare attention
you pay to such disturbances, the weaker they get. Observe
them long enough, and often enough, with bare attention,
and they fade away forever. Fight with them and they
gain in strength. Watch them with detachment and they
is a function that disarms distractions, in the same
way that a munitions expert might defuse a bomb. Weak
distractions are disarmed by a single glance. Shine
the light of awareness on them and they evaporate instantly,
never to return. Deep-seated, habitual thought patterns
require constant mindfulness repeatedly applied over
whatever time period it takes to break their hold. Distractions
are really paper tigers. They have no power of their
own. They need to be fed constantly, or else they die.
If you refuse to feed them by your own fear, anger,
and greed, they fade.
is the most important aspect of meditation. It is the
primary thing that you are trying to cultivate. So there
is really no need at all to struggle against distractions.
The crucial thing is to be mindful of what is occurring,
not to control what is occurring. Remember, concentration
is a tool. It is secondary to bare attention. From the
point of view of mindfulness, there is really no such
thing as a distraction. Whatever arises in the mind
is viewed as just one more opportunity to cultivate
mindfulness. Breath, remember, is an arbitrary focus,
and it is used as our primary object of attention. Distractions
are used as secondary objects of attention. They are
certainly as much a part of reality as breath. It actually
makes rather little difference what the object of mindfulness
is. You can be mindful of the breath, or you can be
mindful of the distraction. You can be mindful of the
fact that you mind is still, and your concentration
is strong, or you can be mindful of the fact that your
concentration is in ribbons and your mind is in an absolute
shambles. It's all mindfulness. Just maintain that mindfulness
and concentration eventually will follow.
purpose of meditation is not to concentrate on the breath,
without interruption, forever. That by itself would
be a useless goal. The purpose of meditation is not
to achieve a perfectly still and serene mind. Although
a lovely state, it doesn't lead to liberation by itself.
The purpose of meditation
is to achieve uninterrupted mindfulness. Mindfulness,
and only mindfulness, produces Enlightenment.
come in all sizes, shapes and flavors. Buddhist philosophy
has organized them into categories. One of them is the
category of hindrances. They are called hindrances because
they block your development of both components of mediation,
mindfulness and concentration. A bit of caution on this
term: The word 'hindrances' carries a negative connotation,
and indeed these are states of mind we want to eradicate.
That does not mean, however, that they are to be repressed,
avoided or condemned.
use greed as an example. We wish to avoid prolonging
any state of greed that arises, because a continuation
of that state leads to bondage and sorrow. That does
not mean we try to toss the thought out of the mind
when it appears. We simply refuse to encourage it to
stay. We let it come, and we let it go. When greed is
first observed with bare attention, no value judgements
are made. We simply stand back and watch it arise. The
whole dynamic of greed from start to finish is simply
observed in this way. We don't help it, or hinder it,
or interfere with it in the slightest. It stays as long
as it stays. And we learn as much about it as we can
while it is there. We watch what greed does. We watch
how it troubles us, and how it burdens others. We notice
how it keeps us perpetually unsatisfied, forever in
a state of unfulfilled longing. From this first-hand
experience, we ascertain at a gut level that greed is
an unskillful way to run your life. There is nothing
theoretical about this realization.
of the hindrances are dealt with in the same way, and
we will look at them here one by one.
Let us suppose you have been distracted by some nice
experience in meditation. It could be pleasant fantasy
or a thought of pride. It might be a feeling of self-esteem.
It might be a thought of love or even the physical sensation
of bliss that comes with the meditation experience itself.
Whatever it is, what follows is the state of desire
-- desire to obtain whatever you have been thinking
about or desire to prolong the experience you are having.
No matter what its nature, you should handle desire
in the following manner. Notice the thought or sensation
as it arises. Notice the mental state of desire which
accompanies it as a separate thing. Notice the exact
extent or degree of that desire. Then notice how long
it lasts and when it finally disappears. When you have
done that, return your attention to breathing.
Suppose that you have been distracted by some negative
experience. It could be something you fear or some nagging
worry. It might be guilt or depression or pain. Whatever
the actual substance of the thought or sensation, you
find yourself rejecting or repressing -- trying to avoid
it, resist it or deny it. The handling here is essentially
the same. Watch the arising of the thought or sensation.
Notice the state of rejection that comes with it. Gauge
the extent or degree of that rejection. See how long
it lasts and when it fades away. Then return your attention
to your breath.
Lethargy comes in various grades and intensities, ranging
from slight drowsiness to total torpor. We are talking
about a mental state here, not a physical one. Sleepiness
or physical fatigue is something quite different and,
in the Buddhist system of classification, it would be
categorized as a physical feeling. Mental lethargy is
closely related to aversion in that it is one of the
mind's clever little ways of avoiding those issues it
finds unpleasant. Lethargy is a sort of turn-off of
the mental apparatus, a dulling of sensory and cognitive
acuity. It is an enforced stupidity pretending to be
sleep. This can be a tough one to deal with, because
its presence is directly contrary to the employment
of mindfulness. Lethargy is nearly the reverse of mindfulness.
Nevertheless, mindfulness is the cure for this hindrance,
too, and the handling is the same. Note the state of
drowsiness when it arises, and note its extent or degree.
Note when it arises, how long it lasts, and when it
passes away. The only thing special here is the importance
of catching the phenomenon early. You have got to get
it right at its conception and apply liberal doses of
pure awareness right away. If you let it get a start,
its growth probably will out pace your mindfulness power.
When lethargy wins, the result is the sinking mind and/or
States of restlessness and worry are expressions of
mental agitation. Your mind keeps darting around, refusing
to settle on any one thing. You may keep running over
and over the same issues. But even here an unsettled
feeling is the predominant component. The mind refuses
to settle anywhere. It jumps around constantly. The
cure for this condition is the same basic sequence.
Restlessness imparts a certain feeling to consciousness.
You might call it a flavor or texture. Whatever you
call it, that unsettled feeling is there as a definable
characteristic. Look for it. Once you have spotted it,
note how much of it is present. Note when it arises.
Watch how long it lasts, and see when it fades away.
Then return your attention to the breath.
Doubt has its own distinct feeling in consciousness.
The Pali tests describe it very nicely. It's the feeling
of a man stumbling through a desert and arriving at
an unmarked crossroad. Which road should he take? There
is no way to tell. So he just stands there vacillating.
One of the common forms this takes in meditation is
an inner dialogue something like this: "What am I doing
just sitting like this? Am I really getting anything
out of this at all? Oh! Sure I am. This is good for
me. The book said so. No, that is crazy. This is a waste
of time. No, I won't give up. I said I was going to
do this, and I am going to do it. Or am I being just
stubborn? I don't know. I just don't know." Don't get
stuck in this trap. It is just another hindrance. Another
of the mind's little smoke screens to keep you from
doing the most terrible thing in the world: actually
becoming aware of what is happening. To handle doubt,
simply become aware of this mental state of wavering
as an object of inspection. Don't be trapped in it.
Back out of it and look at it. See how strong it is.
See when it comes and how long it lasts. Then watch
it fade away, and go back to the breathing.
is the general pattern you will use on any distraction
that arises. By distraction, remember we mean any mental
state that arises to impede your meditation. Some of
these are quite subtle. It is useful to list some of
the possibilities. The negative states are pretty easy
to spot: insecurity, fear, anger, depression, irritation
and desire are a bit more difficult to spot because
they can apply to things we normally regard as virtuous
or noble. You can experience the desire to perfect yourself.
You can feel craving for greater virtue. You can even
develop an attachment to the bliss of the meditation
experience itself. It is a bit hard to detach yourself
from such altruistic feelings. In the end, though, it
is just more greed. It is a desire for gratification
and a clever way of ignoring the present-time reality.
of all, however, are those really positive mental states
that come creeping into your meditation. Happiness,
peace, inner contentment, sympathy and compassion for
all beings everywhere. These mental states are so sweet
and so benevolent that you can scarcely bear to pry
yourself loose from them. It makes you feel like a traitor
to mankind. There is no need to feel this way. We are
not advising you to reject these states of mind or to
become heartless robots. We merely want you to see them
for what they are. They are mental states. They come
and they go. They arise and they pass away. As you continue
your meditation, these states will arise more often.
The trick is not to become attached to them. Just see
each one as it comes up. See what it is, how strong
it is and how long it lasts. Then watch it drift away.
It is all just more of the passing show of your own
as breathing comes in stages, so do the mental states.
Every breath has a beginning, a middle and an end. Every
mental states has a birth, a growth and a decay. You
should strive to see these stages clearly. This is no
easy thing to do, however. As we have already noted,
every thought and sensation begins first in the unconscious
region of the mind and only later rises to consciousness.
We generally become aware of such things only after
they have arisen in the conscious realm and stayed there
for some time. Indeed we usually become aware of distractions
only when they have released their hold on us and are
already on their way out. It is at this point that we
are struck with the sudden realization that we have
been somewhere, day-dreaming, fantasizing, or whatever.
Quite obviously this is far too late in the chain of
events. We may call this phenomenon catching the lion
by is tail, and it is an unskillful thing to do. Like
confronting a dangerous beast, we must approach mental
states head-on. Patiently, we will learn to recognize
them as they arise from progressively deeper levels
of our conscious mind.
mental states arise first in the unconscious, to catch
the arising of the mental state, you've got to extend
your awareness down into this unconscious area. That
is difficult, because you can't see what is going on
down there, at least not in the same way you see a conscious
thought. But you can learn to get a vague sense of movement
and to operate by a sort of mental sense of touch. This
comes with practice, and the ability is another of the
effects of the deep calm of concentration. Concentration
slows down the arising of these mental states and gives
you time to feel each one arising out of the unconscious
even before you see it in consciousness. Concentration
helps you to extend your awareness down into that boiling
darkness where thought and sensation begin.
your concentration deepens, you gain the ability to
see thoughts and sensations arising slowly, like separate
bubbles, each distinct and with spaces between them.
They bubble up in slow motion out of the unconscious.
They stay a while in the conscious mind and then they
application of awareness to mental states is a precision
operation. This is particularly true of feelings or
sensations. It is very easy to overreach the sensation.
That is, to add something to it above and beyond what
is really there. It is equally easy to fall short of
sensation, to get part of it but not all. The ideal
that you are striving for is to experience each mental
state fully, exactly the way it is, adding nothing to
it and not missing any part of it. Let us use pain in
the leg as an example. What is actually there is a pure
flowing sensation. It changes constantly, never the
same from one moment to the next. It moves from one
location to another, and its intensity surges up and
down. Pain is not a thing. It is an event. There should
be no concepts tacked on to it and none associated with
it. A pure unobstructed awareness of this event will
experience it simply as a flowing pattern of energy
and nothing more. No thought and no rejection. Just
on in our practice of meditation, we need to rethink
our underlying assumptions regarding conceptualization.
For most of us, we have earned high marks in school
and in life for our ability to manipulate mental phenomena
-- concepts -- logically. Our careers, much of our success
in everyday life, our happy relationships, we view as
largely the result of our successful manipulation of
concepts. In developing mindfulness, however, we temporarily
suspend the conceptualization process and focus on the
pure nature of mental phenomena. During meditation we
are seeking to experience the mind at the pre-concept
the human mind conceptualizes such occurrences as pain.
You find yourself thinking of it as 'the pain'. That
is a concept. It is a label, something added to the
sensation itself. You find yourself building a mental
image, a picture of the pain, seeing it as a shape.
You may see a diagram of the leg with the pain outlined
in some lovely color. This is very creative and terribly
entertaining, but not what we want. Those are concepts
tacked on to the living reality. Most likely, you will
probably find yourself thinking: "I have a pain in my
leg." 'I' is a concept. It is something extra added
to the pure experience.
you introduce 'I' into the process, you are building
a conceptual gap between the reality and the awareness
viewing that reality. Thoughts such as 'Me', 'My' or
'Mine' have no place in direct awareness. They are extraneous
addenda, and insidious ones at that. When you bring
'me' into the picture, you are identifying with the
pain. That simply adds emphasis to it. If you leave
'I' out of the operation, pain is not painful. It is
just a pure surging energy flow. It can even be beautiful.
If you find 'I' insinuating itself in your experience
of pain or indeed any other sensation, then just observe
that mindfully. Pay bare attention to the phenomenon
of personal identification with the pain.
general idea, however, is almost too simple. You want
to really see each sensation, whether it is pain, bliss
or boredom. You want to experience that thing fully
in its natural and unadulterated form. There is only
one way to do this. Your timing has to be precise. Your
awareness of each sensation must coordinate exactly
with the arising of that sensation. If you catch it
just a bit too late, you miss the beginning. You won't
get all of it. If you hang on to any sensation past
the time when it has memory. The thing itself is gone,
and by holding onto that memory, you miss the arising
of the next sensation. It is a very delicate operation.
You've got to cruise along right here in present time,
picking things up and letting things drop with no delays
whatsoever. It takes a very light touch. Your relation
to sensation should never be one of past or future but
always of the simple and immediate now.
human mind seeks to conceptualize phenomena, and it
has developed a host of clever ways to do so. Every
simple sensation will trigger a burst of conceptual
thinking if you give the mind its way. Lets us take
hearing, for example. You are sitting in meditation
and somebody in the next room drops a dish. The sounds
strike your ear. Instantly you see a picture of that
other room. You probably see a person dropping a dish,
too. If this a familiar environment, say your own home,
you probably will have a 3-D technicolor mind movie
of who did the dropping and which dish was dropped.
This whole sequence presents itself to consciousness
instantly. It just jumps out of the unconscious so bright
and clear and compelling that it shoves everything else
out of sight. What happens to the original sensation,
the pure experience of hearing? It got lost in the shuffle,
completely overwhelmed and forgotten. We miss reality.
We enter a world of fantasy.
is another example: You are sitting in meditation and
a sound strikes your ear. It is just an indistinct noise,
sort of a muffled crunch; it could be anything. What
happens next will probably be something like this. "What
was that? Who did that? Where did that come from? How
far away was that? Is it dangerous?". And on and on
you go, getting no answers but your fantasy projection.
Conceptualization is an insidiously clever process It
creeps into you experience, and it simply takes over.
When you hear a sound in meditation, pay bare attention
to the experience of hearing. That and that only. What
is really happening is so utterly simple that we can
and do miss it altogether. Sound waves are striking
the ear in a certain unique pattern. Those waves are
being translated into electrical impulses within the
brain and those impulses present a sound pattern to
consciousness. That is all. No pictures. No mind movies.
No concepts. No interior dialogues about the question.
Just noise. Reality is elegantly simple and unadorned.
When you hear a sound, be mindful of the process of
hearing. Everything else is just added chatter. Drop
it. The same rule applies to every sensation, every
emotion, every experience you may have. Look closely
at your own experience. Dig down through the layers
of mental bric-a-brac and see what is really there.
You will be amazed how simple it is, and how beautiful.
are times when a number of sensations may arise at once.
You might have a thought of fear, a squeezing in the
stomach and an aching back and an itch on your left
earlobe, all at the same time. Don't sit there in a
quandary. Don't keep switching back and forth or wondering
what to pick. One of them will be strongest. Just open
yourself up and the most insistent of these phenomena
will intrude itself and demand your attention. So give
it some attention just long enough to see it fade away.
Then return to your breathing. If another one intrudes
itself, let it in. When it is done, return to the breathing.
process can be carried too far, however. Don't sit there
looking for things to be mindful of. Keep your mindfulness
on the breath until something else steps in and pulls
your attention away. When you feel that happening, don't
fight it. Let you attention flow naturally over to the
distraction, and keep it there until the distraction
evaporates. Then return to breathing. Don't seek out
other physical or mental phenomena. Just return to breathing.
Let them come to you. There will be times when you drift
off, of course. Even after long practice you find yourself
suddenly waking up, realizing you have been off the
track for some while. Don't get discouraged. Realize
that you have been off the track for such and such a
length of time and go back to the breath. There is no
need for any negative reaction at all. The very act
of realizing that you have been off the track is an
active awareness. It is an exercise of pure mindfulness
all by itself.
grows by the exercise of mindfulness. It is like exercising
a muscle. Every time you work it, you pump it up just
a little. You make it a little stronger. The very fact
that you have felt that wake-up sensation means that
you have just improved your mindfulness power. That
means you win. Move back to the breathing without regret.
However, the regret is a conditioned reflex and it may
come along anyway--another mental habit. If you find
yourself getting frustrated, feeling discouraged, or
condemning yourself, just observe that with bare attention.
It is just another distraction. Give it some attention
and watch it fade away, and return to the breath.
rules we have just reviewed can and should be applied
thoroughly to all of your mental states. You are going
to find this an utterly ruthless injunction. It is the
toughest job that you will ever undertake. You will
find yourself relatively willing to apply this technique
to certain parts of your experience, and you will find
yourself totally unwilling to use it on the other parts.
is a bit like mental acid. It eats away slowly at whatever
you put it on. We humans are very odd beings. We like
the taste of certain poisons and we stubbornly continue
to eat them even while they are killing us. Thoughts
to which we are attached are poison. You will find yourself
quite eager to dig some thoughts out by the roots while
you jealously guard and cherish certain others. That
is the human condition.
meditation is not a game. Clear awareness is more than
a pleasurable pastime. It is a road up and out of the
quagmire in which we are all stuck, the swamp of our
own desires and aversions. It is relatively easy to
apply awareness to the nastier aspects of your existence.
Once you have seen fear and depression evaporate in
the hot, intense beacon of awareness, you want to repeat
the process. Those are the unpleasant mental states.
They hurt. You want to get rid of those things because
they bother you. It is a good deal harder to apply that
same process to mental states which you cherish, like
patriotism, or parental protectiveness or true love.
But it is just as necessary. Positive attachments hold
you in the mud just as assuredly as negative attachments.
You may rise above the mud far enough to breathe a bit
more easily if you practice Vipassana meditation with
diligence. Vipassana meditation is the road to Nibbana.
And from the reports of those who have toiled their
way to that lofty goal, it is well worth every effort