This reflection appeared in the newsletter on August 23rd, 2022.
In the last couple of newsletters, I wrote about an overarching “approach to meditation,” and then a guide to choosing a meditative technique. Today, I’ll share one framework to help refine & deepen whatever technique you’re using.
Feel free to read the whole reflection or just the bolded parts 🙂
For starters, imagine you are at a busy restaurant with a friend. While you’re engaged in conversation, all sorts of things are happening in the background — other sounds, sights, interesting conversations at neighboring tables, and so on. However, in spite of all those background happenings, your attention is in the foreground, focused on being present with your friend. Sure, you may get distracted for a moment, but as soon as you recognize it, you don’t analyze the distraction or call a time-out with your friend to investigate why you got pulled away; rather, you just redirect your attention to your friend.
Meditation is sort of like this; there’s our chosen anchor in the foreground, like the breath or a mantra, and all sort of things happening in the background, like loud sounds, various bodily sensations, thoughts, impulses, strong emotions, or perhaps visual stimuli.
What To Do With The “The Background” In Meditation?
Firstly, save yourself some stress and don’t try to block out the background. Whether trying to block it out through ignoring, intensifying your focus, or controlling your environment, usually this just creates tension. And, even if it works, in the long run, it can actually inhibit your concentration, because you’re training yourself to avoid rather than be equanimous. Of course, it’s true that as you approach very deep states of concentration, the background can entirely fade away, but this happens naturally, not through an act of iron will.
Instead of blocking it out, the primary thing to do with the background is…. nothing. You just let it be there. Like in the restaurant example, it’s not as if you don’t notice all the other sights and sounds of the restaurant; you absolutely hear & see them, but you just let them do their thing in the periphery. In meditation, you stay present with your anchor, and let all the sensations, sounds, thoughts, and emotions come and go at their own rhythm.
In other words, what we’re primarily developing in meditation isn’t the ability to block out things we don’t like, but rather the ability to not resist and react to what’s happening right now.
What About When We Do Actually Get Distracted?
Many people’s experience is that thoughts are frequently not just in the background; instead, they take over awareness and we “get lost” in them for moments or minutes. A similar thing might happen with strong emotions, sleepiness, physical pain, or the construction project next door. Any number of “background happenings” that become so central that it’s hard to just sit and meditate.
Whatever the particular distraction, the first step is always a radically deep allowing of what’s happening to be happening. This allowing is laced with compassion and love, as it says to ourselves that how we are right now is actually okay. Whether you say the following words or not isn’t important, but on a deep level, you release into these recognitions:
- Getting lost in thoughts is like this (and that’s okay)
- This is the human experience of disliking (and that’s okay)
- Pain is here (and that’s okay)
- Anxiety is happening (and that’s okay)
To be able to recognize and radically allow whatever is happening right now will forever be the most important meditation teaching.
The Three Zones of Reactivity
For a more specific way of working with distractions beyond just radical allowing, it’s helpful to consider that all distractions / background happenings exist on a 0 to 10 intensity scale:
- 1 to 3 = comfort zone, where the distraction is pretty mild.
- 4 to 7 = stretch zone, where the distraction is definitely noticeable, but we can still hang with our meditation practice.
- 8 to 10 = overwhelm zone, where the distraction is so all-consuming that it really feels hard to do anything even remotely meditative.
For the comfort zone, you just repeat the above steps, basically doing… nothing. Staying with your anchor and radically allowing the distraction to be part of the background. As it starts to teeter into the stretch zone, it can be helpful to actively acknowledge it, like using a label such as “planning” or “sounds,” or actively reminding yourself to allow it to be present.
For the stretch zone, you could also repeat the above steps — really, you can still just let it be part of the background — but, this is also an ideal time to actually switch the distraction to the foreground. In other words, you temporarily make the distraction your object of focus.
- The simplest way to do this is to sense it directly. For example, directly feeling anxiety without the notions of good/bad, liking/disliking, needing to figure out why it’s here or what it means. Just feeling it in the body. Not getting caught in the storylines of it, but just feeling it in the body. Noticing how it changes, whether it’s tense/tight/pulsing/warm/etc. Noticing the reactions/impulses/thoughts that seem to be springing from it. Above all, keeping it simple, curiously feeling “what’s this experience like?”
- If thoughts alone seem to be the distraction, they are a bit more slippery to turn into the focus, but one timeless instruction is to pay no attention to the storyline of the thoughts and simply attune to the changing nature of thoughts — how they come and go and how no thought lasts forever. Here is a deeper look at some ways of working with thinking.
- Another angle is to bring in wisdom perspectives or investigations, such as noticing how the sensation/emotion/thought is not who-you-are but rather something that is being observed “over there,” or as something that causes stress when you resist or grasp it. One question I often ask myself amidst stretch-zone distractions is “what’s underneath this?” — not as a big thinking project, but if, say, I’m feeling a bit reactive, I might notice that underneath it is fear, and then I just feel that. Obviously, this little paragraph is just the tip of the iceberg, but for a simple wisdom instruction, similar to what I said about thoughts, just focus on its changing nature, moment by moment by moment.
For the overwhelm zone, it’s usually not helpful to try and ride it out or investigate it. In turn, I would recommend temporarily introducing a stronger method, like deep breathing for a few minutes or using a mantra, maybe getting up from meditation and going for a walk, or even taking a mindful break like talking to a friend, hoping in the shower, or exercising. If the thoughts are especially invasive, I really like grounding exercises, like feeling the touch points of our bodies on the ground, or doing yoga or Qi gong exercises (like this one).
It’s also worth mentioning that as the years of meditation practice increase, our “distraction number” gets lower and lower, and little if anything really knocks us over anymore.
A Brief Note On Open Awareness
Open or restful awareness is a meditation method that’s sort of like sitting on a bench gazing at an expansive vista with relaxed eyes. In other words, we don’t have a specific focus point and are just letting the present moment unfold on its own terms, moment by moment by moment. In the context of what I’ve written today, the “foreground” is the state of non-clinging awareness. The “background” becomes anything that feels sticky or elicits a reaction / clinging. This open awareness style really takes to heart the line I shared earlier:
What we’re primarily developing in meditation isn’t the ability to block out things we don’t like, but rather the ability to not resist and react to what’s happening right now.
By having a better understanding of foreground/background, we can get a little more skillful in working with distractions. Above all, we learn more and more how to release reacting to things and to settle more deeply into what’s happening right now — even if that’s the human experience of being agitated and irritable!