During meditation practice, it is inevitable to have periods of feeling impatient, restless, and distracted. Usually our response to this is to try to knuckle down and use willpower to fix attention on the meditation object, or decide that we’re not in the right place and not to meditate today. Neither of these, as it happens, will help us very much.
The problem is that our unconscious mind is always working away to seek pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasant ones (e.g. by fantasising and worrying). When it comes up with a better idea about how to find enjoyment or avoid displeasure than what you are currently doing, it will fire some distracting thoughts (like about those blueberry muffins you just bought) into consciousness. When we are concentrated on an activity which is engaging and enjoyable, however, all of our mind is unified in engaging with the current task. This happens when the mind is already satisfied and experiencing ongoing reward.
If our response to distraction is to tighten attention onto the breath, like we’re tightening our grip on something which might get away from us, we are exercising a misunderstanding of how attention works. Clasp your fist as tight as you can, and hold it; what effect does this have on the rest of your body, on your breathing, on your mind? When we attempt to use power of will to force attention on the object in this way, we are moving further away from a relaxed and happy engagement. Parts of our brain will go into overdrive reminding us of all the other things we could be doing, and even more distractions will sneak up.
This creates a feedback loop where distractions lead to a forcing of willpower, which leads to tightening and vexation, and this leads to more distractions. It’s like trying to pull a seat belt too fast; if you didn’t know how seatbelts worked, your natural reaction may be to get frustrated and try to pull harder and harder. This is why it is so important to understand the mechanics of your own attention.
So, then, if you shouldn’t be responding to distractions by trying to force your attention, how should you deal with them? The simple answer is to enjoy your practice. This isn’t always easy, but it is so important to focus on any and all positive aspects to your meditation. Is your mind calm today? Is your mind worried and distracted, but you’ve kept your resolve and you’re sitting anyway? Congratulate yourself. Do you feel comfortable, or in a little less in pain than earlier? Are your feet warm? Appreciate these simple treasures.
See if you can enjoy the subtle sensations of the meditation object; see if you can imagine the breathing as a kind of internal massage. Savour the sense of accomplishment of following a whole breath from start to finish without getting distracted. And when you get distracted again, as every meditator will, focus on the only moment that matters; the moment when you realised your mind was wandering, and returned to the wholeness of the present moment.
Enjoy and reinforce any fleeting pleasure or enjoyment of any aspect of the meditation like you were savouring your favourite food. When the mind is happy and in a relaxed engagement with the task it is doing, distractions naturally become quiet, and we don’t need to waste any energy in trying to quiet them.
If you try to meditate by rowing with as much force as you can muster, you will end up quickly exhausted, uncomfortable, and dispirited. Meditate by stringing up a sail to catch the pleasure and enjoyment of sitting, as wide and as wonderful as you can. Then relax, and enjoy the ride.