How to Handle Distractions while Meditating

A common question that beginners ask is “How should I handle distractions when meditating?”

This is a great question.  It can be helpful to take the perspective that there is actually no such thing as a “distraction” – there are only sensations: physical sensations, sounds, sights, tastes, smells and thoughts.  If there is a sensation that is occurring that begins to predominate, then switch your focus to that sensation, instead of trying to ‘ignore’ it or focus on something else.  Then carefully observe the new sensation.

Constructive Bliss

I’ll illustrate what I mean using an example from my own practice. For a period of about 8 months, there were two houses being built across the street from where we live.  It seemed as though the people working on the houses knew exactly when I was going to meditate, because as soon as I started to “get into it”, the noise would begin.  Skill saws, nail guns, concrete trucks, people shouting at each other. It was impossible to focus on anything else, so I didn’t even try.  For those 8 months, I focused my attention on the sounds of construction.

Focusing on Sound

I focused on the qualities of the sound: volume, pitch, duration, associated sensations. Here’s a list of qualities you can try observing in your own practice:

Observe the sounds and see what you can discover:

  • Is the sound loud, soft, in between?
  • Is it high pitched, low pitched?
  • How long does each sound last?
  • What mental images or thoughts arise with, or immediately following each sound?
  • How rapidly do they arise?
  • Can you see them disappear?
  • Are you meeting each sound as it occurrs in the moment, or is your mind in the future, anticipating the next sound, or in the past, ruminating on sounds that have already come and gone?

Focusing on Physical Sensations

I also noticed any physical sensations that were associated with each sound.  When the cement truck rumbled down my street, where in my body did I feel it?  How large an area did these physical sensations occupy?  What were their boundaries like?  Were they rough or smooth?  Continuous or intermittent?  I noticed the rumbling had a deep vibrational quality that I felt in my abdomen and solar plexus area.  It was followed by quick flashes of crude mental images of trucks, feelings of irritation, thoughts of “Why are they doing this to me.”  I mentally noted the images as “images”, the irritation as “irritation” and the thoughts as “thoughts”.  No need to push anything away or change anything.  Just observing, moment by moment, being curious.  Each moment a new discovery.

Anticipation: Fun with Nail Guns

The nail guns were the most fun.  The pattern of “bang” “bang” “bang” was seemingly random, yet would often occur in clusters.  It was fascinating to watch how my mind would anticipate the next “bang”, straying from what was actually occurring in the moment by imagining what would occur in the future.  Associated with the anticipation was a tension in my diaphragm.  I noted the anticipation as “anticipation” and the tension as “tension”.

Be Curious

Be curious.  This may be the first time you have ever really experienced sensations in this way.  Be like a scientist or an explorer in an unfamiliar world, without any preconceptions about what a sensation actually is.  Try to discover what the sensation is in this moment.   See if you can notice one sensation per second or more.  Mentally note the sensations if you like.  See if you can notice their impermanence: see if you can notice the ‘distracting’ sensation arise and pass away, seemingly all on its own.

You get the idea.

You can do this with any sensation.  Itchiness, restlessness, pain, nausea, happiness, sadness, stress, anxiety, contentment, sleepiness, wakefulness, even the sense that you are somehow separate from what you are observing (an ‘I’)   (insert creepy Twilight Zone music here)  =).

If you spend an entire 15 minutes doing this, you will get a lot out of the practice!

Go ahead and give it a try, and post a comment describing what you noticed, or any questions you have about practicing with distractions.

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