The perils of distraction

Every other week, I offer an online meditation session. It's free to attend, and it's an opportunity to practice together for about one hour. When we rest, between exercises, I enjoy sharing my thoughts about a topic with the participants.

I normally don't follow a script. I have a few points I know I want to cover, and I allow it to come out and flow as spontaneously as possible. It's not recorded, it just manifests for that moment, for those people, and then it's gone.

After the last session though, several people wrote to me, telling me they were moved by what I said. Others said they never considered looking at things that way. So I thought, maybe, I will try to capture the essence of what was said, in a short blog and offer it to everyone.

The topic was distraction.

It is universal, it affects all of us and, in my opinion, its negative impact in our lives is underrated.

Being distracted is the opposite of being present. When we're distracted, we're not there. The body is there, but no-one is home. We've all experienced it, albeit to different degrees.

One person who we know for sure was not distracted, is the Buddha. One of the many names for Buddha is, in fact, Tathāgata. This Sanskrit word can be translated in many different ways; a simple one is: someone who knows and sees reality as-it-is.

It is impossible, in fact, to know and see reality for what it is, if we're not present, if we're distracted. To quote Sherlock Holmes: we see, but we don't observe. We hear, but we don't listen.

It goes without saying that, if we're distracted, what we see and label as reality, is actually quite far from it.

There is a superficial aspect of distraction that is quite easy to spot. I'm sure this happened to pretty much everyone in this world. We're reading a book, and all of a sudden we realise we have no idea what the last 10 lines we read are about. Or maybe we are watching a movie, and we don't remember how the characters ended up where they are. Sometimes even during a conversation, a word spoken by the person we're talking to, sets us up on a fantasy journey, and after a while we realise we have no idea what that person has said in the past few minutes.

This type of distraction is quite easy to catch, because there is an event in time that tells us: "Hey! You've been distracted!" We cannot follow the book plot any more, or the story in the movie, or that conversation.

But there is a whole deeper layer of distraction, that doesn't come with an alarm bell, and therefore is much much harder to spot. That layer is what the whole meditation class was about.

You might have heard somewhere that meditation, and being present, is about not being distracted by the so-called three times: past, present and future.

An example for the present could be, after a very busy morning at work, we realise it's lunch time, and we have no idea where the morning's gone. We brush this off with a simple "I was so busy!" but is that really it? I believe it's actually more a matter of distraction.

We're pulled in all directions by requests from colleagues; the pings, dings, plings, and cuckoo noises from our phones and other devices. Emails; messages; notifications. We forget to pause and to breath. We forget our body. Being busy while being present is actually very different than being busy while being distracted. Confusing "busy" with "distracted" is quite common. We can observe it everywhere, every day.

Another example, that takes place in the future, is related to worry and hope. Failing to know, see, and accept reality for what it is, we normally engage in thinking exercises, where we forecast events that will take place in the future, and couple them with feelings of attachment or repulsion. If we want something to happen, we hope it will. If we are afraid something else might happen, we worry about it.

It might be difficult to see why hope can still be a distraction. The thing is, if it comes out of attachment, then it will only yield suffering for us. Things never go as we fantasise, so we will be disappointed, or even angry.

Anyway, when we find ourselves worrying, being afraid for the future, or maybe hoping for something, we have a chance to investigate these feelings to see if there is an emotional component tied to them, such as attachment or aversion.

These are clues that we aren't accepting reality for what it is, or what it will be. We want things to go in a certain way. And this is, once again, distraction. It might be difficult to recognise in this form, but it is. In order to know and see reality as-it-is, we need to be present, and accept that things are what they are. If instead we're hoping for things to be or go another way, we're not accepting. We are distracting ourselves. We are replacing our observation of the present moment with a movie we created, in which reality takes a shape we like better.

It took me a long time to really, deeply, see this link.

There is one more time we need to consider: the past. This is much easier to grasp.

In the past we have our memories. So being distracted by the past means we replace our presence with a movie that we create out of our memories.

Think about someone you love. Someone you know very well. You know how they like their coffee; their favourite movie genre; food; clothing style; political views; types of books; and so on. Maybe this is your child, or your best friend, or maybe your parent, or partner.

We know them so well that at some point, over time, we start forgetting that they too, like everything else in this universe, change. Everyone changes, all the time. But when we interact with someone from the perspective of "we know them", instead of giving them the opportunity to show us how they have changed, we put them in a box we made for them a long time ago.

Instead of being open and observing them as if it was the first time we met, we allow our image of them, which is made of all the memories we have of them, to step in-between. This means we don't see them for whom they really are any more.

This happens to me all the time. After almost a decade spent living in the UK, when I visit some of my friends in Italy, I realise how some of them still relate to me as if I were the man who left for an adventure, 10 years ago. They tell me things about me ("you like this", "you believe that", etc.) that are quite far from who I am now. But they don't see it. Actually, some of them even don't want to see it. When I try to show them that something has changed, they get nervous. And it's understandable. When we live our lives stuck in the past, it can be painful to acknowledge any type of change. When we deny change, it can hurt when someone shows it to us.

So here it is. Just a few examples to introduce the idea that distraction takes many forms, many shapes. The more subtle of these shapes are very hard to detect, because we don't even realise it is distraction in the first place.

So how does meditation help in these regards? Meditation gives us that little space, between the moment a thought is born, and when it grabs our attention and takes us away. That little moment in time is so tiny, but so precious!

We can use it to learn about ourselves. We can see a thought being born that maybe brings about some anger, and instead of blindly following it, we can turn it into an investigation. We don't put all that energy back down, where it will simmer until we get sick. Instead we use it in a different way, that doesn't require us acting on that anger.

Or we can see a thought coming up that brings joy, and decide to fully, completely, be present to it, and immerse ourselves into that emotion, savouring it until it lasts.

We can also use that little moment in time to catch ourselves applying a memory onto a person, instead of being open and present to whom they are right there, right now.

So, for me, distraction means to live in a fake world, that I might remember from the past, or imagine in the future. It means I fail to observe the present as it unfolds in front of my eyes.

So I would like you to try this, the next time you interact with those around you which you think you know well. Try to forget all you know. Pretend you're a child with fresh eyes and open mind, and look at them. Really observe them. Listen to them, ask questions. Give them full, undivided attention using all of your senses. If you think about it, this is an expression of ultimate freedom for them.

You might find not much has changed, but maybe something did.

And when you have successfully practiced with them for a while, then it's time to turn the camera inwards.

Look into the mirror and ask the person you see: "Do I really know you?"

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