Stage 4: Mindfulness and Gross Distractions


Up until now, we have worked on mind wandering and forgetting, but we have rarely touched on the specific types of distractions that may come into the mind while meditating. Dullness is just one of those distractions, but we addressed this in the last stage where we practiced walking meditation. This stage will address the various types of distractions one may face while they are in the higher levels of meditation. The hindrances that we talked about in Stage 2 are different from these distractions. The hindrances are vague, and they come at the onset of the meditation. On the other hand, these distractions that I will be addressing are very specific and they come as you progress through your meditation routine. Before we move on to the distractions, there is just one module from the book that I would like to discuss. Dr. Yates gives us four levels of mindfulness that progressively improve with time. Below is the description of this stage.

Levels of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is described as the ability to be present with whatever experience arises in the mind. It is to be nonjudgmental and less impulsive to the circumstances of our daily life. Mindfulness teaches the brain to react with reason and equanimity rather than impulsivity and greed. But it isn't easy to do this as a beginner, so you have to start with basic training. The first level is labeled moderating behavior. In this stage, Yates suggests that we work on our simple behaviors of daily life and try to stay calm even when our mind wants to relieve tension by giving out negativity. "Mindfully acknowledging our emotions and taking responsibility for our reactions lets us recognize more options, choose wiser responses and take control of our behavior." (Yates). We may not be mindful all the time, but we start to be aware of when anger arises, and when it passes away. In the first stage, the goal isn't to be mindful of our thoughts, but rather our behavior. Our behavior is subject to our state of mind, so indirectly by being mindful of what we are doing daily, we start to observe our state of mind. With practice, we clear level one when we can observe our actions and not let our impulses control our behavior. Our behavior becomes more rational, and it is less likely to harm ourselves and others. The next level is becoming less reactive and more responsive.

Often we react to things based on our habitual tendencies. These habitual tendencies may or may not be the best way to approach different situations. Some of our behaviors and thoughts are also determined by evolution, which strongly encourages us to seek safety, avoid hostility, and preserve kinship. Though these are vague categories, our mind makes patterns and associates various things with these evolutionary groups. For instance, someone accusing you of a minor mistake can be seen as a threat to your friendship, and perhaps in extreme cases a threat to your future safety. Though it seems extreme, these cognitive distortions often happen unconsciously simply because of how our brain is wired through thousands of years of evolution. Those who were able to forgive others didn't last long because they got killed in the process, so naturally, our brain learned to be alert to any hostility and eliminate it as soon as possible. Of course, in today's world, we no longer need to be hypervigilant about danger or safety, yet these underlying mechanisms still control us. Yates summarizes this phenomenon in the following sentence. "Being truly mindful of your reactions and their consequences alters how you react in the future. Whenever something triggers one of your invisible programs, it's an opportunity to apply mindfulness." So each time one of our evolutionary patterns emerges, we have an opportunity to override it and learn mindfulness. Some of the mental illnesses such as anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and eating disorders come from the underlying premise that though our environment has changed, our mental mechanisms continue to produce behavior that is relevant to archaic eras. Every time we apply mindfulness to the situation we are in, we are reducing our reaction and improving our responsiveness. In cognitive psychology, this is known as the appraisal system. Our brain appraises an event as stressful or not based on what state of mind we are in. Mindfulness naturally allows us to cool off and this reduces the chance that we appraise something as dangerous. The more responsive we become, the less subjective our thoughts and feelings are. With awareness, we can see our feeling as they are without catastrophizing them and becoming upset.

The third level is reprogramming deep conditioning. If you continue to practice mindfulness for a long time, you will start to see its benefits when you sit down for meditation. The previous stages dealt with everyday activities. The third level deals with mindfulness during meditation. "Mindfulness in meditation can accomplish more than the piecemeal process of confronting conditioning in daily life. Conditioning that emerges in meditation drives a wide range of reactive behaviors." (John Yates). Essentially, mindfulness during meditation gets to the root of our distortions and improves the maladaptive mechanisms that we use to appraise and judge situations. In other words, meditation changes the circuitry of the brain that is responsible for our reactions to adverse situations. All types of unconscious events and memories may arise as you meditate, but if you are nonjudgmental to them, they start to pass by without causing any distress. An important concept to remember is that our thoughts of the past do not define our present self, so holding onto them or avoiding them only causes further suffering. Instead, if we confront them and remain calm, we can see the true nature of those same feelings. Our past trauma is in the fog, hindered by various emotions and reactions driven by our faulty mechanisms. So, when these emotions and feelings arise in meditation, it is as if we are eliminating the fog and seeing their true value. As we uncover the various truths behind our hidden past, we purify ourselves of guilt and shame. Our brains start to wire newer patterns that view the world differently. Our worldview is no longer predisposed by our previous trauma and poor conditioning. Now we start to see the beauty in all things, regardless of what may have happened in the past. The last stage eliminates our false views of ourselves and the world. This often takes a lot of practice and dedication. The closest description of this stage is associated with Vipassana, or insight meditation. When we purify ourselves of our past grudges and cravings, the mind becomes still and observes itself. Up until now, the mind was conscious of the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that arose. These things arose by nature due to previous conditioning. But through the application of mindfulness, we dehabituate ourselves from those patterns. As these patterns fade away, the mind observes quietness and emptiness within itself. Finally, it turns its consciousness towards the very nature of being. It is here that we learn about who we truly are and what the nature of reality is. Are we the passing thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, or beliefs? Are we some distant memory or perhaps an accumulation of memories? As meditation improves, you start to get a better insight into what the Self really is.

Gross Distractions

"Stilling the mind does not mean getting rid of thoughts and blocking out all distractions. It means reducing the constant movement of attention." (Yates). Though mindfulness is a very useful tool to develop in our lives, it involves a lot of distractions. As we stated earlier, there may be various disturbing thoughts or feelings in your unconscious that you will confront in your meditation. So, it isn't always easy to keep calm when they arrive. Techniques of connecting and following your breath and using guided imagery can help relieve the negative symptoms. There are two types of distractions: gross and subtle. Subtle distractions will be examined later in the stages, but gross distractions are important to overcome in this stage. Mind-wandering happens when our mind shifts from one thought to another, leading to forgetting. Once we forget our object of attention, the distractions become stronger. Gross distractions take us away from our breath. Though we may think we are meditating, at the gross level our mind is away from the object of attention. To overcome gross distractions, we must practice introspective and extrospective awareness.

We already discussed introspective awareness in great detail for Stage 3, so I will not talk too much about it. To summarize, introspective awareness deals with checking in to our mental landscape and observing yourself out of it. It is to think about your thoughts and to feel your feelings without actually doing the thinking or feeling. So, you aren't performing the mental process, but letting it occur on its own and observing it from a distance. When you apply this method continuously, you will see profound changes in your concentration and meditative states. As distractions arise, you will not get caught up in them, but watch them. Distractions are natural, so your job isn't to suppress them, but rather let them come, but make sure not to dwell on them. Extrospective awareness deals with the peripheral environment. You want to balance the introspective and extrospective awareness so that the mind doesn't lose its job of staying out of its contents. The major goal of all practice is to extract the mind out of its conditional patterns, but any practice can mesmerize you and lead you to do the very thing you are avoiding. These tools of meditation are simple techniques to balance the mental factors. In the end, we try to cancel them out by using opposites. So, when you focus deeply within your mind, you may start to associate with the mental factor of introspection. And when you associate with a mental factor, you cannot observe it nonjudgmentally. So, we balance the introspection and extrospection by simultaneously practicing both. To practice extrospection, just be aware of things outside the object of attention. For instance, it could be a sound outside or the feeling on your leg. Anything that allows you from getting pulled in by the introspective practice. Sometimes introspection can lead to dreaming and even psychotic episodes, so it is important to balance the two practices.

Persistent Distractions

Sometimes, distractions can be very persistent even after balancing the introspective and extrospective awareness. Some examples of persistent distractions include physical pain, intellectual mental discourse, intrusive thoughts from trauma/ stress, and charged memories relating to deep conditioning. Any pattern that has been wired deeply within us will make it difficult for us to lose it. So it will keep rising to the surface of our consciousness again and again. It can be tempting to give in and start dwelling on these patterns. But the more we dwell on these patterns, the stronger they become so the only way to get rid of them is by making them the object of attention. This can be daunting at times because the distractions could cause mental or physical harm. If the distraction causes physical harm, it is recommended to redirect yourself so that your posture is no longer hurting you. Our goal is not to induce physical harm, but to overcome mental suffering. If the distraction is mental in nature, there are five instructions that one can follow. These instructions were given by Buddha who realized that some distractions are deeply rooted and are difficult to overcome with mindfulness. The practitioner starts with the first one and moves on to the next only if the previous ones do not prove effective.

  • Substitute the distractive thought with a wholesome or positive thought. In this case, you are moving away from mindfulness just so that you can avoid getting into the loop of distractive thoughts.
  • Examine the danger of the distraction thought by weighing its pros and cons of it. By examining the danger in the distractive thought, you can convince your mind to redirect itself and focus on the actual object of attention.
  • Ignore the distractive thought and turn your attention to any other thought or feeling, that may be less distracting. Ignoring thoughts doesn't always fix problems, but sometimes we need to do this if the other options don't work.
  • Understand the causes of the distractions and try to investigate the root of the problem. Most distractions keep coming because their roots have been planted deep within. If we do not uncover the root of the distraction, we only touch it superficially and have difficulty eliminating it.
  • If all else fails, with firm determination apply strong force to the mind to eliminate the distraction. The firm determination to stop a thought gives us the courage and willpower to be in control. This is only used if all other methods fail.

Yates gives us advice on acknowledging, allowing, and accepting the distractive thought, and these can help us at times. But allowing a thought to enter repeatedly can lead that thought to strengthen so the 5 methods by the Buddha can be useful when acceptance and mindfulness do not work.

Moments of Consciousness Model

Sometimes applying wisdom to the practice of meditation can be useful in improving mindfulness and attention. The last module of this stage is understanding the moments of consciousness model. This model allows us to understand how our mind works and therefore avoid the pitfalls and dangers of its mechanism. The moment of consciousness model comes from the Theravadin Buddhist scripture, Abhidharma. The model suggests that our conscious experience of the world is composed of infinitely minuscule moments in time. We have 7 faculties of mind that intake information very rapidly at each moment, but our conscious experience only comprises the combination of these moments. For instance, we may see and hear something at the same time, but in reality, the mind has seen something first, then heard something, and then somehow inferred that these two things have happened simultaneously. The 7 faculties include vision, hearing, taste, smell, sensation, thinking, and combining faculty. The first 6 cannot happen at the same time, and the combining faculty happens after processing the other 6. In other words, our perception of the world is divided into moments of consciousness, and the combination of these moments is itself a moment of consciousness. Each moment is like a frame in a movie. The individual moments do not have their value, but it is only when they are combined that their experience means something. This model may seem abstract and irrelevant to our modern-day psychology, but it provides a good tool for meditation. If we pay attention to each moment as it rises and falls, we start to dissect our experience of reality. Though the moments may not mean anything, acknowledging them allows us to see the picture clearly so that when they are combined, we are less likely to predict an error. All this may seem very distant because of how complicated it is, but the underlying goal is to explore each moment of consciousness so that the entire picture is slightly clearer. The moments can be either attention or awareness. Attention is focused on one single object while awareness takes the general outline. For instance, if the moment is visual, the attention frame would present the bird in its full entirety, while the awareness frame would present the outline of the bird in context with its brief environment. Noticing which frame you are aware of and balancing the awareness and attention can improve the process of meditation and reduce distractions.

You have completed this stage when you can overcome gross distractions, and fully focus on the object of attention. You may still have subtle distractions, where your mind goes back and forth between things but remains focused on the breath. This will be worked out later in the stages. For now, it is important to get rid of gross distractions, purify your mind of any past negative thoughts of guilt or shame and start to apply the moments of consciousness model to improve awareness of each moment. The best way to overcome your gross distractions is to balance introspection and extrospection, remembering that the goal is always to watch the mind as it works without doing any of the working.