Stage 5: Subtle Distractions and Mind System



Now that we have overcome our gross distractions in Stage 4, it is time to work on our subtle ones. A recap to our gross distractions: they occur due to some external stimulus or a thinking pattern in mind. They are gross because they are easily noticeable and take little training to get over and go back to the meditation object. When we meditate more and more, we start to realize that our minds are quieting and less bothered by what is happening outside the body. Yet, there are still subtle sensations in the body as well as the mind that overcome our diligence of staying with the breath. This stage is all about overcoming those subtle distractions. And one of the best ways to do this is by observing the body very closely while relaxing each body part separately.

Body Scan

One of the most useful exercises in the literature of meditation is the body scan. We can do this while laying down like we did in earlier stages, but it is more beneficial to do it upright in a sitting posture. With our eyes closed and knees cross legged, we spend 5-10 seconds on each body part from head to toe and scan it to our best ability. Our subtle distractions are often hidden in different parts of our body, so this exercise allows us to improve our faculty of awareness and detect any changes that happen at a deeper level. Once you are able to go through each body part, now you can focus your attention back to breath simultaneously as you are scanning the body. Observe and scrutinize your breath when you change the attention from one part of body to another. While you are on a body part, examine the nature of the breath, its temperature and depth. If a pleasant sensation arises, let it come and let it be without interfering with it; likewise with any painful sensations. As you examine your breath while scanning the body, you will notice that some sensations in the body correspond to deeper breathing while others go with shallower breaths. Try not to analyze this too much as the goal is not to have deep breathing at all times, but rather to develop strong awareness of subtle changes in the body. After a while, you will realize that you start to develop a flow across the body. You are able to scan through the body without having to discreetly stop at each part. The awareness is so strong that it flows easily through the entire body. If you are able to experience a flow, it indicates your awareness has become mature enough to follow single pointed attention without distractions.

Single pointed attention

The body scan is designed to improve our single pointed attention in a small part of the body. Slowly, however, we are able to sweep through the entire body, while sensing each small sensation. This is because our awareness has improved its rate of detection and no longer has to find something to feel it. Instead it can just flow and feel almost everything across the body. When we say feeling, we refer to a tactile sensation, not an emotional one. If you come across any emotional encounters, simply start scanning again at the top of the head. Once single pointed attention is developed, you wil start to see the real benefits of meditation. Distractions will naturally disappear and your mind will want to focus on breath and reinforce concentration. All your old habits of craving a pleasant sensation and avoiding a painful sensation will come to an end, at least while you are sitting on the mat. This is the beginning of what we call, Unification of Mind. When the mind is solely dealing with one thing, with absolute no distractions, it is said to be unified. This unified mind is often the reason why athletes, performers, and artists become successful in their respective fields. They do this by achieving the flow state, which is heavily studied by a positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Flow State

When we overcome our subtle distractions and achieve a unified state of mind, we enter the state of flow. Many traditions including Buddhism, Daoism, and Sufism refer to this state as the complete dissolution of ego, or self. This is where the actor becomes the act, the player becomes the play, and the dancer becomes the dance. The individual in the act of doing becomes so involved and concentrated, that they lose a sense of self. Like water that flows naturally through rocks and fallen branches, so too people in flow ease their way through difficult barriers. In meditation, reaching the flow state can be very helpful for further progress. It is almost like dipping into deep sleep but maintaining awareness. Deep sleep provides just the right amount of relaxation, so that energy is expended only where it is absolutely needed. Deep sleep also consolidates memory and strengthens our muscles. Likewise, in a flow state, the individual feels both at ease and at full concentration. The greater the difficulty, the easier the task becomes. While meditating, we know that there are some very difficult emotions that come up, but using the flow state we relax and remain balanced. So how do we achieve this state? Csikszentmihalyi gives us 8 traits that allow you to get into flow. These can be applied to anything, not just meditation.

The 8 traits are:

  1. Complete concentration on the task

  2. Clarity of goals, and immediate feedback of reward

  3. Transformation of time (becomes slower)

  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding

  5. Effortlessness and ease

  6. Balance between challenge and skills (not too challenging, not requiring too little skill)

  7. Actions and awareness are mixed; loss of self

  8. Feeling of full control while remaining detached

The bottom line here is that flow allows you to fully engage in the moment while instantly getting rewarded for performing a certain action. The reward is intrinsic and reinforces our brains to concentrate further and further. It is hard to think of how meditation can give us instant reward, but this is exactly what happens in flow states. When the mind is unified, there is very little resistance so it often finds freedom and ecstasy. We know that artificial drugs can induce this state, but being able to do it through meditation is much more potent and reliable. The joy and pleasure that comes from unifying the mind tells the brain to focus more energy on this one particular act and avoid any and all other distractions. This positive feedback loop increases with challenge and allows you to remain at ease. The ease comes from the fact that there is little to no anxiety even when the challenge becomes hard. This is due to intrinsic ability to control your mind and stay focused.


Another great way to improve single pointed attention is metacognition, thinking about thinking. Body scanning can get tiring over time as you are constantly shifting attention. Reaching flow is an extremely difficult task so it may be a while before you feel meditation is effortless and easy. So another way to get there is through metacognition. When we pay attention to the breath, we temporarily lose attention of the mind. We get so caught up in the sensations of the breath, or the sensations of the body, that we forget where it all originates. The solution here is to behold the mind, as Bodhidharma states and keep your mind on the mind itself.

"The most essential method, which includes all others

Is beholding the mind. The mind is the root from which

All things grow. If you can understand the mind, everything else is included.

When your mind doesn't stir inside

The world doesn't arise outside." Bodhidharma.

Bodhidharma was a Zen master, whose teachings mainly refer to introspective awareness. All things originate in the mind, so if we hold our attention in the mind itself and watch as things arise and fall, we start to see a pattern. The pattern, ironically, is that there is no pattern to begin with. All thoughts and forms of mind are random representations of things in the past or future. There is no coherence in the type of thinking, simply a stream of never ending thoughts. Once the mind intrinsically realizes the futility of these never ending thoughts and feelings, it starts to dissociate from them. This is what leads to single pointed attention. The Buddha often told people to reflect on the impermanence of things. This is exactly what happens when we place the mind on mind; we start to see things more clearly without getting emotionally attached. So the two questions you ask yourself each time you are practicing metacognition are: 1. Where is my mind now? And 2. How is my mind changing? These two serve as junctions to hold the mind in one place and self reinforce its concentration. The more the mind wanders, the more information we get about its location and random changes. The less the mind wanders, the more we reinforce the mental state of stillness and peace. As the mind learns that things are better when it concentrates, it loses interest in mundane thinking and focuses energy onto the meditation object.

Mind system

Metacognition can be improved if we know more about how the mind works. Fields such as neuroscience, psychology and philosophy all attempt to study the mind methodically and analytically. Yet, in meditation the focus is on experience; we want to study the mind while the mind experiences its own creation. The mind learns about itself and thus becomes free from conditional patterns. Until now, the mind was a slave of all conditioning from past. But as we learn more about its true nature as well as experience the unification of mind, the mind loses a grip on its delusional thinking. In other words, the mind becomes free from suffering that it carried along with past conditioning.

Mind System MindMap Link: HERE

(Above is a flow chart I made to explain the mind system. There is a lot of stuff here, but I will highlight the most important things below)

Conscious vs Unconscious mind: The first distinction in the mind system is at conscious and unconscious level. The conscious mind is nothing but the interaction of several unconscious sub minds. The conscious mind does no real work, it only synthesizes the information from the unconscious. The unconscious mind is conditioned to pick information from the senses and present it to the discriminating mind(sub mind of unconscious). Thus, all true mental activity happens unconsciously. It is only the synthesis of lower levels that we are conscious of.

Discriminating Mind: The discriminating mind takes information about the sensory world and adds several things before it is synthesized in the conscious space. The major discrimination is between Self and others. This discrimination is by nature unconscious and fluctuates how the sensory world is presented to the conscious space. There are three types of further discriminations: thoughts, emotions, and narration. Thoughts can be about the past or future, but when they are about the present, there is some sort of conscious feedback involved. Present thoughts are often non judgemental, thus they do not reach the discriminatory mind.

Narrative Mind: The narrative sub mind is the most important sub mind because it creates a story or a narrative of sensory input. Without the narrative mind, there would be no continuous flow, instead we would be like robots who serve on binary rules. But because the narrative mind is working at the unconscious level, the conscious mind is able to better understand the contents.

Intention: The most important conscious tool is strong intentions. Our previous conditioning has already left an imprint on our unconscious sub minds. Evolution has led us to reinforce a sense of self and hold onto primitive urges. However, the only way we can change things is by intending to be mindful of our mind. By having a conscious intention to watch the unconscious material being presented, we better understand the whole system and thus reduce its grip on us.

Mind System: The entire mind system is run by self autonomous processes embedded in unconscious rules. From a neuroscientific viewpoint, more than half of our neural signals are carried by the autonomic nervous system rather than the voluntary one. And this explains why it is so hard to control our mind. There is very little ability to change what is in our conscious realm, since most of the influence is unconscious. But as we increase mindfulness, our narrative of self changes. When we behold the mind, we are able to dismantle the illusion of a stream of consciousness. Instead, we see that the mind is just arbitrary conditions arisen from past encounters. Furthermore, the whole discrimination between Self and other disappears. This notion that the world is seen by a seer is a myth. The world is seen, and that is it. There is no seer behind it all. And this is well propounded by the neuroscientific community- there is no self in the brain.


By overcoming subtle distractions, you are able to improve single pointed attention. Alongside the help of metacognition and the knowledge of the mind system, you are better able to see how the mind arises and ceases. The more you meditate, the more apparent it becomes that there is unnecessary coding of self and others. In reality, the concept of self is only used to better experience reality, but taking it out doesn't make it unbearable. Instead, the world becomes more synthetic and each experience becomes vivid. Imagine living life without a preoccupied mind program that is constantly matching things based on your likes and dislikes. Wouldn't it be better to appreciate novelty and surprise at each moment instead? Conjoining the mind system and the flow states, we see that when we get in flow, our conscious mind is more scrutinous of the unconscious contents, and its intentions feedback to the narrative mind to reduce the gap between self and other. This, then, finally leads to the experience of ease and non-anxiety state where all things happen with no resistance.

"Nature does not hurry, yet nothing is left undone"- Lao Tsu.