Practice When You're Distracted

Practice of the Week
Practice When You're Distracted

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

As we have been saying, we're in training. We are training the mind, and training takes discipline. We have to try to pay attention, to stick to our commitments, to repeat the training disciplines (the slogans) many times, keeping on with them even when we don't feel like it.

But discipline is not what we think it is. It's not an unpleasant yoke administered by a drill sergeant, an obsessed and mean-spirited guy who screams at us when we fall down on the job, or by a harsh, scary Zen master with a big stick. Aggressive discipline like this isn't very effective for most people. It usually inspires its opposite. Every force produces a counterforce, and the harsher the discipline, the more inspired we are to rebel.

The discipline of mind training isn't like this at all. It's gentle, permissive, and easygoing. Because of this, it doesn't inspire rebellion. In fact, mind training understands that distraction and noneffort or countereffort is inevitable and must be used as part of the effort we are making. We don't struggle against it, we cooperate with it.

The discipline of mind training doesn't assume that relaxation and easygoing effort is counterproductive to the task or that it is possible for us to be on the beam all the time. The assumption is that we need to relax, we need to be spacious and open, and that this will help us train. Distraction isn't a problem. We have to learn how to practice even when we are distracted, to make the distraction part of the practice.

Serving a cup of tea requires a certain kind of effort. If you are too tense, you'll pour too much into the cup, and grasping the cup with nervous fingers, you'll spill scalding tea all over yourself. Instead, you need to be loose and easy. On the other hand, if you are too loose and easy and aren't paying attention to what you're doing, you'll lose your grasp on the cup and drop it. Finding just the right amount of ease and looseness, not too much, not too little, is a key element in the training. We have to learn how to keep the thread of our training going even in lax times, even when we're daydreaming, losing track of ourselves, or enjoying the ball game or a glass of wine. We have to stop thinking that at times like that we have set our practice aside and are taking a break – stop thinking that we are practicing when we are meditating or reciting the slogans and not when we are not. Make practice your whole life. There are no breaks. Or to put it another way, practice is just one long break from the tension and anxiety that we used to take for granted as the essential flavor of our lives.

You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to be on the beam every moment. Discipline isn't like that. There's a time for hard focus and a time for soft focus. It's not that practice is directed, serious, and important and that distractions are something else. Practice is life, including everything in your life, even the distractions. When you think you are distracted, when you think you have forgotten about your practice, remember this slogan: Practice when you're distracted. You may well be distracted. But there's nothing wrong with that. As soon as you know your state of distraction, you are practicing. You have remembered your practice. Distraction, laziness, indulging in stuck emotions like anger, jealousy, and so on, are all part of the practice. You fall down on the ground and you use the ground to get up. Using the ground to get up is remembering to notice the state you are in. As soon as you know your state, whatever that state is, you are practicing this slogan. You are back on the beam. You never actually lost track of it anyway. There are no distractions, after all.

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When you begin to practice, one of the first things you notice is how distracted you are. It can seem as if a veritable avalanche of thoughts, fleeting moods, memories, plans, judgments, and all sorts of mental folderol is pouring through your mind continually. People say such things as “I was fine before I started meditating, but now my mind is just a jumble.” However, none of that is really new, it was just you never noticed before.

Practice uncovers how flighty the mind can be and how easily it is captivated willy-nilly by whatever arises: a thought, a sensation, a sound, any old thing. As we continue to observe the workings of our mind, its bobbing and weaving become familiar territory.

So what could it possibly mean to practice even while distracted? Isn’t the idea not to be distracted?

Here is where the interesting twist of this slogan comes in. Instead of waging a kind of battle with distractions you can co-opt them as supports for your practice. It is like setting a default tendency toward mindfulness so that the moment a distraction arises, it brings us right back. The instant we notice we have lost our attention, we have regained it. So for a well-trained mind, when sudden distractions arise, they do not interrupt your practice, but reinforce it.


During your daily activities, pay particular attention to the points at which you lose your mindfulness or your openness or your kindness. Notice the process of losing it and coming back.

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