day three : morning

Distracting Thoughts

April 24, 2017

We know that the Buddha gained awakening under the Bodhi tree. The question is: What was he doing under the tree? And the first step of what he was doing is what you’re doing right now. You’re trying to develop right concentration. And, like you, he found that he had to deal with distracting thoughts.

As he described the process of finding the path, the first factor of the path he realized was right concentration. He didn’t attain right concentration right away, though. He simply knew that that was what he would have to do. To get there, he first had to develop right resolve, which meant developing skillful thoughts and abandoning unskillful ones.

Now, the first step in dealing with distracting thoughts is to recognize them when they come. But you don’t stop there. Ajaan Suwat tells a story of when he was a young monk. He went to stay with Ajaan Mun, and he was scared to death of Ajaan Mun. But one morning he found himself alone with Ajaan Mun, who asked him, ”How is your meditation going?” And Ajaan Suwat had to admit that all he was doing was dealing with distraction. Ajaan Mun replied, “Well, that counts as mindfulness practice. When you recognize a distracting thought as a distracting thought, that’s part of mindfulness.” Fortunately, Ajaan Suwat realized that Ajaan Mun was not saying that it’s okay to stay there. He was just giving Ajaan Suwat encouragement. So Ajaan Suwat took the encouragement simply as that—and he used it to develop himself further on the path. He didn’t make the mistake of thinking that it was okay to just accept distracting thoughts as distracting thoughts and not do anything about them.

So what is the next step? Once you recognize distraction, you try to cut away any causes that would give rise to more distraction. The Buddha gives five examples for how you deal with distracting thoughts. And as he says, some of these approaches were ones he himself used on the way to awakening.

The first approach is to replace an unskillful thought with a more skillful one. The skillful thoughts you try to use will depend on your state of mind and the particular distraction.

The state of the distracted mind, as the Buddha said, can fall into three sorts. The first is when the mind has too little energy, when it’s depressed, when it feels discouraged or lonely. The second sort is when you have too much energy, when the mind is excited or worried. And the third sort is simply when you’re trapped in a particular thought because the thought has some attraction for you.

For the first instance, when you have too little energy, the Buddha recommends trying to gladden the mind, and there are different ways of thinking that can do this. One is to develop the sublime attitudes: thoughts of goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, or equanimity for all beings. You may find that those thoughts lift up the mind. Another topic can be your own generosity. Think of times when you gave a gift because you freely wanted to give it. This particular thought works well if you have lots of acts of generosity you can think back on. In other words, if you can think of only one time in your life that you were freely generous, it doesn’t work as an uplifting thought for very long. This is why continuous generosity is a good basis for meditation. Another gladdening theme would be to think back on your own virtue, remembering the times when you could have done something harmful and may have gotten away with it, but you saw that it was beneath you, so you didn’t do it. That gives you a sense of self-esteem. You can also think of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha: any aspect of those three things that gives you a sense of inspiration. Any of these themes can help gladden the mind.

The second problem is when the mind is too excited or worried about the future. The Buddha says you should try to steady the mind, and a good theme for that is contemplation of death. In other words, death could come at any time, which means that your worries about the future would be totally useless.

Once there was a woman who came to practice at Wat Dhammasathit with Ajaan Fuang. Her plan was to stay for two weeks, but on the second day she came to say goodbye. Ajaan Fuang asked her, “Hey, I thought you were going to stay two weeks. Why are you going back so soon?” She said, “I’m worried about my family. Who’s going to cook for them? Who will wash the clothes?” And he said, “Tell yourself that you’ve already died. They’re going to have to look after themselves some way or another.” And it worked. She was able to stay for the two weeks. So if you find yourself worried about what will happen after the retreat, tell yourself you’ve already died, and that can help stabilize your thoughts.

Another useful contemplation to steady the mind is to tell yourself that you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but you do know that whatever comes up, you’re going to need more mindfulness, more alertness, more discernment, and more concentration, so the best way to prepare for the future is to get the mind back to the breath and to develop those qualities in the mind right now.

As for when the mind is trapped by an attractive thought, remind yourself that there are three things that make a thought attractive. One is sensuality. The second is ill will. We may never like to admit it to ourselves, but we do find something attractive in feeling ill will. And the third type of thinking that we can find attractive is closely related to ill will, which is the thought of doing harm. We have to counteract those thoughts by seeing their drawbacks. To counteract sensuality, think thoughts of renunciation. First you think about what it is that has you attracted to the object that you’re feeling sensuality for, and to remind yourself that it also has its unattractive side. For example with the human body, you look back first on your own body. What do you have under the skin? If you took all of the parts of the body out and put them on the floor, you’d want to run away. Then remind yourself that what you have in the body is the same as what other people have in their bodies. So ask yourself, exactly which part are you attracted to? You might say the skin, but if you took the skin off and put it in a pile on the floor, again you wouldn’t find it attractive. It would be disgusting.

There’s a story in the Canon of a man who confronted a nun one time. She was alone in the forest and he suggested that she disrobe and come with him. Her response was, “What do you find attractive in my body?” He said, “Your eyes.” And she said, “These disgusting eyeballs, all covered with mucus? Really?” And he said, “Really.” So she plucked out one of her eyes and she handed it to him. Of course, he didn’t accept it. He apologized profusely, and left her alone. So, think about that the next time you feel attracted to any part of a human body: Would you want it if the owner handed you just that part?

The second step in thoughts of renunciation, after contemplating the object of sensuality, is to contemplate the sensuality itself: the thoughts that view these things as attractive. We’re actually more attracted to these thoughts than we are to their objects, which means that you have to see the drawbacks of the thoughts themselves. To begin with, the thoughts get the mind worked up, and second, when you become attracted to something like that, you’re actually being trapped in a position of weakness. You’re making your happiness depend on things that are outside of your control, and often, if you actually gain the object of your desire, other people will try to take it away from you. As the Buddha said, when you get trapped in thoughts of sensuality, it’s like wearing goods borrowed from other people. The owners can come and take them away at any time. Another image he gives is of a hawk flying off with a piece of meat: Lots of crows and other hawks will attack it. In other words, when you get enmeshed in thoughts of sensuality, you’re placing yourself in a weak and also a dangerous position. When you can see the sensuality in these terms, it helps to loosen its appeal.

As for thoughts of ill will, the Buddha reminds you that if you act on ill will, you’re going to suffer for a long time. At the very least, when we’re stuck in thoughts of anger, we tend to do and say stupid things that will give satisfaction to the people we don’t like. Just thinking about that fact can help pull you out of the ill will. You see that the ill will is actually harmful to you. If you really had goodwill for yourself, you wouldn’t let yourself think those thoughts. The same principle applies to thoughts of harmfulness.

So in other words, it’s okay to think while you’re meditating if the way you think is actually curing an unskillful way of thinking and bringing you to the point where you want to get back to the topic of your meditation. For example with thoughts of renunciation, if you realize that thinking thoughts of sensuality is not going to be good for you, then the question is: Where will you find your pleasure? And the answer is: In concentration. This is one way in which thinking can lead the mind into concentration.

That’s the first way of dealing with distracting thoughts: replacing an unskillful thought with skillful thinking.

This also leads into the second approach, which is to think of the drawbacks of your thinking. We’ve already mentioned a few of the techniques for this approach, but there are other techniques as well. For example, one that I’ve found very useful if my thoughts are going back to the same topic again and again: I ask myself, “If this were a movie, would I pay to watch it?” And usually the answer is, “No. The plot is horrible, the acting is even worse, so why am I spending time with it?” When you can see these thoughts as a waste of time, it’s a lot easier to go past them. That’s the second approach.

The third approach: If the thoughts keep coming back, you can simply ignore them and pay attention to your breath instead. Remind yourself that even though there is thinking going on in the mind, it doesn’t destroy the breath. You stay with the breath and let the thoughts take care of themselves. Ajaan Lee’s image is that the thoughts are like shadows. If you go running after a shadow with a bar of soap in your hand to try to clean it to make it white, you’ll never succeed. You just get drawn further and further away from your breath. So just let the shadows run around on their own. If you stay still, eventually the shadows will have to be still as well.

Another image you can think of is that your thoughts are like crazy people. You have work to do, and they want to come and talk to you. Even if you say just a word to them to drive them away, they have you. So the only way you can deal with them is to pretend they’re not there. They’ll say things that are even crazier and crazier to get your attention, but the best way to deal with them is just not to respond at all. When you don’t feed them with your attention, eventually they’ll go away. That’s the third approach.

The fourth approach is to notice that when the mind is thinking, there’s going to be a pattern of tension somewhere in the body. If you can locate where that tension is and just breathe right through it and allow it to relax, the thought will have no place to stay. It’ll have to stop. This works especially well as you get more and more sensitive to the breathing energies in the body. Think of that image of the spider on the web. As soon as an insect touches the web, the spider moves from its spot, deals with the insect, and then returns back to its spot. In other words, as soon as you see a pattern of tension appearing in the body, you zap it with breath energy and then you return to your focal point. That’s the fourth approach.

The fifth approach, if none of these other approaches work, is to press your tongue against your palate and tell yourself, “I will not think that thought.” If you have a meditation word such as buddho, which means “awake,” you can just repeat that word quickly again and again and again—rapid fire, like a machine gun— in your mind, and that will block the thought. This last approach is the one that requires the least discernment and the most force, so it doesn’t work for a long time, but it is useful to have as a tool if nothing else works. It clears the mind, at least for a short period. If we think of these different approaches as if they were tools in a toolbox, the first tools are the more refined ones, like a surgeon’s tools. The last tool is like a sledgehammer.

These are the ways the Buddha himself dealt with distracting thoughts. So when you see that you have a distraction, try to understand what the distraction is and why the mind is attracted to it. Is it because there’s too little energy or too much energy? Or is it because there’s something in the thought itself that’s really attractive? Once you see what the problem is, gain a sense of which tool will work for that particular problem. It’s in this way that we take inspiration from the Buddha’s awakening. Remember that he was able to attain awakening on his own and we can do the same.

There’s a legend from Thai history. The Burmese had invaded Thailand back in the 16th century, and so the king of Thailand, Phra Naresuan, set out to attack them. He went with his troops, all of them on elephants. They were going to do a stealth elephant attack at dawn—a concept I really like, a stealth attack on elephants. The king had the fastest elephant, so he was the first to arrive at the Burmese camp, right at sunrise. When the dust settled, he realized that he was the only Thai person there. His troops were far behind. So, how was he going to get out alive? He saw the Burmese crown prince, and so challenged him to a duel, a duel on elephant back, saying that it was a point of honor. The Burmese crown prince accepted the challenge, and the Thai king was able to kill him. Just as he finished killing the crown prince, his troops finally caught up with him and they drove the Burmese back to Burma.

Now, when the king returned to his capital, he was furious with his troops. He yelled at them, “You fools! I could have died!” So to teach them a lesson, he decided to execute some of his generals. Word of this got to one of the senior monks living outside of the capital at Ayutthaya. He sent word to the king: “I’d like to talk to you.” So the king went to see the monk, and the monk said, “Do you know the story of the Buddha’s awakening?” And, of course, the king said, “Yes.” The monk then asked, “When he gained awakening, was there anyone around him?” And the king said, “No. The five brethren had left him.” And so the monk said, “This is why we remember the Buddha and why his accomplishment was so impressive: because he did it on his own.” And then he added, “In the same way, your accomplishment is going to go down in history because you acted alone.” You can imagine the king’s feelings—so he went back and he forgave all the generals.

In the same way, as you’re sitting here meditating, when you overcome your unskillful thoughts, you remember that you can do this alone, too. History may not remember it, but that doesn’t matter. It matters to you.