RE: The senses & distractions

Fastlane, modified 26 Days ago.

The senses & distractions

Posts: 20 Join Date: 10/4/14 Recent Posts
I'm hoping someone can shed some light on the following. I've done a fair amount of practice since 2013, currently an hour or two a day using a few of the typical methods including object focus, objectless, some Shinzen noting & do-nothing, TMI and some non-dual practices. The question isn't about about any specific practice though.

For as long as I can remember my ability to focus has always been very poor and I've been trying to understand what's happening with the 6 sense doors regarding distractions – sounds, body sensations and mental activity in particular. 

I can hear four nearby roads so there's near constant noise going on but I wouldn't describe it as much of a distraction by now - the noise is ongoing most of the time and I'll notice some of it but it doesn't usually take me away from whatever my meditation object is or from staying present. Similarly body sensations keep presenting themselves but they appear alongside or in the background along with whatever my focus object is, so they generally aren't that distracting either.

With mental activity, I have some mental images but it's mainly internal chatter – in terms of frequency it seems to be going on much of the time, with gaps of a few seconds – so it's very frequent but no more so than the amount of external sound, and I should  just let this chatter just keep coming and passing just as the traffic noises do. This chatter happens similarly both off and on the cushion – it seems to be happening most of the time, maybe something like the speech frequency of a tv sports commentary.

During practice, sometimes I'll be aware of it start and I'll remain present and I can observe it just pass by, just like sounds and body sensations. This is rarely the case though– the vast majority of the time I won't be aware of the verbal thinking starting and my attention is immediately captured until I'll snap out of it. So it's not that certain thoughts are appealing and I've chosen to follow them rather than to stay on track, it's that there are these periods every few seconds where it seems I'm totally taken out of being present and I can't recall anything else but having been carried away by the thought.

Even when taking mental activity as the meditation object, trying to observe this happen in real-time still results in rarely being ale to observe thoughts come up and pass without immediately being swept up in them. I haven't seen any shift in being able to being able to remain present and to increasingly see more of the thoughts happening as they come up, nor has the the frequency of it happening reduced over the years and it doesn't seem to slow down over say an hour sit.

I don't know whether my ability to stay present or with my object of practice hasn't improved due to an some exceptional high frequency of the verbal chatter or the fact that such a high proportion of it starts up and I'm immediately lost in thinking every few seconds. I'm so frequently in this strange place of not knowing what just happened whilst my attention was captured – it could easily happen a few times over the period of say 20 seconds and I have absolutely no idea what else, if anything I was aware of during those periods of being lost. 

I'm not so much asking for ideas for practices to help with this as I've tried quite a few, I'm more interested to know whether anyone can shed any light on what's happening as I remain confused by it after 8 years. Thanks.
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David Matte, modified 25 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 81 Join Date: 8/3/19 Recent Posts
Perhaps you're just not catching the distraction early enough. You have to catch distractions before they cause you to forget.

Try this: 

Meditate on the mind stream only. Whenever a thought appears, make a mental note "thinking". Whenever a mental image appears, note "seeing". 

This should develop an ability to catch distractions right at their arising, before attention is compromised and forgetting happens.
Fastlane, modified 25 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 20 Join Date: 10/4/14 Recent Posts
Hi, the issue is that they are causing forgetting immediately - it's not some build up of thought that happens which eventually lead to forgetting. Each thought seems to immediately capture attention but only for a few seconds until I realise - it may be only a few seconds but it will usually happen again within seconds. I don't have any way of catching them earlier as explained - I cannot see this process happening until I realise it has ocurred.

I've done quite a bit of meditating on the mind stream and doing the noting but my ability to catch the distractions, as you suggest, has not improved over the years - this is why I'm at a loss to know what's going on.
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Kaloyan Stefanov, modified 25 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 15 Join Date: 2/18/21 Recent Posts
David Matte provides a good suggestion. It definetely helped me doing something similar but with noticing instead of noting, although a formal note can be helful as well. Another thing that helped me is powering mindfulness to bodily sensations and whatever I was doing in daily life.

But please keep in mind that it is a very nuanced thing - you can't completely and reliably stop the mental chatter for longer periods of time. I tried and failed and that period of my practice probably slowed down my progress. The objective is not to stop thoughts and go for inner silence in every session (although that should be relatively easier and likely illuminating during Equaniminty).

In certain parts of the practice the key for me was actually to intend to nocice/gain insights for that session and allow everything (open awareness on all 6 sense doors) come in its own way, notice it and not worry too much if I spaced out in thoughts for a certain period, as long as I was able to come back to noticing things. During certain periods of our practice (e.g. Dark Nights on early paths), it is generally super difficult to not get a bit lost/overwhelmed by thought.

And another very key point which might be important for futrher progress. Thoughts are thoughts (i.e. can be objectified), they come and go. Thoughts also are not us (a ME, an Agent or a Center), since we can objectify them. Based on your progress, that should be obvious to you, even if experientally not always the case.  You said "you can observe [the mental chatter process]". The million dollar question is Who is doing the observing? Investigate the sensations that constitute this observer entity/observing thing and see what you can find there.
Fastlane, modified 25 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 20 Join Date: 10/4/14 Recent Posts
Thanks for the reply. I didn't say I was trying to stop thoughts in any way - I said I've seen no change in being able to observe the thoughts occurring or being able to notice them sooner. I wouldn't have a problem with constant thinking that I was being mindful of and remaining present with - this is exactly what happens with the outside noise I mentioned. The issue is with having my attention hijacked every few seconds as the thoughts immediately capture attention, so my ability to remain focussed on anything is continually being lost and as mentioned this has remained this way for many years.

I've done a fair amount of enquiry - looking for the self etc and nondual practices but again this hasn't shifted anything unfortunately.
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Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 25 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 5461 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
You say you want to know what it is that is happening. One way of putting it is that for that moment you bought in to the notion that you are your thoughts. You believed in that identifying process. Thus you narrowed down your awareness to that line of thoughts. It's like a tunnel vision. That has implications for what might be helpful, and I suspect you are fully capable of working with that without any specific advice from me on how to do it. 
Fastlane, modified 25 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 20 Join Date: 10/4/14 Recent Posts
Hi. I wouldn't say I'm fixed to the issue that I'm my thoughts and I'm not that concerened with the contents of the thoughts. The reason I mentioned the (6) senses in the title is that I'm aware that each sense should be considered no different from another, so the mind does thinking just as the ears do hearing.

I wouldn't say that is the issue - the problem as far as I can understand it, is that the thinking presents itself very differently from hearing, feeling etc. As I mentioned, when souds arise, I can generally remain present with my focus object without distraction but with thoughts this happens very rarely. Only on the odd occation am I able to observe a thought coming and going without it immediately displacing my attention.
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Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 5461 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
I'm not saying that you intellectually believe that you are your thoughts or that you identify with them in the regular sense of the word. But when one gets totally drawn into the thoughts and forgets to be mindful about what happens, that's a momentary identification that happens. That particular wording may not be how you prefer to use words, and that's totally fine. I just don't know how to put it in a clearer way. It's not a psychological identification and it's not intellectual. It's more like totally forgetting the boundlessness of what you are and getting lost in one small vantage point. For me this is a helpful reminder. It may be different for you, but it could be something to explore. 

If that description doesn't work for you at all, it might be helpful to use Culadasa's distinction between attention and awareness, which he describes as different brain processes. Attention is much more narrow whereas awareness is more global. If one is solely using attention, there is no room to notice the distractions before they hijack one's focus. Therefore one needs to gradually train oneself into widening the scope of one's focus, that is, use awareness more. That makes it possible to see the distractions coming and focus away from them. Culadasa describes this thoroughly both in his book and in dharma teachings on youtube. 
Fastlane, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 20 Join Date: 10/4/14 Recent Posts
I'm not sure what you are trying to say in your first paragraph I'm afraid, no problem though.

In Culadasa's system didn't explain to me what I'm experiencing, but more importantly his practices which are meant to the increase the 'metacognitive introspective awareness' were talking about didn't do so for me. I've found keeping a widening focus/using awareness more has no relation to how verbal thoughts appear from nowhere and capture attention - for me they do not appear first in awareness the vast majority of the time, so there's no way of observing them in the same way a sound or feeling would be obseved without being distracted.
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Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 5461 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
Okie. Then I'm out of pointers, I'm afraid. I hope you will find someone who can explain it in a way that resonates with you. Meanwhile, it's okay to get lost in thoughts as long as you notice it and get back on track. It's a learning curve. The fact that this happens several times within a very short time span is actually a good sign. It means that you are noticing it pretty fast and keep getting back on track. You are getting yourself on track over and over again, fast and often. That's great work. You are doing well. 
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Siavash ', modified 25 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 1285 Join Date: 5/5/19 Recent Posts
I think holding the mind-space in awareness can help. Like holding the mental images of the body and the room (space) you are in, in the attention, can make detecting those shifts eaiser. I guess they are mostly mental images that catch your attention, and those mental images replace the current images of your room, so it becomes like you are lost.
This trick usually is helpful for me.
Fastlane, modified 25 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 20 Join Date: 10/4/14 Recent Posts
Hi, from the original post 'With mental activity, I have some mental images but it's mainly internal chatter'. Thanks.
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Siavash ', modified 25 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 1285 Join Date: 5/5/19 Recent Posts
Hi,
In my experience, most of these mental images are very vague, and even when I am deliberately trying to detect them, they don't become very clear, but when they go unnoticed, they cause forgetting. So usually it's like there isn't image activity. That's why I think holding the space of the room in the mind is helpful, because it makes it possible to notice where in the room these images occur. They are not clear though, but because I am holding the room in the mind, it becomes easier to notice that attention is drawn to a certain direction in the room, to the right corner for instance or above the head, and gradually detecting this directionality becomes easier, which helps to detect the images themselves, and not forget.
Please feel free to ignore this if you think it's not relevant to your experience.
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Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 5461 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
This is one way of training that wider focus that Culadasa recommends for this kind of problem. It can sometimes be easier to train the wider open scope with one sense gate at a time, and for many people seeing is the predominant sense (not for me), so it's worth a shot. 
Fastlane, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 20 Join Date: 10/4/14 Recent Posts
TMI didn't help me on this issue I'm afraid. 
Fastlane, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 20 Join Date: 10/4/14 Recent Posts
Hi thanks, the visual side of things don't seem to cause the issue.
George S, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 1771 Join Date: 2/26/19 Recent Posts
There's a good talk from Ajahn Brahm called "Overcoming Thinking":

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlB3uksRV8M
Fastlane, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 20 Join Date: 10/4/14 Recent Posts
Thanks, I'll have a look. I should say I'm not really trying to overcome it though, I'm just trying to be more aware of it.
George S, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 1771 Join Date: 2/26/19 Recent Posts
Yeah it's not a good title! His basic point is that thinking is just another manifestation of wanting something we don't have or wanting to be somewhere else other than where we are. Once you see that and the relief of not thinking then it tends to subside by itself, although of course being averse to thinking and trying to overcome it is counterproductive.
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Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 5461 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
Just in case the tree structure confuses, I replied in the subthread above to both clarify and provide an alternative viewpoint on what it is. Best of luck!
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Pepe ·, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 381 Join Date: 9/26/18 Recent Posts
Hi Fastlane, 

Just some different tools I use:

(1) note the vanishing of each thought (not the arising or peak) and abide in the restful silence/spatial void that happens after that. Alternatively, follow the breath, with special focus between the out-breath and in-breath.
(2) once you happen to experience a brief pause of thoughts ask yourself: "What will the next thought be?" That usually halts thoughts and brings the attention back to awareness itself (you being aware of being aware).  
(3) every time a thought appears, spot a related tension in the head (or chest), relax and smile, and wait for the next thought

I use earplugs, so that stop most outer noise, but triggers more abundance of thoughts, specially unconscious thoughts and proto-thoughts / intentions. Those are very good objects for practice.

Hope this helps!
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Stefan R, modified 24 Days ago.

RE: The senses & distractions

Posts: 86 Join Date: 3/28/21 Recent Posts
One thing you haven't mentioned is how strong your intention is to stay at the breath?

Meditation is not a knuckle-down activity. Effort is not required. Gentle intention works greater, because it nudges attention back to the object of focus in the field of awareness. Mindfulness here may be a good factor for you in relation to the 6 sense doors. BUT you may actually not be cultivating positive intentions for breath observation.

Mental distractions are usually the hardest to overcome. We're so used to being in our thoughts. And they're usually so strong because they're the storehouse of most of our latent desirous, hateful, and ignorant tendencies. Have you tried transmuting the energies present in the content?
E.g. #1 Desire. You have mental chatter about an issue, which your mind is now working hard to solve. This is an example of desire. Desire is overcome through satisfaction with the moment as it is, how it is. You can cultivate this factor by thinking of breath-watching as a game. You want to play the "microscope game"; try and focus on each little particle of skin being stimulated by the breath. This is fun! Why is it fun? Because it's what you're intending to do!

E.g. #2: Aversion. You're getting angry about issue X. Anger is fundamentally about change. When we're angry we want things to change to fit our model of how the world should be. However, there's no way to change the issue. You're meditating! The only thing to change is your attitude. Now this anger is a great teacher for you. You are learning about how your mind twists and turns and tangles itself into a pretzel of anger! This is great! The change the anger wanted to achieve was within you all to begin with!

E.g. #3 Ignorance. You "wake up" after a period of long rumination or daydreaming. Great! This is fantastic. The rumination or fantasy was based in aversion or desire. Look at the content and free the energy there; look at what it really means. IE: what does the fantasy or rumination say; are you hoping for fame/praise/comfort/wealth, or trying to avoid pain/change/causality? Note it quickly, and be happy that you woke up.

Doing this retroactively really helped me when starting out in concentration because it's about pattern recognition. You'll start noticing after, then a little earlier, perhaps during, then finally, you'll start noticing before! Be patient and work at it!

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