A better understanding of distraction?

John L, modified 28 Days ago at 5/23/24 12:27 AM
Created 28 Days ago at 5/22/24 7:00 PM

A better understanding of distraction?

Posts: 21 Join Date: 3/26/24 Recent Posts
On my January retreat, I got the sense that I was getting dragged away from focused attention too much, so I worry-spiraled and cranked up the energy quite high, probably too high. I didn't feel like I was in investigation mode constantly enough. Instead, I was experiencing "distraction," which felt like thoughts bubbling up without a sense of control. 

During my retreat this May, I became quite comfortable with the distraction. I didn't crank up the energy levels; I continued to gently investigate, even though distraction would cyclically pull me away from my investigation. This approach strikes me as superior. 

Shargrol once warned about getting attached to focused attention, and I think I now understand what he meant. Distraction is inevitable, and there's no point in trying to crank up the energy to banish it entirely. This runs contrary to Daniel's experience of days of pure universe-shaking world-destroying machine-gun meditation leading up to arhatship.

Moreover, I think like there's great wisdom in the distraction. Distraction may involve suffering, but hey, it's a flow state. All of my cessations have come during a flow state, not during investigation. Flow states are pretty non-dual. Perhaps this is what the arhats mean when they say that arhatship resembles a very everyday, mundane type of attention? Perhaps this is what some people would call an imperfect non-dual experience?

While cooking or showering in daily life, I'd often fall into a flow state where I'm just thinking along and doing the activity. The flow state wasn't perfectly free of contraction, of course, but it was a flow state. At the time, I'd deem that bad; I wasn't investigating, so I was losing. I'd resist the flow state. I don't think you should resist the flow state! I don't think flow is inferior to focused-attention investigation-mode. Flow is good. Of course, once you snap out of the flow state and come-to, you should resume your gentle investigation. I'm not saying you should purposely enter flow states by means other than investigation; I'm saying that you should investigate until you fall into one, and then when you fall out of it, resume investigating.

I think it could be really helpful to practitioners if we reframe "distraction" as flow state. Instead of seeing meditation as investigation versus distraction, it's investigation and flow state. This makes it really clear that the goal of insight meditation is not to eliminate wayward thoughts, but to eliminate the sense of control over them. Lots of suffering is caused by people getting ashamed of distraction and overreacting. But with this framework, no matter which mode you're in, you're winning. Also, the adversarial frame may generate subtle (or not-so-subtle) clinging to focused attention, impeding progress. The cooperative frame makes vipassana sound more appealing. Rather than obsessively and perpetually staving off distraction, you're actually cultivating the ability to enter flow states in mundane moments. It becomes delicious, hunting (investigating) for those little pockets of flow.

There's a third mode, which is non-flow, voluntary clinging to something other than investigation. By definition, this doesn't arise during insight meditation. Also, it's still important for people to avoid dullness. This is when focused investigation never truly arises because you're half asleep.

It's a common refrain that the last stop before enlightenment is to surrender the seeking. Perhaps this is just people giving themselves permission to fall eternally into the flow? To surrender completely their attachment to focused attention? 

Wystan described his path as learning that he's holding a hot coal, learning to set down the hot coal, and then learning to never pick it up again. Suzanne Chang described her run-up to arhatship as the me-energy arising less and less often until it vanished entirely. It'd be a fitting and humbling end for the Almighty Vipassana Meditator if he slowly faded away more and more into the distraction which he so vigorously battled.
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Dream Walker, modified 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 5:35 AM
Created 28 Days ago at 5/23/24 12:11 AM

RE: A better understanding of distraction?

Posts: 1752 Join Date: 1/18/12 Recent Posts
What magnificent things you must be in the process of happening.

Replying feels like feeding.

I disagree with everything you define enough to actually create a posit.
As we all know, experts agree that distractions and non-distractions, depends, maybe, on many factors; focused or unfocused attention being critically involved to what extent it maybe.
Flow state is usually A&P depending on how those who wish to define the fineness of duality or non-dual as perhaps arahats would agree like other examples of similar but different things.
I find your appeal to authority points to be less than appealing like a onion, multi layers of what I question.
I do hope that distractions, as they may occur, more or less, are of great help in your journey to arrive where you desire in the way you wish that it is actualized.
Please consider my unasked for response to be as useful and valuable as distractions have been.
Keep flowing, emoticon
~D
shargrol, modified 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 7:25 AM
Created 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 7:17 AM

RE: A better understanding of distraction?

Posts: 2527 Join Date: 2/8/16 Recent Posts
Interesting John, let's tease this out...

John Lillis On my January retreat, I got the sense that I was getting dragged away from focused attention too much, so I worry-spiraled and cranked up the energy quite high, probably too high. I didn't feel like I was in investigation mode constantly enough. Instead, I was experiencing "distraction," which felt like thoughts bubbling up without a sense of control.


When thoughts bubble up without a sense of control, it can feel distracting and disruptive --- and at the root of this is our self-identification with thinking. If we believe "I am my thoughts, I am the thinker", then this lack of control is very creepy and unnerving.

  During my retreat this May, I became quite comfortable with the distraction. I didn't crank up the energy levels; I continued to gently investigate, even though distraction would cyclically pull me away from my investigation. This approach strikes me as superior.  Shargrol once warned about getting attached to focused attention, and I think I now understand what he meant. Distraction is inevitable, and there's no point in trying to crank up the energy to banish it entirely.


Just to maybe put a finer point on this... There are two things that are especially important to realize:

1. the mind will enevitably slip into trance --- and the way I'm using the word here is the sense of not being mindful, being lost in memories or thinking about the future, losing track of being where we are in the present moment, daydreaming, blanking out, etc. --- and really there is nothing we can do about that. It happens when it happens and you'll come back from trance when you come back from trance. So "fighting" falling in and out of trance is basically wasted effort.
2. thoughts are just objects, in the same way that sensations and emotions and feelings are. We can be mindful of thoughts in the same way that we can be mindful of the sensations of breathing -- it's just a more difficult mind object to disembed from and objectify as an object. Mindfulness is when you recognize sensations as sensations, emotions as emotions, feelings as feelings, and thoughts as thoughts. None of these things are inherently trance inducing, nor inherently distracting. You can learn to be mindful of thoughts themselves, you can learn to be mindful of emotions/feelings that implying "being out of control" --- and therefore be mindful in the state previously interpreted as "lots of distracting thoughts that are out of control".

These realizations are major milestones in the life of a meditator. People who go on retreat need to learn and become comfortable with these two ideas. The first allows the meditator to have some respect and caring for the natural behavior of the mind (instead of making an enemy of it); and the second allows the mediator a whole new resilency in situations where they would get frustrated and overwhelmed.

 This runs contrary to Daniel's experience of days of pure universe-shaking world-destroying machine-gun meditation leading up to arhatship.


Well, there is actually a lot of nuance to Daniel's discussion of this. He tends to emphasize the strong intention toward mindfulness, mostly because he witnessed so many people just slacking off while practicing and while on retreat. But he also recognizes the importance of balancing effort with acceptance/equanimity.


Moreover, I think like there's great wisdom in the distraction. Distraction may involve suffering, but hey, it's a flow state. All of my cessations have come during a flow state, not during investigation. Flow states are pretty non-dual.


Let's get really specific about this again, otherwise people might misunderstand: when there is mindfulness of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that "appear like" distraction --- well, that really isn't distraction, it's vipassina. And when there is mindfulness of suffering, then it really isn't suffering it's vipassina. 

And really technically everything is already non-dual -- vivid and imperminent displays of mind -- so there is nothing particularly non-dual about flow states. (And frankly if someone identifies with flow states as being more "the self" than other states, then actually flow states might be leading toward a higher level kind of self identification/fixation! emoticon

Perhaps this is what the arhats mean when they say that arhatship resembles a very everyday, mundane type of attention? Perhaps this is what some people would call an imperfect non-dual experience? While cooking or showering in daily life, I'd often fall into a flow state where I'm just thinking along and doing the activity. The flow state wasn't perfectly free of contraction, of course, but it was a flow state. At the time, I'd deem that bad; I wasn't investigating, so I was losing. I'd resist the flow state. I don't think you should resist the flow state! I don't think flow is inferior to focused-attention investigation-mode. Flow is good


It is really enjoyable emoticon

Of course, once you snap out of the flow state and come-to, you should resume your gentle investigation. I'm not saying you should purposely enter flow states by means other than investigation; I'm saying that you should investigate until you fall into one, and then when you fall out of it, resume investigating. I think it could be really helpful to practitioners if we reframe "distraction" as flow state. Instead of seeing meditation as investigation versus distraction, it's investigation and flow state.


Well, I think you need to tease these ideas apart a little more. A flow-state is not really distraction, it is a flow-state. A distraction is distraction.

So I agree that when you get distracted and snap out of it, the only sane response is to just start investigating again -- there's no real benefit in betrating ourself and feeling bad and trying to prevent the next distraction somehow. It just doesn't work 

But it's also imporant to notice that there is mindfulness in a true flow state. The state is known and experienced as it is occuring and there is some part of the mind that notices that it has a "state like" nature. This is very important because ultimately meditation leads to the understanding that awakening is not a "state" of awakening, but is an "insight" about/into awakening (so to speak). Eventually all states are seen as not-self... but that's a long journey. 

This makes it really clear that the goal of insight meditation is not to eliminate wayward thoughts, but to eliminate the sense of control over them.


Well, it's actually more of "the middle way" thing. We should be able to experience the state of no control over thoughts and we should be able to experience the state of control over thoughts (like while crafting a forum post like this one). The "true self" (so to speak) is beyond either of these states. 

The important thing is: we need to be able to be mindful of thoughts as thoughts.

Lots of suffering is caused by people getting ashamed of distraction and overreacting. But with this framework, no matter which mode you're in, you're winning. Also, the adversarial frame may generate subtle (or not-so-subtle) clinging to focused attention, impeding progress. The cooperative frame makes vipassana sound more appealing. Rather than obsessively and perpetually staving off distraction, you're actually cultivating the ability to enter flow states in mundane moments. It becomes delicious, hunting (investigating) for those little pockets of flow.


I agree, this is sooo important for a meditator to realize. There is no need to use your mind to go to war with your mind -- it's horribly destructive and ineffective, ultimately. Instead you just need to learn about your mind.

There's a third mode, which is non-flow, voluntary clinging to something other than investigation. By definition, this doesn't arise during insight meditation. Also, it's still important for people to avoid dullness. This is when focused investigation never truly arises because you're half asleep. 


This is very stage dependent. Initially it's important to avoid dullness, true, but when mindfulness is developed it is also possible to be mindful of dullness. Sounds paradoxical, but it's true. Dullness is a collection of sensations, emotions, feelings, and thoughts that can be objectively experienced as sensations, emotions, feelings, and thoughts.

Retreats offer some unique opportunities to sit within dullness and notice how "the mind that knows" is still present even in those states. 


It's a common refrain that the last stop before enlightenment is to surrender the seeking. Perhaps this is just people giving themselves permission to fall eternally into the flow? To surrender completely their attachment to focused attention?


For what it's worth, the ability to really see the "attention" mind and the "awareness" mind comes into clear view in the lead up to 3rd path. Identification with attention is pretty much gone after third path. 

More practically speaking, moving through reobservation and fully getting an insight into that nana often leads to a disidentification with attention because we can see attention and seeking forming and falling apart, in one moment after another. This is maddening if we're identified with attention. But reobservation can become jhanic if we can mindfully and fully experience this.

And moving from low EQ to high EQ/SE involves a lot of disidentification with attention and becoming more recentered as "awareness itself" and "allowing awareness to be aware", so to speak.

 Wystan described his path as learning that he's holding a hot coal, learning to set down the hot coal, and then learning to never pick it up again. Suzanne Chang described her run-up to arhatship as the me-energy arising less and less often until it vanished entirely. It'd be a fitting and humbling end for the Almighty Vipassana Meditator if he slowly faded away more and more into the distraction which he so vigorously battled.


This might be reifying distraction a bit much. emoticon  


Great post!! (And these are just my thoughts/reactions -- definitely feel free to ignore.) Best wishes for your practice!
Olivier S, modified 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 9:22 AM
Created 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 9:20 AM

RE: A better understanding of distraction?

Posts: 960 Join Date: 4/27/19 Recent Posts
shargrol

...
Shargrol: For what it's worth, the ability to really see the "attention" mind and the "awareness" mind comes into clear view in the lead up to 3rd path. Identification with attention is pretty much gone after third path. 

...

John Lilis: Wystan described his path as learning that he's holding a hot coal, learning to set down the hot coal, and then learning to never pick it up again. Suzanne Chang described her run-up to arhatship as the me-energy arising less and less often until it vanished entirely. It'd be a fitting and humbling end for the Almighty Vipassana Meditator if he slowly faded away more and more into the distraction which he so vigorously battled.

Shargrol: This might be reifying distraction a bit much. emoticon  

Just to add a point of reference, some time after I experienced the permanent shift from attention to "awareness" (sort of a figure/ground reversal one may say, it felt like "disolving" or "falling into the field of awarness"), I started to get a lot of moments in meditation when I would find in inconceivable that one could even be distracted. This developed, and later, at the end of a month long mahasi style retreat, I was just like "if there are no inherently existing objects or stable self, how could there be distraction?" It truly felt like distraction was impossible because concentration was just a fabrication or something. Then about a year later there was an insight into how meditation practice, the path, and the fruit, are not two, and the very notion of meditation, or the implicit perspective inherent in the intention to meditate ("attain something that is other than what already is") was seen through as absurd. I sort fo spontaneously stopped meditating then. But, practice and results are not one either, is the flip side, so it is still good to practice and there is such a thing as distraction from that perspective ;) Edit: And these insights were only made possible by doing a LOT of work that involved concentraiton, fine-grained, whole-hearted attention, deconstruction, etc., etc.
John L, modified 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 12:58 PM
Created 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 11:17 AM

RE: A better understanding of distraction?

Posts: 21 Join Date: 3/26/24 Recent Posts
Thank you for the responses, everyone, I'm honored. I'll have to take some time to digest them. I definitely see how one must distinguish between distractions with mindfulness and those without—even if the only sane response to either is to gently start again. And I see how a mindful distraction isn't a distraction. 

At this point, I think that there is quite a lot of mindfulness during my distractions, which is why I was so enthusiastic about distraction in this post. emoticon Recognizing this will help take an edge off my practice.

When I went on my very first retreat, I was surprised at how "poor" my concentration still was. I thought that after the first day or so I'd be some kind of investigation monster, my efforts never ceasing. When that never happened, I thought, oh well, that'll probably kick in at stream entry or second path or yadda yadda. My misreading of Daniel's story was that a literally constant application of investigative effort was necessary for arhatship, so I reckoned it had to happen at some point. 

I appreciate Shargrol's remark about how a distraction experienced mindfully is vipassana. I think this all highlights how vipassana need not always be effortful. Yes, advanced practice requires pretty constant mindfulness, but that doesn't entail constant effort. A part of me has known this for a while, but I never really trusted myself, and I craved the clearer signal of strain to show me that I was on the ball. But simple clarity and perception of the three characteristics is enough. Saying, "Oh, there wasn't a feeling of effort in that moment, so 'I' wasn't there, so 'I' didn't mindfully perceive it"—that's identification with focused attention.

I also think I was carrying around a harmful mental model for a while. It goes like this: "Cycling between investigation and distraction is inevitable, but the more energy you apply, the less distracted you will be. Ergo, you should be applying as much energy as you can stomach. Or, at least, if you get distracted, you should feel kinda guilty about not having applied enough energy." I now see that a gentle and persevering approach is a good way to go. Flowing like water.
Martin, modified 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 12:25 PM
Created 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 12:25 PM

RE: A better understanding of distraction?

Posts: 875 Join Date: 4/25/20 Recent Posts
Good observations!

An interesting way to think about effort is to look at it as a sensation, rather than an action. That is to say, the actual difference between attention with effort and attention without effort is the sensation of effort, which is an overlay (more precisely an interspersed sensation) that accompanies the action but does not, in fact, cause the action. 

The sensation of effort can be useful. It can serve as a reminder. When we are being effortful, there is usually a little tension or tightness, and each time we notice this tension or tightness we are reminded that we are making an effort, which reminds us of our intention, which causes us to remember (sati) to pay attention. This same process works in non-meditation situations too, such as when we are doing anything with great care, like cutting a beautiful cake or waiting to swing a baseball bat. It's a great feature of the mind and body. 

At the same time, there are some drawbacks. One is that the discomfort of effort distracts the mind, working against the very thing we are trying to achieve, and the other is that effort overlaps with clinging.

We can consider this in terms of dependent origination but we can also think about it as a direct marker. It has been argued that one purpose of the sense of conscious will, which is to say, effort, is to serve as a marker in the formation of memories, which makes it possible to distinguish choices made by the individual (like moving an arm) from things that happen independent of individual choice (for example, your arm moving because the thing you are holding onto moved). In this understanding, effort is the tag that marks the self in memory. In that sense, efforting is selfing. 

There is a scholarly discussion of this phenomenon here:
https://scholar.harvard.edu/sites/scholar.harvard.edu/files/dwegner/files/bbs_precis.pdf

This is a precis of a book, which I read after reading the book and, to be honest, I wish I had just read the precis from the start because it does a great job. 

I think that, for our purposes, the key takeaway is, indeed, balance. Effort is useful, but there is a thorn on the rose, which we must also be aware of. 
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Pawel K, modified 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 3:50 PM
Created 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 3:50 PM

RE: A better understanding of distraction?

Posts: 1172 Join Date: 2/22/20 Recent Posts
Arhtship is like being in a form of a flow state.
One where rather than being pulled away from what we cling to we instead don't clinging to anything and yet we are pulled to what looks like the same thing and yet it's somehow different, feels refreshed.

This runs contrary to Daniel's experience of days of pure universe-shaking world-destroying machine-gun meditation leading up to arhatship.
I always understood Daniel's method as doing the same skillful things (so also nuanced, gentle and very suble!) you would normally need do when hints of impending distractions arise but then doing all that but doing it fast fast. With confidence!
That is why we need to practice noticing sensations so quickly.

I never managed to overpower anything in my own mind. But through practicing first slowly figuring out what are the criteria for skillfully doing something and then doing it quicker and quicker and with more confidence as I was actually able to confirm I did them quick and correct it always works wonders. It is like driving a car but at tens of actions per second until it feels each moment is its distinct action and at this moment its also totally effortless.

You seems to be doing good investigations.
Try to practice these separately from purely noticing. Investigations need to be done skillfully. Noticing is much easier and hones our response times and yet together they just work. At one time when I was manic about my practice I literally used every opportunity to notice and when watching video I noted new "frame" and and on top of that tried to note other things. 24fps videos - not that crazy if you think about it. Just noting new frames feels like waiting for them to arrive!
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Papa Che Dusko, modified 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 8:13 PM
Created 27 Days ago at 5/23/24 8:13 PM

RE: A better understanding of distraction?

Posts: 2878 Join Date: 3/1/20 Recent Posts
Oh be Jesus! emoticon 

The investigation is VERY Non-dual! As in Satipatthana! Contacting a sensation... itching-referring back to no one... hearing-referring back to no one ... thinking "its me thinking" - referring back to no one ... reading-referring back to no one ... flow-referring back to no one ... 

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