Distractions Play a Central Role in Producing the Benefits of Meditation

When you meditate, your experiences fall into two categories : 1. The object on which you intend to focus, and 2. Distractions.
Here we want to focus on distractions, particularly on where they come from and what you should do with them.

At first we may be inclined to say that distractions are mere chaos of the mind. When we call them “chatter” we come close to implying that view of them.If you take a step back and observe distractions, you can see that they are meaningful. In our ordinary, non-meditative life, they are calls to needed actions, attempts to solve problems that we face, strategies for fending off painful thoughts, etc.

During meditation, they are not allowed to take center stage.We keep our attention on the object of our meditation by gently turning away from the distractions. We do not wage an internal war against them. Instead we take a calm, passive attitude toward them, and let the distractions pass through, neither grasping them nor fighting them off.

What happens as you get better and better at letting thoughts that have usually driven you to action go unappeased is that the distraction loses its power over you, and you start remaining calm and centered instead of jumping to action.
You can see why meditation can make you calm, relaxed, and in control of your own actions.

Autogenic Discharge

One particular type of distraction calls for special attention. We call it “discharge”, a term taken from Autogenic Training, which can be observed over a wide range of techniques that involve calming the mind and body. For example, in Zen meditation it is called “Makyo”, and Zen masters inquire about it regularly with their students.

These discharges may include a wide range of symptoms such as dizziness, anxiety, headache, nausea, twitching, disturbing images, crying etc. In some ways their texture is similar to that of experiences people may have just before they go to sleep.

The best thing to do when you have these experiences is to gently turn your attention back to the object of your meditation. Generally, such experiences are self-limiting. If you stay with your meditative focus, they will fade away.

However, if they feel unbearably disturbing, stop meditating. It’s best not to try toughing out the experience.

A number of adjustments can be made in your meditation routine in order to minimize the occurrence of such highly disturbing experiences.

1. Reduce the length and/or the frequency of your sessions. Shorter methods tend to produce fewer discharges, as does reducing the frequency of sessions.

2. Shift from a highly passive method to one that is more active. For example, a relaxation procedure that has you tense and relax body parts, attending to the feelings of tension and relaxation is less passive than simply observing your breath.

3. Be sure that the context in which you are doing the work makes you feel safe. Your view of your setting has a powerful effect on how you interpret your experiences. To illustrate, there are a number of psychological studies showing that people given a drug that speeds the heart can produce reactions as diverse as increasing anger and increasing laughter. The situation determines the meaning of the state of arousal.

Finally, we pointed out earlier that each time meditators minimize their reactions to distractions, gently turning their attention back to the object of their meditation, the distractions lose more and more of their power to control you. For that reason the distractions are actually a very important part of the meditation.


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