When choosing a single object to practice with, we may have the idea that we’re supposed to sustain our attention on that one class of experience to the exclusion of others, whether it’s our breath, other body sensations, sounds or what have you. This is an unrealistic expectation, since breathing is just one of many things happening in our experience in any given moment. We do have the ability to filter out some parts of our experience when we’re focusing on one thing, but it’s normal during meditation to have attention sometimes attracted by other events: hearing a sound, attention-grabbing body sensations, and of course interesting thoughts (“what should I eat for dinner?”). Our attention will also naturally drift, even though we’re intending to track a single object. This is perfectly fine, and rather than looking at the shift of attention as a mistake, problem or doing it wrong, I suggest including these so-called “distractions” into your meditation.
Say you’re feeling the breath coming and going peacefully, and a dog starts barking outside, and all of a sudden your attention is on the barking instead of your breath. No problem! Recognize that you’re still aware, but now paying attention to the sound object instead of the breath object. It really doesn’t matter what object you’re tracking in any one moment, what matters is that you’re mindfully aware. Whether you’re feeling your breath or hearing a sound, you’re building up that all-important momentum of mindfulness that’s necessary to see the cause & effect of experience clearly, in particular how the mind relates to various stimuli. The Buddha closely observed and identified the chain reaction of this process from stimuli to response, and noted that anyone with proper training can observe it too, as it occurs. Seeing this process clearly in his own mind was the antecedent to his awakening, so it’s no small thing! I’ll reflect more on this important aspect of “why we practice” in a later post.
When you allow attention to be drawn to other objects without getting distressed about it you’re more likely to maintain mindfulness. Why? Because distress is uncomfortable, and when we’re uncomfortable we’re conditioned to start thinking about how to fix things so they’re more comfortable, with lots of agitated energy behind it, so it’s harder to maintain mindfulness of the object. Eventually we build up enough “strength” of mindfulness that we can watch our minds when disturbed, (and even while thinking!), without losing awareness…after a good bit of practice.
Everything operates according to causes and conditions: allowance and curiosity create a relaxed and contented mind, which is a cause and condition for continuity of mindfulness, which builds into concentration, the condition necessary for illuminating intuitive insight. And intuitive insights precipitate the shift of view that frees us. Rome was not built in a day, but brick by brick, my citizens!