If you can practice when distracted, you are well trained.
One of the first things that newbie meditators notice in the first half-hour that they sit completely still, eyes in soft focus, hands resting lightly on their knees or lap, is how busy their minds are and how difficult it is to hold the mind steady in the gap between thoughts. The human mind flickers here, there and everywhere: into the past, the future, into figuring things out, and/or reacting to sensations. In the beginning, it can be difficult to rest in the peace and stillness that exists between thoughts. When beginning students start a regular sitting-meditation practice, they will often say, “I was fine before I started this, but now my mind just won’t stop.” Did sitting meditation cause this? Of course not; meditation simply offers time and space to notice.
An offshoot of sitting-meditation called mindfulness practice also uncovers how flighty the human mind is and how readily it grasps after anything but the stillness that exists between thoughts. If we continue to observe our minds while gardening, for example, we will notice how the mind bobs and weaves through the past, to the tapping of a flicker on the zendo (it’s time to stop gardening and throw rocks), into imagining a flicker-free world or the odour of hyacinths in bloom.
With regular practice, we begin to recognize these mental experiences for what they are. They are distractions from a half-hour of resting in the stillness and peace in the space between thoughts. Meditation and mindfulness are the training Zen practitioners do to overcome distractedness and to learn to keep the mind where we want for as long as we want it there, be it on the pleasure of setting out seedlings or on the wild physical attention needed to stay on a horse that is frisky with spring. It is not easy to train the mind to not yield to distraction. It takes effort. It takes practice.
This slogan teaches us to stop battling with distractions and to use them as mindfulness bells whether you are doing sitting-meditation practice or mindfulness training. The trick is to co-opt distraction as support for your training. It is like setting a default tendency toward mindfulness, so that the moment a distraction arises, it brings us right back to the true reality of the present moment. The instant we notice we have lost our attention, we regain it. In a well-trained mind distractions are our teachers.
: In your practice and during your daily activities, pay particular attention to the points at which you zone out into memory, the future, figuring things out or mentally overreacting to sensation. Pay particular attention to the points at which you lose your openness or kindness. Become aware of the process of following distractions, noticing them and then bringing awareness back to the present moment, which is in the miniscule gap between thoughts.
This column is a long series of short essays exploring the meaning of the Lojong Slogans. It is inspired by the work of Judy Lief.
Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at the ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-3390.