3 Top Tips for Dealing with Distractions
By Christopher Joseph
We live in a modern day world that is full of stimuli. These stimuli can often serve as potential distractions which can disrupt the paced, centred and serene way in which we normally aspire to live our lives. We often rise to the sound of the alarm clock in the morning so that we can switch on the radio and fill our minds with the latest news headlines, before going downstairs to switch on our mobile phone and the morning TV. And so it can often continue – text message alerts, phone calls, pager bleeps, e-mails, messenger, facebook, twitter and so on… I’ve even heard recently that the latest cars are now speaking to their drivers to tell them when there’s a technical problem. This certainly brings a new meaning to the saying “Driven to distraction”!
These stimuli in themselves are not bad, but it seems that our insatiable appetite for information and our growing thirst for instant communication has meant that we as a nation are gradually (or rapidly if you consider the evolutionary timeframe) becoming ever more ‘alert’, and living in very ‘switched-on’ and ‘reactive’ ways.
The desire to live in this way is of course quite seductive. There is a certain physiological buzz that comes from feeling busy and reacting instantly to various stimuli such as a text message or an e-mail. There is also a psychological feeling of importance and connection with others as well as a sense that one is even being productive.
At times, I’m as guilty as anybody of occasionally slipping into this way of living – what I call the “Let me just do this quickly” syndrome! But, as a result of practicing mindfulness, I have found that I’m better able to detect when I am living in this anxious ‘on-call’ mode, where my attention and energy is scattered in many directions, and take steps to slip back out of it into the present moment. This is important, because I know from personal experience that too long spent living in this way can not only lead to a loss of mindfulness but to depleted energy levels and a degradation in health and well being. This reminds me of a poignant quote that I recently heard on Radio 2 from the Dalai Lama. When asked what surprised him most about humanity, he said:
Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.
And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present;
the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
So, given that mobile phones, e-mail and TV are not going to go away overnight, (and I can’t say that I would want them to anyway, since they are useful when we use them rather than having them use us), how do we use mindfulness on a daily basis to deal with the very distractions that potentially erode our levels of mindfulness in the first place?
Below I have given what are my ‘3 top tips’ for mindfully dealing with distractions. Maybe they’re not top on your list but I do like to play with alliterations!
Top Tip 1: Set up the right conditions.
I think we need to start by at least giving ourselves a fighting chance!
If we are hell bent on constantly ingesting every single news headline, TV program, novel or magazine, instantly responding to every e-mail, text and voice message, and constantly checking our facebook wall or tweet feeds (if you have no idea what I’m talking about there then please don’t worry – congratulate yourself!) then we can have little hope of developing any deep and sustainable level of mindfulness. This is because mindfulness at the fundamental level requires the development of a moment by moment awareness of ourselves including our thoughts, feelings and emotions, and if we are constantly casting our attention outside of ourselves through distraction then this becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
So, on a practical level what does setting up the right conditions mean? Well, it’s different for different people, but as a personal example, when I write these newsletters I switch off my e-mail alerts and internet browser, but I keep my mobile phone on. However, when I meditate I generally switch my computer and mobile off, and try and ensure that I’m alone in the house or that the children are sleeping. I generally keep my landline phone on, however, since in the day I’m first contact for my son’s school and the childminder.
So the message here is to take action wherever possible to reduce the potential for disruption to a level that feels appropriate for the activity on which we wish to concentrate.
Top Tip 2: Practice concentration.
Many people are aware that they live reactionary multi-tasking lifestyles where their attention is often wayward. They may even feel as if they live slightly ‘on-edge’ and sense a constant underlying level of mild anxiety as a result. Often, this is the reason that they take up mindfulness meditation – to practice concentration. And this is the important point here – one of the best ways of minimising distraction is to actively practice concentration.
The reason why concentration is such an important skill to develop is that so many of our so-called ‘distractions’ are actually self-created i.e. we seek them out! …No! I hear you cry. Me? Seek out distraction? But it’s true for all of us to some degree isn’t it? It’s called procrastination. It occurs when only a small part of our energy is invested in the task at hand, and the remainder goes searching for more interesting outlets. We start writing that report, doing the housework or meditating, and then our hand miraculously reaches for the internet explorer icon, the TV remote or the phone.
So, how can we develop better concentration? Yes, you guessed it! …Through meditating.
The ‘mindfulness of breathing’ and ‘body scan’ meditations, as taught on the Breathworks course, both lead to improved levels of concentration when practiced regularly. As the name suggests, the first involves resting our attention on our breath in various ways which become more and more refined as we progress through the four stages. The second involves bringing awareness to the various feelings and sensations in our body in the present moment. During these meditations the mind always wanders. The key point in respect to the development of concentration, however, is to repeatedly bring our attention back to the breath, or the body, time and time again, in a kind manner without chastising ourselves about it. In much the same way that the job of a pilot if to constantly steer the plane back on track through making small, gentle corrections, then our job as meditators is to gently, but consistently, bring our attention back to the particular focus of our meditation.
Through undertaking such practices we gradually develop a better aptitude for concentrating on whatever task is at hand, and rapidly and consistently renewing our concentration when our attention wonders, as it invariably does, without an hours internet surfing having passed in the meantime! Occasionally, when the activity really captivates us we might be fortunate to enter the state of ‘flow’, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the classic book of the same name. In this pleasurable state, our notion of time vanishes as we become completely engrossed and at one with whatever we’re doing.
Top Tip 3: Be flexible and creative.
The first two tips actually relate to reducing distractions; both external distractions (tip 1) and internal distractions (tip 2). But, they do, and will, still occur, so how should we then deal with them?
I think this depends on the nature of the distraction and the context of the situation. Sometimes it is useful to be flexible and to cultivate an attitude of being able to embrace the distraction i.e. bring it into our experience so that we can work with it, rather than against it. A good example of this is external noise such as traffic which can often occur when we are meditating. The degree to which this ‘unwanted’ noise becomes an intrusion on our practice is largely dependent on our attitude and response towards it. Someone once said to me that the only difference between sounds and noises is that one we want and the other we don’t want.
I remember a particular time on a 7-day residential Breathworks training retreat when individual members of the group were leading various meditations over the course of the week. Despite the retreat being held in the middle of the countryside, there was a very loud and intrusive banging noise being produced regularly by the piling machines that were being used to drive 6m long sheet piles into the ground to shore up the banks of the nearby canal, some 150m from our mediation cabin. If the meditation sessions were to be of any benefit then we had no other option other than to be flexible and to embrace the piling work by bringing the sound of the machinery into our awareness. Through allowing the sound to be there and cultivating a level of an interest in it, as if it were some form of modern day musical composition, I was able to work with it in a creative manner, rather than against it in a manner that would only have resulted in a build up of annoyance, anger and tension.
On this occasion the distraction, or potential distraction, was out of our control, but there are of course times when we can exercise control, such as when we are meditating and the washing machine is spinning, or the phone is ringing. We can in such situations either embrace the sounds, as above, or we can respond creatively by getting up and closing the door or by putting the answer phone on.
So, there is no doubt that we currently live in a world where the potential for distraction is massive. There are so many things vying for our attention that we can often feel like the proverbial juggler in the circus, busily multitasking our way through the day in a haze – feeling busy and sort of ‘productive’, and yet not getting around to the one thing that was truly important to us, the one thing that we really wanted to do, the one thing that we know would have been valuable to our own personal development.
It is possible, however, to step out of this unsatisfactory way of living, where our energy can often feel dispersed, and our vision for the future can often seem clouded. Through learning mindfulness, and through making the commitment to establish a regular meditation practice, it is possible to bring a sense of spaciousness, clarity and empowerment to our lives. When we are able to transcend our old state of habitual reactiveness to a new, more fulfilling, state of creative responsiveness, and when we are able to see opportunities and choices where previously we had seen none, then we can enter the realm of liberation, where we are free to take action based upon our own values and aspirations rather than whatever distractions shout the loudest.
Now that I’ve finished distracting you with this article, I’ll leave you get on with whatever you were doing!