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Focus the Mind with Skillful Distraction

Focus the Mind with Skillful Distraction

An excerpt from Shaila Catherine’s book, “Beyond Distraction: Five Practical Ways to Focus the Mind” (2022) – shared with permission.

There are appropriate times for distraction. A parent might dangle a set of keys or a toy rattle in front of a crying baby—the screaming stops and she smiles. The child’s attention is no longer obsessed with whatever caused her to scream; now she is fascinated by the dangling keys. When your mind is having a tantrum, dangle something else in front of your attention to help recompose and soothe yourself. Use the shift in perception to ground your attention in the present, remembering, “Oh, this is what’s happening now.” 

Traditional suggestions for skillful distractions include reflecting on noble qualities of the Buddha or your teacher, or chanting Dhamma verses. Reciting a verse of wisdom can shift the mind toward wholesome thoughts. If reflections and recitations fail to settle your mind, you might do some simple chores and focus your attention on what you are presently doing. The ancient commentaries suggest that a monk inventory his possessions. The monk is told to go to his bag and take out each of the items, identifying them one by one: “This is a toothbrush. This is a spoon. This is a sewing kit. This is a nail-cutter.” I compare this to housecleaning. When I felt upset as a teenager, I would gather my wits by cleaning a drawer, organizing my desk, or filing papers—simple, unexciting activities. 

Meditators should select their distractions carefully. You should be able to easily return attention to your primary meditation practice (or the activity at hand). Choose wholesome or neutral activities that engage and organize attention but do not stimulate exuberant excitement or create an internal drama that feeds sensual desire, aversion, comparison, or fear. A distraction should produce calmness and ease, not increase your workload or exacerbate your worry. It should help you compose yourself and refresh your energy but not keep you awake at night developing an exciting new project. 

We all need to distract ourselves from our own thoughts at times, but is the distraction you have chosen a skillful one? Does it refresh your attention, restore your confidence, and lead you toward your goal? Develop a list of skillful distractions to employ when you feel agitated by your thoughts. 

For example, to distract yourself from obsessive thoughts in daily life you might: 

  • Organize a desk drawer
  • Sort your inbox 
  • Mend clothes 
  • Weed the flower bed 
  • Solve a crossword puzzle 
  • Invite friends over to play Scrabble 
  • Step outside 
  • Exercise or stretch 
  • Listen to soothing music or perhaps stimulating music that moves you to dance 
  • Call an old friend 
  • Try a new soup recipe 

To distract yourself from obsessive thought in meditation you might: 

  • Count the breaths
  • Change the object of attention for a few minutes, for example, by listening to sounds 
  • Move attention through a sequence of touchpoints 
  • Recite the refuges and precepts 
  • Contemplate your virtues or good qualities 
  • Visualize an inspiring image—perhaps a Buddha image 
  • Reflect on your intention 
  • Memorize and recite a Dhamma verse