Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Distractedness vs Presence

Okay lots to say but don't wanna waste too much time writing.

When meditating, we can roughly break our experience up into two modes: presence and distractedness. Presence is when you're aware of the object (if there is one), and by God, you know it. Distractedness is when your mind is wandering; its existence is only detected at some later point in an "oops!" moment. In some meaningful sense, your wits are not fully about you. During the beginning stages of meditation, most people spend the majority of their time in distractedness.

We can apply these labels to our everyday (non-meditating) consciousness as well. It's just sometimes harder to do when there is no object per se whose absence unequivocally reveals our lack of presence. This is why the form of meditation that uses no object is considered advanced. The practice is summed up in the following quote:
Although there is nothing to meditate upon,
Don't be distracted for even an instant!
So if during meditation, when we're trying our best to not be distracted, we spend the majority of time distracted anyway, you can imagine the picture we'd get if we could see all the times in our daily life that we're not "all there."

That's sobering. Isn't life too short to spend 90% of it distracted?

Okay on to the second point.

When we're in pain, we spend most of the time dwelling on the pain. This is being distracted from the pain. If that seems counterintuitive, consider the difference between watching the bare physical perception of pain and compulsively forming ideation about it. The first requires a keen presence; the second feels much more akin to what we would call "distractedness."

It turns out that when you maintain a lucid awareness of the physical sensation itself, the conceptual embellishment vanishes, and the suffering goes with it. The pain is still there, but the sense of being hurt by the pain disappears. They've been yelling this from the rooftops for millennia, but until one sees it for oneself, it sounds too mystical to be true.

So that's the second point: distraction brings suffering, while having a clear, vibrant presence of mind reveals the counterintuitive observation that sensations in and of themselves have no intrinsic power to harm. This insight itself releases the suffering that we normally assume must be part and parcel of the sensation.

To recap, distractedness robs you of the vitality of being there in life, and burdens you with suffering and the illusion that it is unavoidable; presence puts you front and center, and makes all perceptions wondrous spectacles of the mind.

Put in those terms, I'm becoming inclined to return to my boring practice of meditation...

(This was all typed up too quickly to respond to objections, some of which I foresee.)


Bianca Renee Abate said...

You example about pain made me smile. You know how clumsy I am. Every time I accidentally bang my foot on the coffee table, or hit my elbow on the corner wall, I always employ my "meditation" technique. I try to clear my mind and think about clouds, and then the pain just seems to dissolve away. It works every time!

Monktastic said...

I wouldn't be a good blogmaster if I didn't keep my readership up to date on the latest research, so check this out: for acute pain, distraction seems to beat focused attention on averting pain perception. For longer-term pain, focused attention is more effective.

It's not clear where to draw the "acute" boundary, and people differ in their capacity for focused attention, but it's being investigated whether one can train attentional control to the point where it's more effective for even acute pain.

In any case, this is a wonderful example of challenging intuition: who would believe that paying attention to pain could be more effective than distracting oneself from it?!

Now go kick a desk and lemme know if the attention approach works ;)