Yogis, especially beginners, are often discouraged by distracting thoughts. They say that meditation is difficult and they want to give up because of distracting thoughts. Sincere yogis, can spend long periods sitting, walking or in other postures, apparently meditating but in fact, just thinking.
Thoughts of the past, present and future keep arising and the untrained mind with relatively weak concentration and mindfulness takes up these thoughts and for some time forgets the object of meditation. Then at some point, the mind recalls the object and begins again.
Some yogis feel discouraged because they identify as a person doing meditation. It may be helpful to put aside notions of identity while meditating. Identities are totally redundant when meditating. Are ice skates useful when sleeping in your normal bed? Is a canoe useful when cycling in the park far from water?
When meditating the yogi can put aside notions of identity and just note objects that arise and pass in the present moment. If the mind forgets and a train of thoughts takes over, then as soon as the mind remembers, just continue the noting. Try not to indulge in recriminations, self-doubt, doubt about the method and so on. These judgemental thoughts are not helpful.
A yogi can just note a thought as a thought, regardless of what the content of that thought might be. Thoughts of sport, food, oceans and Dhamma are all just thoughts. As soon as aware of thinking, the yogi can note “thinking, thinking, thinking…” and then note whatever other object arises. Sensations of discomfort, pains, itches, sensations of cold or heat; feelings of like and dislike; all should be noted and not clung to. Nothing is worth clinging to in this world, especially when meditating.
After some time of diligent practice, the mind will note a continuous stream of phenomena, arising and passing, some thoughts, some sensations, some feelings and so on, all just arising and passing…arising and passing… If sufficient energy is applied, the yogi will develop and enhance skills. There will be fewer lapses of concentration and mindfulness. More and more details will become apparent. The noting of objects appears faster, steady and the yogi’s general feeling will be less of like and dislike and more of equanimity.
Majjhima Nikaya MN.152.4. Indriyabhaavanaa Sutta, The Development of the Faculties. (อินทริยภาวนาสูตร)
“Now Aananda, how is there there supreme development of the faculties in the Noble One’s Discipline?
Here, Aananda, when a bhikkhu sees a form with the eye, there arises in him what is both agreeable, there arises what is disagreeable, there arises what is both agreeable and disagreeable.
He understands thus: ‘There has arisen in me what is agreeable, there are has arisen in what is disagreeable, there has arisen what is both agreeable and disagreeable. But that is conditioned, gross, dependently arisen, this is peaceful, this is sublime, this is, equanimity.’ The agreeable that arose, the disagreeable that arose, and the both agreeable and disagreeable that arose cease just as quickly, just as rapidly, just as easily, and equanimity is established.
This is called in the Noble One’s Discipline the supreme development of the faculties regarding forms cognizable by the eye.
Passages 5-9. of the Indriyabhaavanaa Sutta contain similar advice for smelling an odour with the nose, tasting a flavour with the tongue, touching a tangible with the body, and cognizing a mind-object with the mind.
The following passage applies more to yogis doing samatha. However, some yogis doing vipassana may find it useful if they are struggling to develop mindfulness and are bothered by distracting thoughts so much that they wish to give up meditation altogether…Don’t give up! Be patient. Persevere.
Majjhima Nikaya MN20.8 Vitakkasa.n.thaana Sutta, The Removal of Distracting Thoughts. (วิตักกสัณฐานสูตร)
“Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is giving attention to some sign, and owing to that sign there arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then when he gives attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome, any such evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him and subside, and with the abandoning of them his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.
When he examines the danger in those thoughts…When he tries to forget those thoughts and does not give attention to them…When he gives attention to stilling the thought-formation of those thoughts…When with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, he beats down, constrains, and crushes mind with mind, any such evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him…and his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.
This bhikkhu is then called a master of the courses of thought. He will think what ever thought he wishes to think and he will not think any thought he does not wish to think. He has severed craving, flung off the fetters, and with the complete penetration of conceit he has made an end of suffering.
That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One’s words.
The remedy is to give attention to ‘some other sign connected with what is wholesome’ rather than to the sign connected with what is unwholesome. This remedy may be easier said than done. Lord Buddha defines signs connected with what is unwholesome as ‘thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion.’
As soon as a yogi doing vipassana is aware of a mind with desire, hate or delusion, the yogi should note the thought and immediately give attention to ‘some other sign connected with what is wholesome’ such as the breath or the sensation of touch. Though for a yogi doing samatha the wholesome sign might be a coloured disc-kasina, a bloated corpse, loving-kindness-metta or the the touch of the breath passing over the upper lip. Many more meditation objects are explained in the Vissudhimagga.
There are times when difficult issues arise in our lives and we may need to deal with them in a responsible, ethical and worldly way. There are also times when all that can practically be done has been done, yet we may still worry and think obsessively about problems. We may be stewing in anger over an injustice we are powerless to put right. We may be troubled or obsessed by unwanted or frustrated desires. We may be suffering with delusions of various kinds. Lord Buddha’s advice applies in daily life as much as in meditation. In fact calming the mind in this way will help people to settle their minds for meditating at a later stage.
Lord Buddha recommended many signs ‘connected with what is wholesome.’ Here are some for you to consider:
1. Lord Buddha (if you are a Buddhist), think about his life and virtues
2. Dhamma, think about the Dhamma you have studied
3. Sangha, think about the virtues of the Noble Ones, read and recollect the lives of prominant disciples such as Thera Sariputta, Thera Mahamoggallana, Thera Kassapa, Thera Aananda, Thera Anuruddha, Theri Uppalavanna, Theri Khema, Theri Kisagotami and so on.
4. Morality, recollect how your life is harmless to self and others.
5. Generosity, recollect how you have selflessly donated to worthy causes (eg. the Sangha).
6. Deities, recollect the virtues of beings who have appeared in celestial realms as deities. I sometimes recall that some of these deities are also Noble Ones who may have been deities or human beings taught directly by Lord Buddha. One of the ways of recollecting the virtues of Lord Buddha is sattha devamanussanam “teacher of deities and humans.”
There are many other signs ‘connected with what is wholesome.’ In popular psychology we are encouraged to imagine a beautiful park, with shady trees, swans and small friendly animals. We imagine ourselves sitting or lying in the shade near a bubbling brook or a small lotus pond. These images can calm our troubled minds and temporarily free us from the obsessive thoughts.
I have friends who like to listen to calming music that soothes them and relaxes their minds after a hard day at work. Some listen to the music on their portable music players while commuting.
In daily life we are not troubled all the time. It is also wholesome to reflect on:
1. the inevitability of illness, ageing and death.
2. making our lives simpler with fewer belongings and fewer distracting pastimes.
3. gratitude for our parents and teachers who cared for us and taught us life skills.
4. gratitude for friends and colleagues who helped us with our work and supported us in times of trouble.
5. compassion for unfortunate beings, including animals.
6. sympathetic joy (opposite of jealousy) for beings who currently enjoy wealth, good looks, fame etc.
7. equanimity while recalling that all beings are subject to kamma, good actions gets good result, bad action gets bad result.
8. wish that all beings act wisely so they may enjoy fortunate lives.
9. how to reduce our harmful impact on the Earth and other beings.
10. how to live with healthy minds and bodies.
11. good-will for all beings, regardless of whether they are friends, enemies or unknown.
The goal of removing distracting thoughts is so that the ‘mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.’ A mind thus concentrated is of immense benefit and may be readily applied for insight-vipassana.
May you sever craving, fling off the fetters, and with the complete penetration of conceit make an end of suffering.