As I was sitting earlier this morning for a ten-minute mindfulness practice, the usual happened: I thought about stuff other than observing my breath. This is what happens with mindfulness practice, of course, and the key is to recognize it, let go of it without self-judgment, and return to the breath:
A different distraction
Yet another distraction
and so on
The practice isn’t the breathing and observation of breath; the practice is being aware of drifting thoughts, to learn to not grasp those thoughts but let them pass by so and keep the attention where it’s wanted.
Even a phrase like “easier said than done” works against that because it implies the distractions are bad, are failures. They are not. They are normal brain behavior. There are some people with long years of extensive practice who can observe what they choose without the distractions, but that’s not the norm.
I’m the norm, with my wandering thoughts and distractions and the need to start over and over and over. But as long as I can realize my thoughts have wandered and then return my attention where I intend it to be, without telling myself I’ve failed, then I am doing a-ok.
Some of these distractions, however, turn out to be important. The overall purpose of a mindfulness practice is to learn to maintain attention where you intend it to be, but it is a meditation practice. Some meditation practices do not focus on the breath but on other things: the body, emotions, thoughts – ie, all the stuff the brain does besides breathing. So learning something important while doing a simple (hah) breathing practice may be a distraction, but it can be a distraction of note.
And what I noted, and immediately took to writing here when the practice ended, is that the vast majority of my practice distractions have their source in things I’ve left undone. So one distraction this morning was psyching myself up to actually start an exercise program this morning, after my practice. My cardio is weak, and i’ve put on at least ten pounds of gut blob. It’s very unpleasant and, worse, not healthy. It’s something I do want to change, and it has to start today. I mean, at some point, it has to start today. Might as well be this today.
[editor’s note: I did it! I ran about half-a-mile and did ten sit-ups, knee push-ups, and squats.]
The other major distraction, and this occurs almost every time I practice, comes from not writing and not doing my podcast. This morning, my thoughts kept going to the podcast, to recording it, to details about what I should do, how to set my equipment up, etc. Not useful when I’m trying to keep my attention on my breath, but a useful sign that I need to do something about these things that keep coming to the front of my thoughts.
My depression is rooted in years of not having done anything with my life that I feel is meaningful. “I am a failure” is the motto of my depression. It’s also the inspiration for my anxieties. “I am a failure” is a very hard worker for me. It is far more successful than I am.
Thoughts about the things I haven’t done are not merely an interruption of my mindfulness practice. They are a signal of what my mind’s concerns. I don’t want to be a failure. I want to do a podcast. I want to write more. I want to be healthy enough to run 5ks against and to live to be 120 (at the least).
Distractions during mindfulness practice not bad; they just are. In my case, they are not merely not bad: they are indicators of the values I am not living out. My mind is refusing to shut up because I am not happy or satisfied with how I’m living my life. These distractions, in a very important way, are exactly why I am doing mindfulness practices.
To be awake, healthy and fully alive.