Distraction: Strategies for Overcoming Distracting Thoughts

An interview with Shaila Catherine

In this article, Shaila Catherine is interviewed by Insight Journal, a publication of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. The discussion explores five strategies for removing distracting thoughts and enhancing concentration. This article preceded a study course that Shaila taught in  March 2018.

Course Title: Distraction: Strategies for Overcoming Distracting Thoughts.

Course Description: Mental restlessness is an insidious and pervasive hindrance that most practitioners struggle to overcome. We can refine our skills for working with the modes of thinking that distract us from being mindful and disrupt concentration: critical thoughts, planning, worrying, lustful thoughts, judging, memories, internal commentaries, to name a few. This course will explore a sequence of strategies for dealing with obstructive mental patterns derived from two discourses taught by the Buddha (MN 19 and 20). The program will include sutta study, discussion, and meditation practice to gain experiential insight and meditative strategies for overcoming distractions. This course is suitable for both new and experienced practitioners.

Insight Journal: How did you decide to teach a course at BCBS about overcoming distracting thoughts?    

Shaila:  What meditator doesn’t want to overcome distracting thoughts?  We all struggle to work skillfully with our own minds and learn to face the patterns that disturb our peace.  The Discourses of the Buddha give us a wealth of resources–not just one approach but myriad strategies for working more skillfully with the habits of mind that keep us caught in suffering. 

I’ve structured the class around two discourses, MN 19: Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Kinds of Thoughts and MN 20: Vitakkasanthana Sutta: The Removal of Distracting Thoughts (translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi), and then collected additional suttas that show how each of the five main strategies were applied in other contexts. 

One of the things that inspired me about those discourses is the line: “He will think whatever thought he wishes to think, and he will not think any thought that he does not wish to think.” (MN 20) When I read that, I thought, I want to have that ability. I do not want to be the slave of habitual tendencies. I want to be the master of my own mind. I want to be able to think whatever thought I want to think, and not think whatever thought I don’t want to think. This is a skill we can develop.  Our minds are our own responsibility. 

Q:  I agree, we each have to do it for ourselves.  I pulled up both of the suttas to take a look at them more closely, and I was really struck by a quote in MN 19. The Buddha said: “‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’ So I made thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness one sort, and thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness another sort.”

How easy is it to do that?  To separate your thoughts into two different sorts, and then to have the intention to work with them. 

Shaila:  It’s not really difficult to do, it’s just that we don’t tend to remember to do it.  People tend to invest their thoughts with reality, and assume they are true.  But it would be wiser to take a mindful step back, and see thought as a mental phenomenon. 

People may be more comfortable taking a step back to reflect on their actions and speech, but in meditation, we’re taking a step back to reflect on our mental action: the quality of our thoughts, the tendencies of our minds.  So just this initial instruction  of looking at our thoughts and placing them into two piles is a very important meditative practice.   

The next step is to ask ourselves some questions:  What is this thought arising out of? What is the motivation behind it?  What is the intention?  Is it based in greed, or renunciation?  Is it coming out of hate, anger, and jealousy, or is it coming out of compassion and kindness?  If we forget to look at what is stimulating the thought, and forget to consider where it is leading, we may be caught in the mental patterns, assuming the thoughts are more substantial than they actually are. Thoughts arise due to causes and conditions, and they create causes and conditions for future experience. 

 Q:  Yes, that is very good advice: Look at the root of what makes that thought arise, identify where it’s coming from, is it coming from ill-will, or karmic conditioning?  In my own practice, I can see when a repeated thought comes up, it has its roots in karmic conditioning. Just recognizing that at times is helpful.   

Shaila:  Well, the force of conditioning, the force of our habits will have an impact on what’s likely to arise.  So, if we frequently think one kind of thought, then that’s going to create a pretty strong groove.  There will be a tendency in our mind to keep thinking that kind of thought.   

That’s when we might use various strategies to work more diligently with the mind. A lot depends on our attitude, because when we work with the mind we have to have a balanced, friendly attitude. We can’t attack our mind and try to beat away unwanted thoughts. That’s just going to cause more agitation. So if we can have a friendly attitude — and friendly is different than indulgent — friendly is based in loving-kindness and wisdom — then we’ll be able to look at the mind and see if our thought patterns are useful. 

We simply see, “Oh, that’s not a useful thought pattern. How can I meet the fact that this thought has arisen this way?” Maybe it’ll be to replace the thought, maybe it’ll be to examine the danger, to try to understand why it’s not a useful thought for me.  We can take a look and realize, “OK, this is not really the thought I want to cultivate in my mind, yet I do not understand why it’s arisen.” And so we can examine it more closely so that we will understand the pattern.  What is it based upon?  What is it fueled by? What are the costs? Am I getting something out of it? Is there some sense of gratification? Is it worth the price? 

A mind inclined toward envy will have a lot of comparing thoughts, and a mind inclined toward fear will have more fearful thoughts, and a mind inclined toward trust will have more confident thoughts.  What we cultivate and nurture with our mental actions creates the conditioning which will make those thoughts more likely to arise. So as meditators we look and we see what are the repeating thoughts, how are they held in check and are they thoughts we want to repeat. If they are, then fine, but if they are not, then we apply the various strategies to overcome them. 

Q: And would you say that the strategies could be found in the two discourses? 

Shaila:  Well, what I like about the MN19 discourse is that it helps us understand how those wholesome and unwholesome thoughts function in our minds  as conditioned mental events. Which ones do we feed, what gives rise to them?  How can the supportive ones be nurtured and how can the unhelpful ones be abandoned. Our thoughts are not who and what we are; they are just conditioned mental events. 

Then we pick up with the next discourse, MN 20 Vitakkasanthana Sutta.  We have already seen what’s wholesome and unwholesome, so now we practice to overcome the unwholesome because we don’t want to be a slave to those habitual thought patterns. 

MN 20 suggests five particular strategies for overcoming distracting thoughts.  These strategies include examining the thought, learning to replace an unwholesome thought with a wholesome thought, and learning to turn away or forget a thought.  The strategies include looking at the causal formation of the thought, understanding what feeds it and what de-nourishes it. There’s also the power of intense resolve, of clear, strong, determination to not think a thought we don’t want to think. 

These strategies unfold in a step-by-step sequence.  Each stage demands that the meditator engage more wisely and profoundly with that thought pattern.    

So for example, the first strategy is simply learning to replace one thought with another.  For example, if we’re irritated with someone, we reflect that they actually have good qualities too.  And so we turn our attention away from the thing that is annoying us, and focus instead on something that we respect about that person. In classic dharma language, we say we replace ill-will with loving kindness. You replace an unwholesome thought with a wholesome one. 

This is an example of what meditators do all the time.  We’re sitting in meditation, being mindful of the present moment, then we get caught up in a story of past or future or fantasy.  So we return our attention to our chosen meditation subject, or some sensation that’s happening in the present moment. We replace the distracting fantasy with mindfulness of the present moment experience. So in this way, we are training the mind in line with the first strategy.  We’re not sitting there trying to create positive affirmations, but we are training the way we think. We are helping  our minds think in ways that support our goals and support our aims. 

IJ: There is a paragraph toward the end of MN 20, which I’ve heard several times before in dharma talks. It always makes me cringe inside because of the wording: “with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth — he should beat down, constrain, and crush his mind with his awareness.” 

Shaila: The language is vivid, and some people react strongly to that final strategy. One of the important things to notice about that strategy of strong determination is where it’s positioned in the discourse. It’s the final step in the sequence.  There comes a time when we need resolve and strong effort to refuse to indulge in unwholesome states. We progress to that step after we’ve already applied each and every previous strategy but are still overcome by unwholesome thoughts. This means that by the time we’ve gotten to the point of applying intense resolve we’ve already cultivated a wholesome alternative, we’ve already understood the danger in the thought and developed dispassion toward it, we’ve already tried to just step away from it, we’ve already seen the underlying formations, emotions and mental formations that feed it, we’ve understood the causes for its arising. And so finally, after there’s dispassion, wisdom, and wholesome alternatives in play, now we’re able to say no to a habitual pattern of thought and mean it. 

Q: Thank you. I think you’re right. The placement in the sutta makes all the difference. 

Shaila: When you work with this sequence, you almost never get to that last one. I’ve been working with this sequence for quite a while, and there’s only a few times in my career as a meditator, since 1980, when I’ve used that last step. Because usually the previous steps will have resolved the issue. Those few times when I’ve had to use strong effort, there’s not a shred of aversion. There’s no anger, there’s no hatred, it’s simply saying no and meaning it. 

Q: I’ve been finding one sentence really helpful in MN 20: “These thoughts of mind result in stress.” And I thought, “stress” seems like such a modern word, but I can relate to it. Oh, yes, if I follow that thought, it’s going to create stress. 

Shaila: Yes, thoughts can create stress. Other translations say they can produce afflictions, for oneself and for others, or they lead to harm for oneself and others. Even if we’re not acting out or speaking out, the thoughts themselves are having an effect.  Just thinking certain ways can cause a lot of happiness or a lot of pain in our lives. So it’s a worthy undertaking for a meditator to look at the patterns of mind. I have a number of students who come to me to strengthen their concentration, and their jhana practice. And sometimes people long for concentration because they hope it will be a quick way of getting away from their own thoughts, or quieting the mind. 

Q: That strikes me as a form of aversion or spiritual bypassing. 

Shaila: It can be. But instead of pushing away qualities we don’t like, we develop concentration by working skillfully with the mind.  That way we’ll be developing concentration based on purification of the mind. We’ll look at the dynamics of the mind. We’ll understand which thoughts are leading to harm. And we’ll be cultivating the mind so that the mind is well developed. We will understand how and when we get seduced into an unwholesome pattern, and we will become more and more skillful with pulling ourselves out of that habit pattern and reestablishing ourselves in a mindful, clear presence.  These are skills that we need for concentration.  To develop concentration we develop the ability to overcome distracting thoughts and all unwholesome thoughts and simultaneously we’ll be cultivating very beautiful qualities of mind. 

Q: This seems like really a pivotal practice in order to move forward along the path. 

Shaila: This approach is based upon understanding — understanding the nature of thought, understanding the activities of mind, discerning the difference between wholesome and unwholesome. We recognize how those two modes of wholesome and unwholesome develop, how they are fed and affect the mind. We’re doing the ethical work that really must be done to purify the mind. It’s not about forcefully pushing away thoughts we don’t want so that we can establish our concentration and enter the blissful states of jhana. No, this approach is one of developing the mind through wisdom and understanding. We must understand how the mind works. And when we understand how our minds work, then we’re not going to fall into the same traps all the time. 

Q: Yes, I really appreciate your putting it that way, “the ethical work.” 

Shaila: Well, at the root of so many ethical decisions is simply the ability to discern what’s wholesome from unwholesome. We must be able to know the difference between greed and non-greed, hatred and non-hatred, and be vividly clear about that in our own thought process. 

Q: Can you speak a little about how to bring this practice into daily life? 

Shaila: Whatever insight and development occurs in the sitting practice is going to inform and affect how we experience daily interactions. Working with thoughts is particularly relevant to working with our daily interactions because we’re thinking all the time. 

We’re cultivating the second factor of the Eight-Fold Path.  It’s sometimes called Right Thought, but it’s also called Right Intention, Samma Sankappa.  Our thoughts affect our choices in life, our actions, decisions, and activities. 

There are moments in our daily activities when we’re not really doing a lot, maybe we’re sitting with a cup of tea looking out the window for a moment, or we’re driving on a freeway and there’s just a lot of space between two freeway exits. What’s your mind doing then? Do you bother to notice? It’s a valid practice to emphasize mindfulness of the body and to ground the attention in the sensations of the here and now.  But another valid practice would be to observe the mental activities and to just see whatever thoughts float through the mind. Are they rooted in wholesome or unwholesome states? 

What are the thoughts that occupy our minds in ordinary moments when we’re walking down the hallway that we’ve walked down a thousand times before? What does the mind do? Can we take those moments as equally important meditative moments, equally important moments for mindfulness and awareness? Ordinary daily activities provide equally important moments to train the habits of mind. Do we watch out for wholesome and unwholesome tendencies? Do we give free rein to the defilements as we go about our daily activities and only curb them when we sit down in meditation? 

As meditators we’re training ourselves to observe the mind from the time we wake up in the morning until the time we go to sleep at night. We watch where our minds are inclining and we check that the inclination of our mind is the inclination that we want to cultivate. Are we thinking in a way that is leading to the end of greed, hatred and delusion? Are we thinking in a way that is going to lead to the realization of nibbana?  Are we thinking in a way that is going to allow this experience of awakening and peace to really inform the decisions of our lives? 

Q:  Thank you Shaila.  I think we’ve covered a lot, and I think this course is going to be hugely beneficial for people to attend.  We look forward to having you back at BCBS March 9-14th, 2018 for  Distraction: Strategies for Overcoming Distracting Thoughts.