In meditation, the goal is to promote stress relief, wisdom, compassion, optimal performance, healthy relationships, peace of mind, happiness and health. It is achieved by taking the effort to cultivate mindfulness and concentration so you can experience and recognize the natural, relaxed unconstrained clarity of your mind.
Obstacles or hindrances are the things that get in the way of reaching goals and objectives.
In meditation as well as other activities, obstacles come in the form of desires, likes and dislikes, laziness and fatigue, distracted or obsessive thinking, worry, and doubt. They are facts of life. We do well to manage them well.
Hate them and treat obstacles as aliens to be fought and eliminated, and you fuel them. Get lost in them - give in to them - and you fuel them. Fueling them enables them to block you from reaching your goal.
Working with Obstacles
If you don't fight the obstacles and you don't give into them, what can you do with them?
You can accept them and use them as fuel for your work to manage your mind, as grist for the mill. You see the obstacle itself as an object of mindfulness and incorporate it into your meditation.
The obstacle occurs. It attracts your attention or presents a barrier to your intention. For example, laziness is a barrier because it increases the likelihood that you will avoid the effort required to follow up on your intention. The desire to follow a 'juicy' train of thought will distract you. Unskillful doubt will lower your motivation.
Redirect the obstacle by acknowledging that it has given you a wake-up call. Your mindfulness has detected the obstacle's force. That gives you the opportunity to just let it dissolve on its own, redirect your attention to your intended object or something else, use the obstacle itself as an object of mindfulness or allow it to be there until it wears itself out.
A chosen object of attention can be anything - the breath, a sound, word or phrase, a sensation in the body, a news article, the content of a speech or movie, etc. Let's take an example. You are reading something. It could be anything - a report, a story, an email. It is the chosen object of your attention.
In the midst of reading, a thought comes up about some other topic. You feel a pull towards that thought, you have a desire to pursue it. Before you know it you are off on a tangent that takes you away from finishing your reading.
With mindfulness, the best case is that you will notice the distracting thought as it comes up and your recognition will cause the thought to immediately dissolve - popped like a bubble. Your attention will remain on the reading.
If the thought does not immediately dissolve, you might label the thought as a distraction and mentally put it aside. In this case there is some distraction but it is short lived. Your attention to reading is barely interrupted.
If the thought persists or is really important to you, you might decide to take the time to write a note to yourself so you won't forget it and then come back to your reading. This is a greater distraction - you have stopped doing what you set out to do and are temporarily off doing something else. You have made a conscious choice to allow the distraction to have a greater effect. Once you have made this choice, be mindful so you don't get lost in the note writing and spend far longer than you intended on it. Mindfully applied effort is needed to bring you back to the original activity, as engaging as the distraction is. Letting go of a 'juicy' thought is not that easy.
Sometimes you do not become aware of the distraction until you have been caught up in it. The thought arises and a train of thought is triggered. Reading has stopped and you are on a mental trip following the distracting thought. At some point you realize that, while you might still be flipping pages, you are not reading any longer. At that point, you can take a breath and redirect your mind back the reading, if that is what you want to do.
Distractions on top of Distractions
In any case, watch out for the tendency to add other distractions - self-recrimination, self-congratulation and process analysis.
- Self-recrimination takes the form of "There I go again. What's wrong with me? I can't even keep my mind focused for more than two minutes without drifting off."
- Self-congratulation might be like "Wow, look at how more mindful I have become. I have seen this distraction and I don't have to follow it."
- Process analysis can be made up of questions like "How interesting that these thoughts just come up and carry me away. I wonder where they come from. I wonder whether I can stop them? What do they mean? What part of me is doing all this watching and commenting?" and then any number of attempts at answering them.
Regardless of the type of secondary distraction, you are further away from your reading. You have been distracted twice. Once by the original distraction and second by the commentary on your mental process.
The Main Idea
The idea is to notice what is happening and let the noticing itself be the signal to go back to the object of your attention - in this example, the reading. The more you do this, the more likely it is that you will spend more time doing what you intend to do and less time in distraction.
This is easier to say than it is to do, particularly when you are faced with difficult to accept situations like illness and loss. Sometimes, getting lost in distraction seems the best thing to do. It is fine as long as there is a conscious decision to do it and enough mindful awareness to let you know when it is time to come back to the reality of the moment at hand, as painful as it may be. It is like deciding to watch a movie to distract yourself from the mundane problems of your day. You relax, get lost for a while and then the movie ends.
Objectively noticing what is happening, seeing it all as a continuous flow of phenomena - thoughts, physical sensation, feelings, sights, sounds, etc. is a key to reaching the goal to promote peace of mind.
Peace of mind promotes better health, less reactivity and unnecessary stress. It is the foundation for the most effective performance whether it is focused on business, personal relationships, or service.