By Clarence Ratliff
For the last two weeks I’ve tried to think of a topic for my Dharma glimpse, only to come up empty at every turn. Until Tuesday morning that is. I spent all that time looking, and then it just hit me. Quite literally in fact.
I was on my way to work early Tuesday morning and was stopped at a red light. Then bam…someone ran into the back of my truck. It was really more of a bump than a rear end collision. We both pulled off the road to inspect what happened. Fortunately there was no damage to either vehicle. The driver of the other car said he was distracted by swatting at a mosquito and must have taken his foot off the brake. Since there was no damage we had a laugh, shook hands and wished each other a good day. Aside from his embarrassment there was no harm done. But it got me thinking about the topic of distraction.
If you’re anything like me, you get distracted kinda easily. Oh, look at that shiny thing over there! It seems an ever present part of being human.
In one of Rev. Gyomays books he talks about focusing on something with your whole attention. He uses the commonplace activity of vacuuming the carpet as an illustration. He points out that when doing common repetitive tasks most people’s minds wander all over the place, not giving their whole attention to what they’re doing in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the illustration of washing dishes to make the same point. We spend a great deal of time and energy distracted by so many things that we’re often careless and miss things. Sometimes very important things.
Our culture doesn’t help alleviate this problem. We’re encouraged to be distracted by the overwhelming amount of inputs all vying for our attention. We’re asked to ‘multi-task’ at work, trying to juggle several tasks at the same time. Advertising arouses desires that compete with true needs. Is it any wonder that our minds are filled with so much stuff that we can’t stay mindful of the really important things that deserve our full undivided attention? I know I have a very hard time with it.
Anyone who has spent any time meditating can see just how busy our minds really are. There seems to be an autopilot feature in the human brain that is constantly churning out thoughts from every random piece of input that the senses are exposed to. Hence the term, “Monkey Mind”. Our minds are constantly chattering away like a barrel of hyperactive monkeys. Then of course if we’re not paying
attention, we latch on to these stray random thoughts and hitch a ride. Very often taking our attention away from things that are important. This is one of the things that regular meditation practice can help us with.
When practicing meditation, we focus our attention on the breath. When these stray thoughts arise, we notice them, and let them go their way. We may notice them for quite a while before we remember to let them go and refocus on our breathing, but that’s ok. The goal isn’t to quiet the mind or stop thinking as people sometimes assume. The goal is to see the constant chatter in our mind for what it is and work on not attaching to it.
I’ve also found that recitation of the Nembutsu can achieve the same result. It re-centers the mind from the chatter, pulling you back to the here and now. And doing physical activities like the aforementioned vacuuming the carpet or washing the dishes with full mindful awareness can help break us of the distraction habit.
And I do believe that it is a habit. We’re so used to our minds and lives being this way it’s an ingrained behavior. But it costs us a lot. A single distracted mistake can be devastating. Distraction keeps us from being fully present with others. It keeps us from being fully aware of ourselves. It keeps us mired in anxiety and stress from not being able to follow all the threads and the delusional expectation of wanting to ‘do it all’ or that we should be able to ’do more’.
Dharma practice, in my opinion can, over time and with diligence, lead us to slowing down the rush of sensory overload that gives us such anxiety. It can help us see things like thoughts for what they are, transient phenomena that we don’t have to cling to and identify with. And in doing so, reduce the suffering we contribute to the world.
Clarence Ratliff is a Lay Minister with the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.