Is distraction the natural state of mind? (Do we all have ADD?)

Buddhism: Day 1 and 2

I did my first two meditations over the past few days and I have to say they were very….difficult.  Here’s how it went down:

First, I would close my laptop, close the blinds in my apartment, and turn off all the lights. I set my iPhone timer to 20 minutes and sit down on the floor with my back learning against a wall. I’m not flexible enough to sit cross-legged comfortably so I just keep my legs straight out.

The particular form of meditation I’m testing is called Anapanasati, or “mindfulness of breathing.”

In this type of meditation, you focus on your breath. Ideally, you breathe through your nose and focus on the sensation and rhythm of breathing. You count up to five on the inhale, and then count to five again on the exhale.

The first minute or so went fine. I was concentrating on the breath and the counting. However, it wasn’t long before my mind wandered.

“Inhale….1, 2, 3, 4, 5, okay now exhale. Slow breathing is great! I wish I could do this at my desk at work. Dammit I have so much to do at work…oh shit I need to focus on my breathing!”

That happened repeatedly during the 20 minute exercise the entire time. In fact, during my first meditation, my mind wandered so far from the breath that I nearly dozed off!

And my mind wandered to some weird stuff, not just work. I thought about some TV show I’m watching, philosophical concepts, what I’d write about for this blog, happy hour, etc.

It’s the mind monkeys at work.

Now, what’s interesting is that these thoughts occurred when I put myself in a fairly distraction-less environment. I wasn’t at my computer, the TV wasn’t on, the temperature was comfortable, and there weren’t any distracting noises.

What this suggests is that distraction isn’t something caused by something external to us, but rather, distraction is the natural state of our minds!

Culturally, we’ve caught on to the fact that iPhones and e-mail and the modern work environment are contributors to distraction, but we blame them as the cause of our distraction.

Consider this excerpt from the NYT article, “Growing up Digital: Wired for Distraction.”

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

The implication of this article is that technology is to blame for our wandering minds and declining attention spans.

But if that’s true, why is that Buddhism recognized “monkey mind” thousands of years ago? If I can be distracted by my own thoughts during meditation, what makes us think that technology is the real cause of our ADD?

If distraction is indeed an inherent trait in all people, than the solution doesn’t lie in manipulating the external environment (turn off the cell phone, don’t check e-mail, etc.), though that can help, the solution lies in training our mind to ignore distractions.

What’s ironic is that as we’re blaming cell phones and e-mail for our current attention span problems, we’ve also started diagnosing people with Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD), which says that short attention span is a brain problem.

With one category of people, “normal” people, modernity says, “it’s technology that is causing all our distraction problems,” and with another group of people we say, “it’s your brain that is causing all your distraction problems.”

With the latter group, we prescribe drugs like Adderall to get them to focus, and for “normal” distractible people, we tell them to batch e-mails and use various productivity techniques.

But what if the distinction is nonsense? What if we all suffer from “ADD?” I guess we could take drugs and combine that with productivity techniques, but I’m willing to bet the more effective solution lies in Buddhism, with “mindfulness of breath.”

Now, excuse me as I check my e-mail.

  • MarcHamann

    If you have a problem sitting cross-legged, there are a couple better options than leaning against a wall.

    A more traditional option is to sit kneeling on a mat with a cushion under your butt. (I do this myself).

    A less traditional option is to sit on a hard chair sitting forward so that you are keeping your spine straight supported only by your own body. (I did this when I started meditating regularly)

    The spine being straight and self-supporting is often considered a very important part of the practice, and I agree. I would argue that what you do with your legs is somewhat secondary, except that keeping your spine straight is a bit easier in one of the traditional postures (if you can manage them).

    You may find an approach that retains this feature produces better results (even if you still do need to deal with monkey mind…)

    • Thanks for the tips Marc. Is there a reason why keeping the spine straight is so important? Just curious.

      • MarcHamann

        I’ve heard a few theories, including a neurological one, that keeping your spine straight helps to balance out your nervous system.

        From my own practice, I would say that it helps you to remain aware of your body and the present moment. When your mind drifts, you will notice that often your body slouches too, so there does seem to be some connection between alertness and a straight spine.

        (Think about the difference between standing at attention and slouching against a wall)

        • @MarcHamann:disqus , Good point. Dozing off is a high risk factor for me. Though I will say I’ve fallen asleep standing up before.

          @disqus_0D3LINVuUj:disqus Thanks for the links.

    • Common Tater

      Seconded. It’s easy to feel like the posture Nazis are everywhere when you start meditating, but posture really does have an effect on your meditation experience. Beyond being distracted by pain, it’s worth taking a look at the grounded cognition research, like this overview or at least this TED talk to see why that might be true.

      Another little posture tip: I find that, when sitting in a chair, my spine can most closely approximate the correct position when I push my knees out form parallel with each other. Like, in a way you wouldn’t be able to do in an armchair.

  • Arushi

    Great post, Dale.
    I had the same issues when I started meditating for the first time, too bad, I was so discouraged that I decided to not to continue it.
    But, this post, nevertheless comes as a reminder to whoever reads it that distraction is all mind made and our ‘ego ‘ self denies to accept it by blaming the external environment, just like in the case of escapism.

    I hope meditating becomes a more peaceful experience for you overtime 🙂

    • It’s definitely a tough practice! And I think we are prone to forgetting that it is, indeed, a practice.

      Thanks for the smart comments Arushi.

      • Arushi

        Also, I wanted to ask did you trying practicing guided meditation?

        • I only used the Headspace meditation app for the second few weeks.

  • Jake

    I’ve been sitting regularly for over a year, and I still find it very difficult to sit cross-legged for longer than 10-15 minutes without becoming extremely uncomfortable. I agree with all the others that keeping the spine straight is more important than your position. Having arthritis in my back and hips, there are some days where sitting on the edge of a regular chair with my spine straight has to be good enough. At least that keeps me sitting every day.

    As to monkey mind, my teacher uses the analogy of the stomach: asking your mind not to think is like asking your stomach not to digest food. It’s pretty much damn near impossible. The important thing is to just notice that you are wandering and come back to the breath without passing judgment. It’s that way that we start to undo the habit of attaching to our thoughts and running off with them. Another analogy that I’ve read and like is that meditation is like sitting in the middle of the room with all the doors open and seeing who comes in. We just note who it is and then let them go on their way.

    • Stephan

      I like to think that what my heart does is beats, what my lungs do is breathe, and what my mind does is generate thoughts. That’s just what they do, will ye or nil ye. I’ll definitely have to add the stomach one to the list!

  • Junsui

    I must thank you for this article. I was very confused, because as a child I wasn’t distracted often. Actually, I was a very calm and easily absorbed into things I was doing (drawing, creating stuff out of “junk” as my mom called it , etc. ). I could be focused for few hours. I started using computer at the age of 13 more intensely, but it didn’t get in a way of my attention.

    What I now realized is that technology wasn’t distracting me first, I was the one seeking distraction. It started with problems. Problems I could and couldn’t solve. As I grew older, problems piled and created a burden. Even now, I often catch myself seeking distractions (I practiced that 😀 ). And I know I’m to blame, not technology.

    The moment I read “why is that Buddhism recognized “monkey mind” thousands of years ago?” it was clear to me that I would have monkey mind in any era anyway, if I let it be that way.

    The thing is, with this monkey mind, I missed on a lot of things, because escaping reality is time consuming, and when I spend time on silly shallow distraction, I don’t have time for more meaningful things.

    Imho, it seems that in any era, humans either had something to do, or had monkey mind. If you work on something,and get “lost” in it, your mind if focused, and if you have nothing to do, your mind goes wild, I guess to fill the silence,void or something else entirely.

    Again, thanks for writing this article and researching these concepts, it really helped me understand myself. 🙂

    • Yes, distractions are a welcome relief for whatever difficulty we are experiencing in the moment.

      Re: getting lost in something….I suspect you’re correct. It’s easier to focus on tasks you enjoy or are interested in.