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Meditating with Distraction

by Michael W. Taft

When I first started meditating, one of the hardest things was trying to stay focused. There were just so many things to do, people to interact with, noises like music or blaring car horns that shattered and upset my nascent meditative vibe. I felt like I was drowning. How could I focus in a sea of constant distraction?

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The funny thing is that, more than thirty years later, the distractions are still the same. Sirens wail, the bladder complains, people demand my attention, life is moving along in just the same intense, chaotic, confusing manner. If anything, decades of meditation have made me much more sensitive to sensory stimulii, not less, making each of these distractions more intense. The difference is that the distractions are no longer distractions. They’re just part of the practice. In other words, the so-called distractions actually help to deepen my meditation, rather than throw me out of it.

Here’s how that works: A vital part of developing a deep meditation practice is cultivating awareness of attention, or “meta-attention.” Having meta-attention means tracking where attention is pointing, moment by moment. So, if you’re meditating on the body sensations of breathing, for example, most of your attention is absorbed in that. But some modicum of attention is making sure that you’re attention is focused on breathing sensations, or noticing that attention has wandered to something else. It’s attention on attention, hence the “meta-.” Meta-attention allows you to stay focused because it keeps track of where your attention is.

Having good concentration is a vital skill, but having good meta-attention will revolutionize your practice. That’s because as far as meta-attention is concerned, there are no distractions. There is just the sensation or object that you’ve decided to focus on and then there is everything else. If you are focused on the desired object, meta-attention tells you so. Good. Keep going. If you’re attention has moved to something else, meta-attention tells you so. Good. Bring attention back to the desired object.

In either case, attention or distraction, you’re growing your power of meta-awareness. In this way of looking at things, nothing is a distraction. It’s all just fuel to cultivate your meta-awareness. So you can quit fighting with the world and wishing it would calm down and let you meditate.

Working in this way, it’s often the case that you actually welcome distraction, because you can feel the pleasure of meta-awareness flexing its muscles. Voila! There are no longer any distractions anywhere in the world. There are only things which help you to deepen your meditation practice. Enjoy.


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photo by Michael W. Taft


2 thoughts on “Meditating with Distraction”

  1. Part of me agrees and rejoices about this. However I have gone off course using this skill when really I was procrastinating on learning to let people know that their behavior is disturbing me. Granted there are some distractions that cannot be helped. However I would caution people about learned helplessness in situations that can benefit from firm communication between oneself and the offending party.

    1. Important point, Jessop, and it applies to other meditation skills as well. Sometimes it’s possible to take acceptance too far. It can become apathy, avoidance, learned helplessness, and so on.

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