22. If you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained.
When you begin to do mindfulness or bodhichitta practice, one of the first things you notice is how distracted you are. It can seem as if a veritable avalanche of thoughts, fleeting moods, memories, plans, judgments, and all sots of mental folderol is pouring through your mind continually. People say such things as “I was fine before I started meditating, but now my mind is just a jumble.” However, none of that is really new, it was just never noticed before.
Mindfulness practice uncovers how flighty the mind can be and how easily it is captivated willy-nilly by whatever arises: a thought, a sensation, a sound, any old thing. As we continue to observe the workings of our mind, its bobbing and weaving become familiar territory. But then what? What do we do with all those distractions?
The goal of mindfulness is to overcome distractedness and learn how to focus the mind. The idea is to hold the mind to an object of our choosing, rather than be at the mercy of a mind that is hip-hopping all over the place. It is not easy to steady the mind, to not be distracted. To tame or settle the mind takes effort, it takes practice. So what could it possibly mean to practice even while distracted? Isn’t the idea not to be distracted?
Here is where the interesting twist of this slogan comes in. According to this slogan, instead of waging a kind of battle with distractions you can co-opt them as supports for your practice. It is like setting a default tendency toward mindfulness and bodhichitta, so that the moment a distraction arises, it brings us right back. The instant we notice we have lost our attention, we have regained it. So for a well-trained mind, when sudden distractions arise, they do not interrupt your practice, but reinforce it.
In your practice and during your daily activities, pay particular attention to the points at which you lose your mindfulness. In terms of bodhichitta practice, pay particular attention to the points at which you lose your openness or kindness. Notice the process of losing it and coming back.