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E12: Why Are My Thoughts So Darn Distracting During Meditation?


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Jacob Derossett

We are here with Sarah Vallely, mindfulness teacher, coach, and author. Sarah has been teaching meditation mindfulness for the past two decades, training and certifying others to teach mindfulness. Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled Tame Soothe Dwell: The 55 teachings of TSD Mindfulness. Today on the podcast, we discuss concentration versus mindfulness and how to know if you're being concentrated versus being mindful. We talk about how thoughts can break your attention, and we talk about different meditation practices, and if they're concentration or mindfulness-based. My name is Jacob Derossett, and we're here with Sarah Vallely, Sarah, how are you?


Sarah Vallely

I'm great, Jacob, thank you. The Buddhist teachings are taught in lists, and the reason they are in lists is because the Buddha was on this planet maybe 5000 years ago. Back then, they did not have books. So the way they memorized the Buddhist teachings was in lists--Four Noble Truths, the five hindrances, and the seven factors of enlightenment. These are a few examples of the lists. The seven factors of enlightenment are concentration, effort, joy, mindfulness, equanimity, investigation, and tranquility. And I always wonder about the difference between equanimity and tranquility. They seem very similar, but the way I understand it is equanimity is more about emotional calmness. And tranquility is more about mental stillness.



The reason I'm bringing these factors of enlightenment up is that we are going to be talking about concentration and mindfulness. They are both on the list of the seven factors of enlightenment. I'd like to put concentration and mindfulness in another context also. Some people say there are four meditation components. One is the way we position our bodies. The second is the object we are focusing on. The third is our attitude. Are we frustrated in our meditation? Are we restless, we relaxed, or are we happy? And the fourth is our mental behaviors. They say that the two main mental behaviors we use during our meditation are concentration and mindfulness because they have the most significant influence on our ability to change our internal and external stimuli awareness.


Jacob Derossett

What is the difference between concentration and mindfulness?


Sarah Vallely

Mindfulness is the part of us choosing what to focus on. Concentration is the part of the practice when we’re focusing. Mindfulness is noticing the details of what we're focusing on. And concentration is simply keeping our attention on the details. There are differences. They're subtle. The mindfulness part would be noticing when we're distracted. The concentration part is more like an on-off. We are either concentrated, or we're not. The mindfulness part is noticing what stage we're in, we're noticing what status our concentration is in.


Some people say mindfulness is the more sensitive part of the practice. More of the yin and the concentration is more forced. And that's more the Yang. I read a study that had the participants practice a straight-up concentration exercise and later practice a mindfulness exercise*. They took data on their brainwaves during both of those exercises. When they were practicing mindfulness, they had higher rates with their different brainwaves. Their brains went into more delta, more theta, more alpha, and more beta than when they simply practiced concentration.


*Concentration and Mindfulness Meditations: Unique Forms of Consciousness? Applied Psychology and Biofeedback. 1999


Jacob Derossett

Attention is “I'm looking at you on the screen right now.” Awareness is “I'm looking at you, and I hear my cat playing with something in the background.” I use this in coaching a lot. When people are moving through space, more specifically, like a lifting exercise, they'll have their attention on the three cues that I gave them, and they typically get overwhelmed. I learned to say, ”I want you to watch me do this exercise. Now when you're doing it, imagine me doing it.” So it shifts people from attention to awareness, usually results in a more relaxed approach, and they can get their bodies to behave more closely to what I'm asking.


Let's say someone is sitting at home and listening to the birds outside, which is very common when I practice in the morning. It's nice that I have that reminder out the window, but I sit there and listen to the birds. Is that mindfulness or concentration? Is it neither?


Sarah Vallely

In the industry of meditation and mindfulness, this is a gray area. And the way I see the difference is the curiosity factor. How curious are we, when we're paying attention to the birds, if we're just concentrating on the birds, and we're just simply listening to the birds, and we're just focused, then I would consider that to be concentration. But if we're doing it mindfully, not only are we focused on the sounds of the birds, but we're also being curious about it. We're asking ourselves, How does this experience affect my body right now? How does it affect my thinking? How does it affect my emotions? That awareness part is being aware of how the sound of the birds is affecting yourself on these different levels.


Jacob Derossett

Can you give an example of your inner practice, doing mindfulness versus your internal practice and doing concentration?


Sarah Vallely

As I said, this is a gray area. This is very mucky. But for me, it's that lack of curiosity, that lack of opening awareness to the holistic experience. We're just concentrating on the sound of the birds. And it's just our focal point. And we're not opening up to the bigger picture of the other aspects of the experience for ourselves--the physical characteristics, How does this feeling in my body? How is this emotionally moving me or not? And without putting a lot of effort into that curiosity, without letting that curiosity take you down these rabbit holes and distraction, we open up our experience. I mentioned those questions that we asked ourselves just to represent the openness of the whole experience.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, that sounds like, by definition, one is more closed off, and one is more open, right?


Sarah Vallely

Yeah. And honestly, I sometimes just practice concentration. And sometimes, I'll teach my students and clients to just practice concentration for specific periods because concentration is so essential to our practice. Ee can develop that and spend some dedicated time just concentrating. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But I think it's good for us to be educated. And to know that's not complete mindfulness. That's the concentration part.


I think a reason that sometimes we don't differentiate mindfulness from concentration is that they both help us practice de-automation. We practice concentration and mindfulness so we can get out of our autopilot mode. And mindfulness and concentration are vehicles to get to this particular state in meditation that we want to get to.


Did you know that Zen and transcendental meditation are not mindfulness? Some people glop all that together. If you go on the internet and search for an article on Zen and mindfulness, you won't find much. I did it the other day. I found one site that said “the three steps to Zen mindfulness”, which I had to chuckle because I've spent some time at Zen temples, and the big takeaway I got there is that the Zen meditators are very good at not using steps. That's a big difference. In mindfulness, we have steps, which I love. That's one of the reasons I love the mindfulness practice because I do well with steps like that. And then, if you do a Google search for transcendental meditation and mindfulness, you'll find a bunch of articles that explain why they're not the same practice.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, so I did a whole Zen Koan month. I didn’t think it was for me because I was supposed to meditate on the Koan, and it feels redundant. But also, to be fair, I had already been practicing. Dzogchen, which is what Sam Harris mainly teaches. You consider, Who is the person that is breathing? Where is the person that's breathing? You have this shift of your perspective, wondering, Who is the person having this thought? You are watching your mind. It's Mindfulness-Based because you will have this shift of perspective very subtly.


Transcendental Meditation people like getting a pronounced sense of relaxation, pretty much instantaneously from my understanding of it, because it's concentration-based. I don't know if you're taught to cultivate large amounts of awareness of your mind. Or if you're just supposed to go back to the mantra.


Sarah Vallely

All these different practices are all wonderful. And I don't think that one is any better than the other. But like your experience, Jacob, you did not resonate as much with the Zen practice. It is nice that people have these different options. They might resonate more with TM than with mindfulness. I would say Zen practitioners wouldn't consider Zen concentration-based because that is still a vehicle--that's still a technique using concentration. I look up to Zen practitioners. I'm glad that I dedicated myself to mindfulness so I could be a mindfulness teacher because I think if I dedicated myself to Zen, I don't think I would achieve a high level and have the expertise to teach.


Jacob Derossett

Zen is weird. That's the only word I could use to describe it. You just kind of sit around not hoping to get enlightened because if you hope to get enlightened, that's not part of this. But it resonates with certain people. I do a fair bit of kettlebell lifting in my training. And kettlebell lifting is a personality type. It's great that there are many different vehicles for people. You don't think that Zen would label their practices concentration-based?


Sarah Vallely

I don't, because they're just simply sitting and just opening up to the stillness, I don't think that they would consider themselves to be concentrating on anything in particular. No matter what you're practicing, I believe that when people say, “I can't meditate,” they're usually referring to their concentration. I think that what they're saying is, “I can't concentrate.” And so that's why concentration is such an important topic to talk about in a meditation class. I talk about concentration in every class I teach. Before we meditate, we have a part of the class where I go over a concentration skill.


Jacob Derossett

In Dzogchen, they will not even teach you the higher teachings until you have done a preliminary practice for years before. They will not even let you in the temple until you have spent a couple of years developing a pronounced sense of concentration and the ability to focus. Same with the app that I follow, there was a month-long lesson on just how to concentrate on your breathing.


Sarah Vallely

I like that it's separating the concentration and saying this is something that you need to develop.


Jacob Derossett

It took me years to separate from a thought. Concentration is your baseline. In aerobic work. We'd say that you have to go out and build your base. If you're running a marathon, you have to get time on your feet. You shouldn’t think about training until you put at least 100 hours on your feet in a year.


Sarah Vallely

Do you think that you are better at concentration or better at mindfulness? Or do you not distinguish them much during practice?


Jacob Derossett

I'm horrible at concentration, terrible at it. I think I'm much better at mindfulness. Being aware of everything going on is a lot easier for me. But if I had to say I'm going to focus exclusively on my breathing, I feel like it's an almost impossible task. So maybe that just means I need to do more concentration-based mindfulness. But what's your take on that? You want to diagnose me?


Sarah Vallely

An antidote for that might be to spend some extra time in your sitting practice developing that concentration skill, which will be a topic of a future episode. Today, we are going to talk about why we are having such a hard time concentrating.


What is it that's distracting us? One is a physical distraction. And when I say physical, I don't just mean your body—anything in our physical world. Consider you're in your sitting practice right now. A loud noise, a physical discomfort, a bright light--something in your physical world can distract you. Your thalamus can distract you because it breaks your attention about four times per minute to scan the environment for threats. Your emotions can pull your attention away. And your thoughts--that's the biggie--your thoughts. Thoughts on their own, do not need to be distracting. The big lesson is, how to allow those thoughts to be in our consciousness without distracting us from our meditation practice.


I have a couple of theories about why we are distracted by our thoughts. And this is because of my practice, my students, and my clients. One of them is that we are afraid of forgetting something. We are sitting there meditating, and a thought comes up into our consciousness, and we let it distract us because we believe that thought is essential. Because it reminds us that we need to do something.


Jacob Derossett

What is your opinion on keeping pen and paper beside you while you meditate and get the thought out?


Sarah Vallely

Some of my students do that. I think that's okay. But it's not ideal. The ideal situation is to move into a place of trust, trust that you will remember if it is crucial. Believing, after you're sitting in meditation, it will come back to you. Say to yourself, “I trust that I'll remember later.”


Another strategy that I have for those types of distracting thoughts is to take a moment and think about what is the most important thing as a human being for you to remember. And that is who you are. The answer to that is different for different people depending on their faith. As a Christian might say, “I need to remember I'm a child of God.” If someone is spiritual, the most important thing to remember might be “I am a huge dynamic spiritual being.” For an atheist, the most important thing to remember is “I am atoms, molecules, flesh, and muscle.” When I take a moment and remember this most important thing, then all the other things that I feel like I need to remember just don't seem to be that important anymore.


Jacob Derossett

When I was in college, I said, “We're just on a rock that's hurling through space and time,” When I got stressed about tests, I’d say, “We're just on a rock hurtling through space and time.”


Sarah Vallely

That is a good ego check. Another reason I think our thoughts can be so distracting during our sitting practice is that we believe we are not powerful when we are not thinking. We believe that our thoughts are what makes us powerful. We break our concentration to become powerful. “I'm not thinking. Let me go back to thinking so I can be an effective human being in this moment.” That's false thinking, but that is what we do.


Jacob Derossett

Why is it that if we aren't attached to our thoughts, we feel so powerless? Or why is it that thinking causes us to feel more powerful?


Sarah Vallely

We use our thoughts to solve problems, which is powerful. We use rumination to learn from the past. We also use rumination in a way that's has a negative effect on us, but it can have a positive effect to reflect on the past. We use thoughts to build things. We use thoughts to converse with other people and create relationships. Thoughts can make us powerful. The real issue is are we powerful when we are not thinking? What are some activities we can do when we are not thinking?


Jacob Derossett

I get captured by many activities that doesn't require a lot of thought. When I play with my cat, I don't think. I don't feel like I'm thinking during immersive things, like sports.


Sarah Vallely

You've entered a flow state, where you're just moving through without the logical thinking process. And when I say without thinking, an excellent way to think about is non-verbal. What can we do without using any words in our mind, because we're constantly thinking in these words. The obvious one is meditate--we can meditate being nonverbal. And that's very powerful. Because it's changing the chemistry of our brains, it's changing the physical structures of the elements of our brains. It's changing our neural pathways.


Walking, for the most part, is something that we can do non verbally. Washing dishes. I can wash my dishes non-verbally, but I can't clean my house non verbally. I tried this the other day. I was experimenting. I need to think in words to figure out how to clean my house. Otherwise, I tried it. I would just stand there. Sex, is something we can do non-verbally. I agree with the sports, I mountain bike, that's a good example. How about making money? Can we make money without using any words and being in a nonverbal state? I don't think so.


Jacob Derossett

I haven't found a way yet.


Sarah Vallely

So the idea here is for you, the listeners, to think about some activities that you can do without using words, what you can perform non-verbally. And try to do those more and embrace the power in those activities. And that will help balance that thinking around how powerful we are when we're not thinking. We are powerful when we are verbal and thinking. But we're also powerful when we're nonverbal and not thinking. Bringing that philosophy and belief into the sitting practice will help you concentrate on your mindfulness.


And on a scientific level, these activities, if you do them in a nonverbal way, with mindfulness, you move out of the default mode network, which is a specific system in our brain. The science shows that when we're in that network too much, it leads to depression. I've noticed with my clients when they make that shift--when they start to realize that those moments in their life when they're using concentration and mindfulness, whether it's in sitting practice or just a moment during the day, they're taking a break from their work. When they realize how powerful those moments are, that's when their stress shifts. That’s when they're able to reduce their stress. And I also have this theory that if we spend more time in nonverbal mode, the thoughts we have are pretty important and pretty awesome. Because I feel like there's some kind of mechanism in our consciousness that says, if I'm not going to think that much, then the thoughts I'm going to have will be the good ones. I've experienced that.


Jacob Derossett

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. He was chess pro. And then became a Tai Chi world champion. And then, he got to a very high level in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He will write down a question at the end of the workday, not at the end of the night, but the end of his workday. And then he'll let it bubble in his subconscious. A problem he's trying to solve or an idea he's trying to cultivate. And then, as soon as he wakes up in the morning, he'll go and brainstorm and write down everything he can. And he believes that his default mode network is super suppressed, and he's fresh off of a night's sleep.


Sarah Vallely

I agree. When you wake up in the morning, those are when I have some of my best ideas. And after I meditated, because of the same idea, you are pulled out of that default mode network. That's how I wrote my last book, all those writings I wrote directly after a meditation.


What percentage of my thoughts are essential? Sometimes I like to think about that. And I don't know, for me, maybe, 20% I think there's like 80% of my thoughts aren't necessary. And I think mindfulness is an excellent way to notice that that's happening. And when we see those percentages, it helps us take that step back, which is such a huge, important skill in mindfulness practice.


Jacob Derossett

What do you struggle with more, concentration or mindfulness or neither? You're an expert, right? You don't struggle with anything?


Sarah Vallely

No, no, not true. I am naturally curious. So the mindfulness part, I think I do pretty well with. Concentration can be challenging for me, as it is, I think, for most people. Suppose I go a week or so without meditating. I can tell the difference in my concentration. It does diminish and decrease, so continual practice is essential for developing concentration. Concentration isn't something we're just born with. It's like math. We have to learn math. We have to teach our brains how to concentrate. I have ten tips for developing your concentration, and we will have a future episode in which I share those tips. In the meantime, I will add a few resources to the blog post for this episode.


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