Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Rhythm

The dog just kept barking. Not a distressed or desperate or frustrated bark -- those of us with intimate knowledge of all the nuances of canine communication are able to make such fine distinctions. Just a WOOF woof, WOOF woof . . . nearly musical in its cadence and accent. Aware that I'd planned on riffing on dealing with distractions while meditating, I'd almost welcomed the unplanned teaching point as we worked our way through our 25' sit. As the bell sounded to signal the sit's finish, I polled our group members as to their response to our four-legged participant's contribution. "I found it irritating and intrusive; thought about slipping outside and putting a bark collar on it!" "Noticed it -- but then it just seemed to fade." "Constructed a complete scenario around it: selecting the dog food, filling the bowl, presenting it to our friend. . . then launched off on some other related thoughts -- quite a little trip!" "Found it had a regular 'beat', almost rhythmic, like a metronome". "Did it really go on for 25 minutes?" In short, as varied a range of responses, my own included, as there were folks in the circle.

Striking as well was the relationship between the 'tone' of reaction and the degree to which the distraction persisted in the consciousness of the meditator. Along with a sense of intrusiveness, irritation, a need to 'fix', or banish the sound, came the 'hooks' that buried themselves in the awareness of the sitter; alternately, building the 'bridge' to the next thought. The distraction had, in some sense taken on a life of its own, becoming the focus of the sit; developing its own texture and dimensionality, becoming progressively 'bigger'.

Reliably, for others, experiencing the cycle of barks as a rhythm, allowing versus resisting, developing an 'interested observer' posture -- even briefly -- enabled the meditator to hear the sound as it recurred, to apply a (perhaps wordless) label to the distraction, then return to the breath. As the pattern repeated -- as it certainly did -- the sound became decreasingly intrusive, to the point where, although it continued to be heard, its potency diminished to the point where its impact was little more than the sound a ticking clock, traffic sounds, birds chirping -- part of the surround and little more.

Bhante Gunaratana, in Mindfulness in Plain English, offers some succinct thoughts on tactics for addressing distractions (of all types, not just dog barks). He suggests allowing ones awareness to briefly migrate to the intrusion; then identify the 'what it is', the 'how strong, intense it is', and finally the 'how long it's been present'. He contends that this 'objectifying' of the intrusion facilitates one's ability to observe it, rather than participating in it, sufficiently distancing one from the emotional valence that might form almost instantly along with the attachment (resentment) or avoidance (anticipating the next yelp -- and perhaps actually 'holding one's breath while waiting!) that will develop; or to have it operate as a launching pad for the thought sequence that might pull one progressively further away from the breath.

And then there's the rhythm itself, the 'flow' of the sit. At the root of a mindfulness practice is the cycle, the regular pattern of the breath. And equally, the ebb and flow of having one's awareness 'float away from the dock', feeling the 'rope' connecting us to the breath become 'taut' (as a distraction takes brief hold of our consciousness), gently tugging at our awareness and reminding us to return to the anchoring breath. Our response to this rhythm -- just as it seemed to be in dealing with the distraction of the barking -- is critical to the integrity of the sit. There are myriad ways in which we can oppose the cycle, disrupting the pattern of 'naming' (the intrusion) and 'returning' (to the breath), and thereby empowering the interruption -- be it thought, sound, or sensation. We can resist the distraction, judging it (as bad or undesirable in some fashion). We can 'do our best' (ironically, becoming 'our worst' in terms of the sit) to push it out of our consciousness, empowering it all the more. We can engage it, holding hands with it and toddling off down the path of associative thoughts. We can berate ourselves for yet another disrupted sit.

The 'rhythmic' option accepts the distraction (be it drowsiness, boredom, restlessness, self-doubt, etc.), welcoming it as yet another wave breaking on the beach -- to be noticed (not resisted or becoming enamoured of) as a unique event; then allowed to recede, only to be followed by another. . . and another as the sit proceeds. The pattern, the cycling puts us closer in touch with our anchor, the breath. And each repetition deepens our intimacy with and capacity for utilizing this valuable tool of mindfulness through the rest of the day. The reality that we will be pulled from our centre; and our task, perhaps our only task, is to ground ourselves (noticing the desire, the aversion) and to gently return to our 'dock'.

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