Beyond Distraction. by Shaila Catherine. A Book Review
Dharma teachings/practices have a great strength to them. These strengths include the capacity to focus on direct experience, develop or transform these experiences giving nourishment clarity and insight to our daily life.
Every feature of the Dharma stays close including the physical world around us, the body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts/formations of mind/speech and consciousness This is the field where we practice and explore to know a deep understanding of the human experience. In her latest book, Shaila Catherine offers five helpful strategies to work with the distracted mind.
• Replace unwholesome thoughts with wholesome thoughts
• Examine the danger of distracting thoughts
• Avoid, ignore and forget distracting thoughts
• Investigate the cause of distraction
• Apply determination and resolve.
The significance of these five ‘strategies’ to use Shaila’s concept, shows in the importance of exploring different approaches to the distracted mind. Often mindfulness and meditation practitioners find themselves developing one of two approaches to get focussed, namely observing distraction, or using willpower to get focussed. Neither may work.
We can tell ourselves that a thought is just a thought, naming the distraction as a distraction, may not have the power to establish the mind in calm and clarity. Shaila endorses and describes a sequence of practical ways to work with a mind unsettled, reactive, impulsive or scatter-brained, as well as the usual hassle of the wandering mind, so familiar to meditators. We interpret certain movements of the mind as a distraction. Are the leaves blowing around in the autumn wind a distraction from the trunk of the tree? Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.
With decades of experience in teaching the Dharma to groups, she encourages taking a real interest in the different expressions of distraction that sap energy, leave a residue of judgemental impressions and take away attention and interest from what matters.
Shaila does not address specifically the issue of the greatest tool used for distraction from reality – the mobile phone. (cell phone in USA). I read earlier this year in a survey of 2000 people in the USA that 48% spent five to six hours a day on their mobile phone.
In my view, such distraction leads to addictive behaviour along with alienation from people at home, sharing a latte together in the coffee shop and loss of informal conversations with strangers in public transport. Frequent use of cell phones reduces our capacity to deal with the real world, to experience peace of mind and renewal in a silent witness of what surrounds us. None of those interviewed worked for a mobile phone company.
If you know you easily become distracted from wise initiatives, sustained application, creativity and service to others, I suggest you get a copy of Shaila’s book and start applying specific practices she offers.
The author has made her target audience beginners to mindfulness/meditation, who struggle to tame the restless mind and seasoned meditators, who wish to deepen their depths of meditation and the insights.
The Buddha on Reflection, Hindrances plus Quotes
The Buddha pointed out the value of remembering, reflecting upon, reciting and analysing the teachings, so the practices take root. It is important to remember the varieties of unwholesome and unhealthy stares of mind need reactivity and habits to distort clear perceptions. We can become distracted in circular thinking around wholesome intentions.
Both kinds of state of mind can trigger stress, anguish and suffering. The Buddha uses a strong concept to describe any kind of distraction; he refers to it as a delusion. Any problematic state of mind has a degree of delusion in it affecting our relationship with ourselves with others and life itself.
Life is not a problem, not beyond the realms of wisdom not beyond a liberation from suffering. The mind is the problem.
Every chapter in the book consists of small sections addressing regular concerns of practitioners. Readers will see specific methods, suggestions, tips, advice and techniques with the potential to make a real change in the quality of the inner life.
I appreciated the range of areas to explore including initial intentions, application of mindfulness, value of stillness and support for developing harmony and wellbeing.
Shaila turns her attention to the Five Hindrances a concept familiar to Buddhist meditators. The hindrances refer to states of mind hindering clarity, wisdom and liberation. Problematic desires around pleasure, sensuality and other sensations constitutes the first hindrance. Next comes anger. In the Buddha’s teachings, anger shows a reactive state of mind such as blame, negativity, prejudice and violence.
The third hindrance explores boredom/apathy/ sluggishness, both mental and physical. Victorian translators of the 19th translated the third hindrance as sloth and torpor, two words rarely used today. Restlessness/agitation in the body and anxiety/worry in the mind or both form the fourth hindrance in contemporary language. Western schools of Mindfulness often focus on the reduction of stress, in body and mind, another feature found in the fourth hindrance and elsewhere.
Doubt/fear plague the mind with an inability to make decisions, doubts about taking a wholesome risk, doubts about one’s worth as a human being, doubt/fear of making mistakes, doubts about speaking up/afraid to speak up and fear of others judgemental views,
Any of the hindrances can lead into a multiplicity of distractions with the arising of all sorts of fantasies, projections and thinking harmful thoughts towards ourselves or others. Take the first hindrance of desire for pleasure. Shaila draws upon the Buddha’s analogy of the fish in the lake which seizes upon a tasty and luring bait failing to realise the consequences. The grasping onto pleasure can lead to suffering and death.
Readers will notice the regular quotations from the discourses of the Buddha throughout the book. On page 205, she indexes the discourse with around 150 quotes serving as the backbone for the book of the Buddha’s teachings. Dharma teachers experience a trust in the teachings/practices knowing 2600 years of application in societies and cultures in Asia and developing worldwide in recent decades.
The back of the book lists Exercises and a comprehensive General Index as a resource for finding ways to respond fully to distractions in daily life
I recommend this book to you. You could begin by committing to memory five practical ways to focus the mind.
The book leaves us with an important question. What is worth focusing the undistracted mind upon? What shows expressions of ethics, love and wisdom in the undistracted mind? Unification of body, speech and heart-mind have immense potential for application into this world as a counter to personal desires/consumerism that distracts us from profound and liberating priorities.
What are the priorities in your daily life? What areas do you wish to wholeheartedly focus upon? This is the subject matter for another book.
Five Practical Ways to Focus the Mind
231 Pages. Published 2022
Shaila offers an online course titled Beyond Distraction,
Practical Strategies to Free the Mind
For information about her online Dharma classroom,
visit Bodhi Courses www.bodhicourses.org. She is based in California.