How to retain focus and avoid being distracted

I’m a practitioner and teacher of buddhism and meditation. To help improve my own practice of meditation and to teach others more about meditation I sometimes spend time on retreat away from the everyday concerns of home and work. Being on retreat involves making a conscious decision to rest the mind and avoid distractions, the better to help the mind to focus on meditation and the practice of buddhism. But on one particular retreat there’s a problem. I have no alarm clock to wake me up in the morning for the first meditation of the day.

So I keep my mobile phone with me on the retreat and use its alarm function. Whilst setting the alarm I notice that I have received a text message. I know I shouldn’t but I check the message, and the next thing I know is that I’m sending a reply. Other text messages come and the same thing happens. Sending replies just produces more messages. Worse, although I feel guilty about doing it, I secretly use the phone to check for emails, and pretty soon I’m replying to them too. Then it’s just a short step to checking the latest news on the BBC website. And when I’m not sure of the answer to a difficult question on Buddhism that I’ve been asked on the retreat, I decide to research possible answers using Google. And then I’m in full flow on my mobile receiving and sending emails and text messages. I’m googling all sorts of subjects including many non-buddhist ones, and I snatch fequent looks at the latest feeds from Facebook and Twitter. I’m hooked and very distracted. Just as I can be in ordinary life. My precious time on retreat is lost.

OK, so maybe I’ve exaggerated my propensity to distraction! But modern technologies of mobile phones and computers mean that we all face an overwhelming level of distractions. And we all face the danger of getting hooked by these distractions.

That relentless desire for new electronic information has a name. Seeking. That’s the name given by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp – born in Estonia and now at Washington State University – to an emotional state that he says is present in all mammals. Before deciding on „seeking” Panksepp tried many different names for this mental state; curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, and expectancy. Technically the seeking state is connected with stimulation of the brain’s lateral hypothalamus. Panksepp argues that when we get excited about making connections, it is the seeking circuits that are firing in the brain. The fuel for the seeking system in the brain is the neurotransmitter dopamine. According to Panksepp it’s dopamine that promotes „states of eagerness and directed purpose”. (Some drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines are particularly effective at at stimulating the seeking system.)

Another scientist, University of Michigan professor of psychology Kent Berridge, argues that the mammalian brain has separate systems for what he describes as „wanting” and „liking”. His „wanting” system is the same as Panksepp’s „seeking”. The „liking”system is the brain’s reward centre. The wanting system pushes us into action, and the liking system gives us satisfaction and a restful conclusion. When we experience pleasure associated with the liking system it’s the brain’s opioid system that’s operating (not the dopamine system). That’s why opium and related drugs create a restful kind of bliss, very different from the stimulus of cocaine and amphetamine.

As Berridge argues, the seeking/wanting sysytem needs to be turned off so that the system does not repeat endlessly. But for good evolutionary reasons the bias in our brain’s design is towards seeking rather than restful satisfaction. (Animals that had a bias towards restful pleasure and little motivation to seek, would not survive for very long.) Berridge argues that it’s possible for the brain to become hooked into a seeking/wanting cycle, even if the rewards obtained become less and less satisfying. Because the dopamine system does not have a satisfaction switch-off point built into it, Berridge argues, under certain conditions it can lead to irrational [and excessive] wants. So we can relentlessly search on our emails, texts, Facebook, Twitter, Google etc etc. We can be endlessly connected and endlessly distracted.

As David Rock, author of „Your Brain at Work”, points out, distractions use up what is actually a limited supply of attention each day, and make us far less effective if we have to engage with any deep thinking or contemplation. Every time we focus or re-focus our brain we use up a limited supply of glucose and other metabolic resources. A University of London study, reported in New Scientist magazine, found that „info-mania” reduces a person’s I.Q. more than marijuana; and being connected with a barrage of incoming information can reduce a person’s ability to focus by as much as losing a night’s sleep.

How to deal with this problem? Many years ago before the rise of the plethora of new communication technologies Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order to which I belong, strongly advised order members to avoid distractions and reduce input. It is good advice. Or as David Rock more bluntly puts it, if you want to preserve energy and to retain the ability to focus, then switch off all communication devices. Given the brain’s tendency towards seeking, he says, this is not negotiable. Switch off! (And, I might add, especially on retreat!)

Of course you may protest that it is not possible in the everyday life of a modern society to completely switch off. True, but it is possible to decide to switch off for certain times of the day, or when doing other activities. Being focused just on one activity at a time improves the quality of our human communication and of our decision making, and makes for a much more creative and productive inner life.

Distractions, however, are not just external. Internal thoughts can also distract us from the task in hand. As they stop whatever else they’ve been doing and sit and watch their own minds, meditation beginners are often astonished to discover the activity in their mind with thoughts erupting unbidden into awareness at any moment. It’s as if the mind has a mind of its own. The reason this happens, explains David Rock, is because of „ambient neural activity”. Our nervous system is constantly processing, reconfiguring, and reconnecting the trillions of connections in our brains at every moment. Thoughts come up, and then we get distracted.

Two neuroscientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli, have written about this tendency to distraction in their paper „The ebb and flow of attention in the human brain”. They found that whatever our task is, when distractions occur and we lose focus, our level of performance is damaged and reduced. When we lose focus the so-called „default” network in the brain is activated and our attention wanders, perhaps to something that’s been bothering us. (For a description of the default network see my previous posting „What is Mindfulness”). So how do we stay focused? As David Rock answers it „a key part of maintaining good focus is based on how well we inhibit the wrong things from coming into focus.” It turns out that there is one particular part of the brain, the right and left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), that is central to the process of inhibiting or stopping unwanted responses and distractions. It is our ability to use the VLPFC well that determines how well we can focus.

So, to stay focused we need to inhibit distractions. We need to be mindful, and to be aware of our internal mental processes, and to catch the wrong impulses before they take hold and cause us to lose focus. The earlier we can see and observe a wrong impulse arising in the mind, the greater is the possibility of stoppping ourselves getting caught up in a train of thoughts, and losing focus. The longer we leave a thought or impulse to develop into a train of thoughts the more difficult it is to avoid getting distracted and to retain focus.

When the Buddha was teaching 2,500 years ago he didn’t have the benefits of modern neuroscience or psychological research to help explain and improve the workings of the mind. But from his detailed observation of the mind in meditation he developed his own sophisticated explanation of the processes of the mind, and he developed practical methods designed to help his followers to retain focus and to avoid getting distracted. These observations and teachings are contained in the earliest known Buddhist scriptures, the Pali Canon.

In particular there is a group of meditation teachings known as Anapanasati (mindfulness with breathing) and Satipatthana (usually translated as foundations of mindfulness, but more correctly should be translated as „attending with mindfulness”.) These teachings outline a direct path to enlightenment, but along the way they capture the essence of the Buddha’s teaching on focus and distractions.

According to the Buddha, every moment of our waking life we are receiving a stimulus from one of our sense contacts, whether it be something we see, hear, smell, taste or touch.

And every sense contact is accompanied by what he called „vedana”. „Vedana” requires a bit of explanation. When we experience a sense contact, whether we are aware of it or not, the sensation of contact is accompanied by a sense of pleasantness (like) or unpleasantness (dislike) or neutrality (neither like nor dislike). That sense of pleasantness or unpleasantness or neutrality is what the Buddha means by „vedana”. (Incidentally in modern psychology the phenomena of vedana is known by the term „hedonic tone”.)

When we experience a sense contact and its associated vedana the mind responds with an impulse of thought and/or active emotion. So a sense contact accompanied by a pleasant vedana conditions an active impulse of wanting or craving. We move towards a sense object accompanied by a pleasant vedana. A sense contact accompanied by an unpleasant vedana usually conditions an active impulse of hatred or anger. We try to push away a sense object accompanied by an unpleasant vedana. A sense contact accompanied by a neutral vedana usually conditions an impulse of indifference. We don’t try to move towards or to push away a sense object accompanied by neutral vedana.

We are not always conscious of these processes but they are vital in understanding the life of our mind. And when we practice mindfulness in meditation we begin to uncover their workings, we begin to bring them more into our awareness, and we begin to see them earlier and with more clarity. We see what is habitual in our mind’s responses and we see where we might respond differently.

In my previous posting „What is Mindfulness” I wrote about the gap that we create through regular practice of meditation. This gap is opened in the space between vedana and impulse or volition, between experiencing a sense contact as pleasant or unleasant or neutral (vedana) and our emotional response or impulse of wanting/craving or hatred/anger or indifference. Through mindfulness we widen this gap and give ourselves the choice to make a considered and creative response, rather than make an unconsidered and reactive, habitual choice.

So far I have talked about the five physical senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. But in Buddhism there are six senses. The mind itself is the sixth sense. Every thought that arises in the mind is another sense contact with its associated vedana and its tendency to condition particular impulsive responses and further thoughts. And in the same way as we can learn about the processes of the mind associated with the five physical senses we can learn about thoughts and the sixth sense, the mind itself. In the same way we can learn to open the gap with thoughts arising in our mind.

In particular what we can learn through the careful practice of mindful meditation is that awareness itself has enormous power. We learn that the simple act of bringing awareness to thoughts and their associated vedana as they arise in the mind, has the power to weaken or dissolve those thought processes and thereby to weaken or dissolve distractions. We have a choice, we don’t have to let thoughts dictate our responses, we can better control our wayward minds.

The Buddha did not have scientific knowledge of the right and left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) but he certainly knew how to avoid distractions and retain focus!

Dharmachari Vaddhaka
January 2010


  • Emily Yoffe. Seeking. How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter and texting. And why that’s dangerous.
  • Jaak Panksepp. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Oxford University Press
  • Kent Berridge.[[[&]]]labs/berridge/Publications.htm
  • David Rock. Easily distracted : why it’s hard to focus, and what to do about it.
  • David Rock on ärikonsultant, kuid tunneb ka neuroteadusi, tema kirjutised on alati huvitavad.
  • Info-mania dents IQ more than marijuana / University of London Study.
  • Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli. The ebb and flow of attention in the human brain.[[&]]cpsidt=17887709