What Is Distraction?

Mindfulness asks us to be present in the moment. Awareness, clarity and acceptance are the cornerstones. But a question I rarely see addressed is a fairly simple one: what is distraction?

Perhaps this is often an unasked question because it at first seems obvious. But look more deeply and the distinction between distraction and focus becomes less clear. For instance, we might say that a father deeply interested in his work is very focused, but from the point of view of his children, he’s distracted. Not present for them, always reading his emails or pouring over some report or other.

Similarly we might say that distraction is anything that takes your attention away from what you are doing but is that really the case? If I’m watching TV and a fire breaks out in my kitchen, would I call that a distraction if it lead to me missing the second half of my show?

All of these ideas are only partially useful because they focus on trying to define distraction in terms of activities and events rather than getting to the essence of it. I claim no overall authority on this issue but I find it easier to think in these terms so, for me, distraction is conflict.

If I’m writing but I feel I should be reading, if I’m relaxing but I feel I should be working, if I’m watching a TV show but part of me thinks perhaps what’s happening on Twitter might be more interesting, then I am distracted. If, on the other hand, I am of one mind, clear that what I am doing is what I wish to be doing, open to experience but not seeking or holding onto it, then I am present.

As if to illustrate my point, just this very moment, I paused and noticed the birdsong in the garden. My attention shifted from these words to the sound I was hearing. Was that a distraction? Not to my mind because I wasn’t in conflict. I chose, at that moment, to give my attention to the sounds I was hearing before choosing to bring it back to my work. Focus and clarity isn’t, therefore, about forcing out sensations, experiences, the present moment, but rather being purposeful in how we respond to those things.

The next obvious questions is how to know when you are distracted.

This one may be a little more personal. Working with the idea of distraction as conflict, I find it easiest to become aware of how distracted I am through embodied emotions. If I notice tension is my shoulders, a knot in my stomach, restlessness in my fingers which want to fiddle with things or hands that won’t sit still, I can usually say with some certainty that I am distracted.

It follows that to bring about presence of mind I have to manage these conflicts. I can’t just push them away, I must deal with them and deal with the elements of my mind that want me to look elsewhere. Maybe they are right! Maybe this conflict is a sign that there is something more pressing that demands my attention. Or maybe it’s simply anxiety, my mind needing reassurance that I will deal with whatever it is I’m presently not thinking about.

Distraction is conflict. Conflict manifests as unease and restlessness and is overcome through negotiation, not force. Being present, being mindful, isn’t an act of forcefully removing distractions. Accept that other things call for you, understand them, deal with them in the appropriate way, and then return. A distraction is only a distraction if you make it so.