We live in a world full of distractions. Texting, social media, new television shows, new movies, the next “big” life drama…the list goes on and on. As a yoga teacher for the past 14 years and a practitioner for the past 18, I have seen the state of the distracted mind get seemingly worse and worse. It was challenging for students to hold their attention through five rounds of pranayama back in 2004, now it is nearly impossible to get my newest students through even three rounds without someone checking their phone (no phones are allowed in class), looking at the clock several times or staring down everyone around them.
Just this week several students spent an entire 90 minute class texting, checking their Facebook pages and talking to one another during class – even when asked to refrain from doing these activities. They just couldn’t stop themselves from pushing the button on their phone and seeing who had texted them even though their phones were off. And this morning’s commute was snarled by a four car fender bender that happened because two of the drivers were texting and on the internet while driving in traffic. In some ways these situations bring up in me the thought that it is not entirely their fault – our culture and society have created a world of distractions and encouraged us to use them!
This state of being in the modern world has taught me to be more patient with my students as they learn how to re-train their attention to be present with one thing at a time. I continuously focus my classes on guiding students into the present moment through feeling the movement of their breath and the sensations in their body. But it has also left me curious about the nature of distractions and how we can work to improve our attention.
Every year for the past 5 or so years I have taught a class on January 1 to kick off the year. I’ve set a yearly intent to guide us through our practices as a community along the course of 12 months. We revisit the intent of the year in a few practices every month to stay connected and track how it is changing our perceptions and actions across a whole year. Several years ago I came across the Sanskrit word avikaritvam as I was reading an article about the Bhagavata Purana (a classical Indian text about Krishna). Translated as either “clarity” or “freedom from all distraction,” this word really stuck with me. It felt at the time, as it does now, like something my community needed more connection to. I set it as our yearly intent when I came across it…and it fell flat on its face. Every mention of it made my students fidgety, uncomfortable and, well, more distracted! I felt at the time like it failed to inspire anyone.
Enter today. I have returned to teaching about this concept more and more – perhaps this time around more skillfully myself. I started with my own life to inspire the teaching. Instead of just using a concept I was interested in and a word that felt wise, I looked at the distractions in my own life as a place to study this in action so that I could teach about it better. What I found alarmed me.
My social media habits were a major distraction. I love Facebook. I used to check that thing all the time. And I got into a nasty habit of comparing myself to every other yoga teacher in my feed, feeling most days like a total failure. Instagram? Love it. Who doesn’t love a cute puppy photo? Twitter…I have no idea why it is important, but I was addicted to scanning through those little snippets. I used to justify my time spent on social media as “a place I went to for inspiration” or “the way I kept in contact with friends from afar.” The truth: it was a major distraction. Nowadays I’ve broken that distraction cycle by only looking at social media sites once per day and for a time allowance. I unfriended or stopped following people that genuinely made me unhappy. I wrote down and redefined my own rules of what I post on social media, when I post it and why. I revisit those rules every few months to see if they need updating. And when I am working on something that needs my attention, I close off everything else that could distract me. I leave my phone away from me so I am not tempted to look at it.
My work habits were a major distraction. I used to book myself solid. 14 hours a day for 7 days a week? No problem! Running from client to client through traffic in rush hour at opposite ends of the city? No problem! … Wait! HUGE problem. In keeping myself so booked with work engagements, I left myself zero time (or energy) to engage with the really important things in my life. I essentially distracted myself from my own growth and delight in life by being unnecessarily busy. Today I’ve hired a “coach” and re-evaluated my schedule really honestly. I’ve let go of clients and classes in the last year – many of them. I no longer take a client when I can’t actually teach them well. I have opened up my schedule to have stretches of time for writing, being with my partner, walking my dog and hanging out with friends – activities I used to “distract” myself away from.
My mind’s creation of dramatic stories about my life was a major distraction. Unless you know me really well, you might not know that beneath the surface inside my mind used to be an incessant string of dramatic critical stories about myself and others. I could waste hours of sleep time, yoga practice time and even loved-one time by re-hashing gossip, failures, mistakes and stories I had created about who I was that I didn’t like. Talk about exhausting! And also a huge distraction away from the things that are going well in my life, that are near and dear to me, that I want to grow into and that are the actual reality of the world around me. This one was a bit harder to get around. The mind is a slippery place and gets so settled in its ways. I started by letting go of the people in my life who gossip and who want me to engage in gossip. This was easier than expected! They didn’t actually like me – they just wanted someone to collude with. Then I started recognizing when I was talking in stories that were not actually true – mostly about myself but sometimes about others. Every time I caught myself in this action, I stopped, rewarded myself for catching the behavior and moved on to something in the new habit I wanted to cultivate. Finally, the best way out of this distraction was to get back into a daily meditation practice every single morning. It’s amazing how we can rewrite our stories, untangle them and quiet our critic with just a small meditation time each day.
I’m sure there are many more ways I encounter distractions in my everyday life. These stuck out for me! When you look to your life: where do you sink into distractions? Sit with the fact that as they exist now, they are sapping your power, energy and focus. Channeling your focus through small changes in your social media habits, putting your phone completely away when you drive, re-evaluating how you keep yourself so busy, cutting out the gossip from your conversations, adding in some daily meditation and cultivating healthier habits for your mind can make all the difference. It’s so worth it! Every day feels more fresh, clear and spacious without my distractions.