The Distraction Algorithm

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Meditation and Algorithms

In the last post, we discussed what it means for an algorithm to optimize mindfulness. In this post, we’ll look at a practical example of a meditation technique that makes explicit use of algorithms, Soryu Forall’s Distraction Algorithm. This technique optimizes mindfulness, particularly concentration power.

Imagine that you are following your breath, and, lo and behold, the perfectly ordinary happens: you get distracted. What do you do? You could return to your breath, trying to re-establish concentration. Or you could stay distracted, thinking about whatever you were thinking about. But there’s another option.

Advanced meditators will often take advantage of a distraction by switching techniques. You can switch techniques for the remainder of the session: for example, after being distracted, switching from following your breath to doing loving kindness or choiceless awareness practice. Alternatively, you can switch techniques momentarily. Forall’s Distraction Algorithm is intended to be used this way: briefly, intensely, and then put aside as you return to your main technique.

The basic idea of the algorithm is to be able to quickly and effectively create an experience that is intensely motivating to you in each major sense domain: seeing, hearing, and feeling. When distracted, you bring those up, and bam, you’re back to your main technique, more motivated than ever.

To begin your session, choose and repeat a short phrase in mental talk space. It should be very simple, like “Let’s go!” or “You can do this!” – and something that motivates you, is authentically positive.

Then use imagery to remember why you’re doing this, and who you’re doing it for. Bring up an image of the people you practice for, whether they are friends and family, people at your workplace, or even people and animals you don’t even know, in other places and times. In any case, think of and briefly visualize those people, and let that motivate you.

Then notice your emotional body. See if there are any positive emotions that have been generated by using your phrase, or by bringing up your image of the people you practice for. If there are, savor those emotions, enjoying them fully. If not, it’s not a problem.

Once you master these three steps – positive self-talk, motivating images, and a check-in with your emotional body – they should take a matter of seconds to complete. After, you can move into any technique of your choosing, like following the breath. You’ll use this as your main technique for the session. Any time you get distracted, simply repeat the three steps, and then return to your main technique.

The Distraction Algorithm is like a one-two punch: a quick jab to any distraction followed by a forceful punch with your main technique. Although it is slightly more complicated than following the breath, it’s not hard to learn, and you may find it to be extremely effective in your formal meditation practice.

In the next post, we’ll begin to explore ways that algorithmic approaches to formal practice on the meditation cushion can support your life and activities in everyday life, beginning with the Mindful Review technique.

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