Weak distractions are disarmed by a single glance. Shine the light of awareness on them and they evaporate instantly, never to return. Deep-seated, habitual thought patterns require constant mindfulness repeatedly applied over whatever time period it takes to break their hold. Distractions are really paper tigers. They have no power of their own. They need to be fed constantly, or else they die. If you refuse to feed them by your own fear, anger, and greed, they fade. Mindfulness is the most important aspect of meditation. It is the primary thing that you are trying to cultivate. So there is really no need at all to struggle against distractions. The crucial thing is to be mindful of what is occurring, not to control what is occurring. Remember, concentration is a tool. It is secondary to bare attention. From the point of view of mindfulness, there is really no such thing as a distraction. Whatever arises in the mind is viewed as just one more opportunity to cultivate mindfulness. Breath, remember, is an arbitrary focus, and it is used as our primary object of attention. Distractions are used as secondary objects of attention. They are certainly as much a part of reality as breath. It actually makes rather little difference what the object of mindfulness is. You can be mindful of the breath, or you can be mindful of the distraction.

You can be mindful of the fact that your mind is still, and your concentration is strong, or you can be mindful of the fact that your concentration is in ribbons and your mind is in an absolute shambles. It's all mindfulness. Just maintain that mindfulness, and concentration eventually will follow. The purpose of meditation is not to concentrate on the breath, without interruption, forever. That by itself would be a useless goal. The purpose of meditation is not to achieve a perfectly still and serene mind. Although a lovely state, it doesn't lead to liberation by itself. The purpose of meditation is to achieve uninterrupted mindfulness. Mindfulness, and only mindfulness, produces enlightenment. Distractions come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors. Buddhist philosophy has organized them into categories. One of them is the category of hindrances. They are called hindrances because they block your development of both components of meditation, mindfulness and concentration. A bit of caution on this term: The word "hindrances" carries a negative connotation, and indeed these are states of mind we want to eradicate. That does not mean, however, that they are to be repressed, avoided, or condemned. Let's use greed as an example. We wish to avoid prolonging any state of greed that arises, because a continuation of that state leads to bondage and sorrow. That does not mean we try to toss the thought out of the mind when it appears. We simply refuse to encourage it to stay. We let it come, and we let it go.

When greed is first observed with bare attention, no value judgments are made. We simply stand back and watch it arise. The whole dynamic of greed from start to finish is simply observed in this way. We don't help it, or hinder it, or interfere with it in the slightest. It stays as long as it stays. And we learn as much about it as we can while it is there. We watch what greed does. We watch how it troubles us and how it burdens others. We notice how it keeps us perpetually unsatisfied, forever in a state of unfulfilled longing. From this firsthand experience, we ascertain at a gut level that greed is an unskillful way to run your life. There is nothing theoretical about this realization. Once you see you're not alone in your struggles, the next step is to reach outside of yourself to make a difference in someone else's life. Faith communities usually excel at providing volunteer opportunities and steering you to the one that's right for you. But even if involvement in a faith community is not your thing, you can find ample ways to be of use to your community if you look for them. Every major city in America has homeless shelters, counseling centers for victims of domestic violence, animal rescue organizations, wounded veterans programs, hospice centers, cancer support groups, suicide prevention clinics, nursing homes filled with people in need of a friend--the list could go on for pages. All of these programs depend on volunteers who know what it's like to need a boost. Best of all, the benefit of service is a two-way street, making life better for you as well as for those you help. A 2007 paper published by the Corporation for National and Community Service called The Health Benefits of Volunteering states, "Volunteer activities can strengthen the social ties that protect individuals from isolation during difficult times, while the experience of helping others leads to a sense of greater self-worth and trust."[2] One study cited in the report concluded that people who volunteer in service to others live longer than those who don't.[3] Think of it this way: by getting involved in church outreach in your community, or by volunteering on your own, you essentially write yourself a prescription for relief from your troubles--free of charge! Sometimes wisdom can be found in unlikely places. That's certainly true of this lyric from a 1977 hit song by Jimmy Buffett: "If we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane." Beyond the scientifically proven benefits of laughter, can it really be considered a spiritual practice?

Absolutely! Laughter is, in fact, a key advantage of the life of faith. God, our ultimate source of strength, gives us the gift of humor, levity, and wit as a way to savor life's good times and endure the bad times. The psalmist describes how God helped him to emerge from a season of sorrow and perhaps depression, and the result is laughter: "You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent" (Psalm 30:11-12, NLT). In essence, accessing our God-given lightheartedness is a sure way to combat our downheartedness. It might surprise you to learn that laughter, like the other practices in this chapter, is an activity you can choose to do, not simply something that happens spontaneously or not at all. "Laughter yoga," for example, is the practice of laughing on purpose in groups. It seems forced at first and downright silly. But the effort quickly turns into unprompted, genuine, impossible-to-resist laughter. Give yourself that experience, and you'll be astonished to realize the laughter was there inside you all along and will remain available anytime you need a boost. The last thing you want is for stress to become a leading trait that defines the impression you make on others. It can make you cranky and generally unfriendly. So, before stress gets as stranglehold on your social life, we're going to do a little surgery on your cortisol output and calm you down with some simple, age old exercises. First up, there is the idea of physical extrication from stress. If you exercise daily as I recommended a few page ago, you're on a good path already. But, beyond simple fitness, you should take advantage of simple breathing exercises and meditation - one of civilization's oldest and most effective stress reduction tools. There are many types of meditation, but I have always found peace and relaxation in the simplest of Buddhist breathing exercises. The idea is simple. You relax, push away the worries of the day and give yourself enough time to focus on the one thing that matters most - "you".

Meditation is most powerful when it becomes a standard part of your day. When your mind knows for a fact that you'll be given the same 30+ minutes every day to relax and detach from all the stressful influences you've managed to accumulate, it will fall into a much greater state of relaxation. How you meditate is really up to you, but personally I prefer to sit in a full lotus, with both feet curled beneath my legs into a cross legged position. You can also use a half lotus, placing one foot against the inside of your opposite thigh. Sitting is best for me because it allows me to focus only on the breathing exercise, not the act of walking. Lying down works for some people as well, but I tend to get sleepy, so I stay upright. Once you have relaxed into a comfortable sitting position, breathe deeply through your nose. Pull the air slowly into your lungs, following the flow of the air into your nose, through your throat and into your lungs. Your diaphragm and stomach should sleep where less air is needed. Keep doing this process over and over again, following those breaths into your body time and again. The key to meditation, especially for newcomers to the exercise, is to choose a single focal point and pour all of your energy into it. In this case, that focal point is your breathing. The steady flow of life force into and out of your body should funnel your consciousness deeper into your body as you fall into a steady meditation. One thing many people will do is focus on a point on their body - a single position in their head, throat, chest or abdomen that they can feel the breath going through. The lower the point, the further you will fall into a meditative trance. In a meditative state, the free flow of thoughts is a normal part of the process. Your brain will allow thoughts to come and go as they please. It is okay for this to happen. The more you try to force your thoughts to stop, the more forceful they will become and the harder it will be for you to relax. So, instead of trying to force your thoughts to stop, let them flow.