I have been recently asked how to proceed when one is distracted by thoughts. The questioner asked, referring to the exercises about concentration.
When doing the concentration exercise number 1, which is counting words in a book, I always keep on counting, and if a negative thought comes, I ignore it and keep on counting. Is it ok to do the exercise this way, or do I need to start from the beginning?
Here is what I replied:
If you are able to ignore the distracting thoughts and keep your attention on the counting, that’s okay.
If you are not able to resist the distracting thoughts, follow them, and then after a while catch yourself thinking about something else, then you will have to stop the exercise and start from the beginning.
Resisting the distractions and continuing the exercise without loss of attention is different from forgetting the exercise and thinking on something else.
Thoughts always try to distract the attention, but if the willpower and the desire to succeed are strong, the concentration will continue, even if there are some thoughts at the background of the mind.
If the willpower, desire and attention are not strong enough, you will most probably forget to concentrate, and would become aware that your mind has drifted away, only some time later. This might be after several seconds or even several minutes. When this happens, the distracting thoughts become the main focus, and you will need to start the exercises from the beginning.
It is like working out with weights.
You strengthen your muscles when you lift the weights and practice the exercises, even if they are difficult. To strengthen your concentration you need to do the same. You need to continue, despite the difficulty and the tendency of the mind to drift away.
Continuing, and not giving up despite the attempts of the mind to distract your attention, will result in strengthening your concentration.