Have you ever walked into a shop with the intention of buying one thing and walking out with ten other things, but not the one you came in for?
The things we see tempt us and before we know it, we get sidetracked. This is an example of “unwise” attention. During a meditation retreat, unwise attention to sensual objects lead to distractions that prevent the mind from settling. I’m sure every meditator can relate to this.
Systematic (“wise”) attention is so fundamental to meditative progress that the Buddha said,“Monks, with regard to internal factors, I don’t envision any other single factor like appropriate attention as doing so much for a monk in training… A monk who attends appropriately abandons what is unskillful and develops what is skilful.”[i]
Unwise attention leads to unskillful mental states
Appropriate attention applies to the entire waking hours not just during the sitting meditation, and probably even more so during the rest periods in a meditation retreat, as that’s when you tend to be more “off guard”.
If you allow the mind to roam during these times it can lead to hours of frustration in your sitting meditation, because unwise attention leads to unskillful mental states, like arousing greed and aversion. And once arisen, they snowball and become very difficult to control. “When a monk attends inappropriately, unarisen fermentations [defilements] arise, and arisen fermentations increase…”
In samatha (calm) meditation, we train our attention to remain steadily on one object, not distracted by the five hindrances. In vipassana (insight) meditation, our attention is trained to not overlooking the signs of impermanence, not-self, and affliction, in the objects that we normally grasp at.
The role of appropriate or wise attention is to constantly have a clear idea of the purpose of what we are doing and not letting our emotions or thoughts interfere or sidetracked, and also to have a clear understanding of the techniques we are working on. Knowing when is the right time to put in more effort or to calm the mind, and apply suitable techniques for your mental condition at that time. Just as a skilled craftsman knows when to use a certain tool.
When it comes to dealing with unskillful mental states. There are several options:
- Observe them with equanimity. Often this is enough to disperse them.
- Supplant them with skilful thoughts. For example, replacing thoughts of cruelty with compassion.
- Focusing on their disadvantages. For example, anger is like picking up hot coals to throw at someone – you’ll burn yourself first.
- Consciously ignore them.
- Forcefully suppressing them.
- Relaxing the tension that feeds them.
You’ll just have to try them out to see which works best for you, and this depends on your mood and circumstances.
 Itivuttaka: “This was said by the Buddha”, a translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff), Revised edition, 2013.