There’s a teaching that says that if you are sitting in meditation and are distracted by, say, a sore knee, then you should put your attention on that distracting thought (remember, it’s the thought that’s distracting, not the knee). And sometimes that attention will make the distraction go away on its own. That can be a very useful teaching sometimes. You can learn a lot about yourself by watching yourself in pain. Watch it arise, watch it pass away.
But it isn’t the only approach. Sometimes sitting day after day in pain doesn’t really encourage you to do meditation. Techniques like that are really more for people with a very advanced practiced. Once you have achieved certain levels of peace, gained a certain perspective, it’s much easier to sit with pain and learn from it, rather than just sitting there and suffering. And it doesn’t really fit that description of Buddhism by the Buddha, “Good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end.” That fits more the Western model, which is: sucks for now, but maybe someday we’ll be happy, if we just suffer enough.
If you are successful looking directly at your pain, great! Do it! It’s an according to Hoyle approved method. But if it doesn’t work, you might try something else. Equally Buddhist approaches. Which is to say find a place of peace, calm and happiness by directing your thoughts not TOWARD the pain, but rather toward the blameless pleasure that can be found in meditation.
When you encounter a distracting thought in meditation, there are really only two things you can do: you can pay attention to that thought or not pay attention to that thought. For example, if you are really worried about a problem at work or you have a pain in your knee or back as you meditate, you can give it attention or not. So which should you do? Which do the ancient scriptures teach that we should do? Actually the answer is both.
Either path offers a possibility. You can look closely at the problem, and perhaps it will go away. This is the teaching you most often here at places like this. Look directly at the pain, and it will go away. Notice your incoming thoughts, and they will vanish like smoke. Sometimes this is true! It’s really an amazing and worthwhile practice.
But for me I have noticed that it doesn’t always work. Another variety of this solution, something closer to ordinary thought, is to look at the problem and see if there is an ordinary solution. My knee hurts because I am sitting with bad posture. Or I’m worried about that problem at work because I really behaved badly. Or whatever it is. Sometimes this kind of mulling can be useful.
But there is another solution, one that is a little less common to hear about in meditation centers, but is actually really useful: think about something else! Just drop it and pay attention to the breath. Or put your mind on something joyful, something peaceful.
All three of these things are possible solution. The teachers are deep and varied!