Difference between gross and subtle distractions

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This topic contains 4 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Josh Geller 11 months ago.

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    Sometimes I overcome mind wandering, forgetting, and gross distractions progressively. Then I quickly overcome strong and subtle dullness and enter stage 6practice. I find no sign of dullness. But, soon I find my attention alternating between breath and subtle distractions. Occasionally, a subtle distraction takes away so much attention that I might call it gross distraction. But, distinction gets blurred. It remains so for the rest of the session. When I get up, I summarise my meditation as: I fluctuated between stage 4 and stage 6. Is it a valid description of my meditation? Or I am still at stage 4? Where is the boundary between gross and subtle distractions?

    • This topic was modified 11 months, 1 week ago by  Sanjeev.

    T Sparby

    Hi Sanjeev,

    I’ve had the same question myself. A solution I’ve found that works for me goes like this:

    Gross distractions are phenomenologically richer than subtle distractions; they contain two or more sensory qualities. They can, for instance, contain a visual and and emotional content, even sound. Gross distractions also have a stronger pull to them; they tend to drag you into a story, a constellation of experiences that develop into rumination, pondering, mind-wandering. I note this in a way that addresses the content: “Planning, reflecting, sadness”, etc.

    Subtle distractions consists of only one sensory component; an image, a word/sentence, feeling, thought, etc. I note these abstractly in a way inspired by Shinzen as addressing the sense door in an abstract way: “Thinking, feeling, image”, etc. or simply as “see, hear, feel”. I don’t care about classifying what it is about, which makes it easier to note fast. There is a micro-gesture of pulling back from the content once you notice it; drop it like it’s hot.

    Noting gross distractions is more juicy and you need to pull yourself more out of it, noting subtle distractions is fast and you’re quickly done with it.

    An analogy: Gross distractions feel like seeing a cake and reaching out to take a bite. Noting subtle distractions feels like slapping the hand as soon as the impression of a cake shows up.

    In actual practice the distinction is often blurred; find a way of noting that works for you as your mind settles and then try to find a way to note quicker/more precise/more refined once your mind settles down more. I think you might find that the second way of noting won’t work well if your mind isn’t very calm. Then it is time to do the less refined version of the noting. If you can do the first way consistently then you’re likely to be at least on stage 3-4; if you can do refined noting, then you are likely to have progresses further. Get to know your mind works intimately and how it reacts to your practice. Modify accordingly.

    Hope this helps.



    Ted Lemon

    A couple of things to say about this. First, gross distractions are a stage four phenomenon, not a stage three phenomenon. Beware of confusing gross distraction with forgetting.

    Second, if you are in stage five with no subtle dullness, you’re in stage six. But that doesn’t really sound like what you are describing. Don’t think that subtle dullness and “I feel really energetic” are synonymous. They aren’t. There’s some pretty clear instruction in the chapter on stage five on how to tell the difference; I encourage you to follow it. My experience is that meditations can feel quite energetic when there is still a lot of subtle dullness, so you absolutely have to do the full due diligence and not just think “ah, I have no subtle dullness.” 🙂

    Third, what you are describing sounds like you just need to do some more work on introspective awareness. When things are going smoothly, you don’t need a lot of introspective awareness to keep them going smoothly, but if you are doing stage five practices, you’re (a) going to tire yourself and (b) going to increase mental energy, which will make the mind less stable. To counteract this, you need a strong introspective awareness that happens fairly automatically.

    So I would suggest that you go back to stage four and look at the advice there. There’s a nice diagram at the beginning of the chapter that shows the cycle from “on the breath” through “subtle distraction” to “gross distraction.” The inflection point is identifying (automatically, not with attention) when a subtle distraction has the potential to become a gross distraction, and renewing the intention to stay on the breath. If this isn’t happening automatically, then just enjoy practicing with it for a while until it becomes more automatic, and then go back to stage five practices and see if things have changed. If you can’t get the problem to happen without doing stage five practices, that’s great—just do the practices that make it happen, but with the intention of developing this skill.



    Dear Ted Lemon,

    Thanks for the reply.

    “Beware of confusing gross distraction with forgetting.” I learned this difference in a hard way and now I enjoy the transition from forgetting (stage 3) to gross distractions (stage 4) [Earlier, I was mistakingly writing stage 3 when I meant stage 4. I edited my question to correct this.]

    I cannot have such a clarity between gross distractions (stage 4) and subtle distractions (stage 6). Hence, the question.

    What I learned from your answer is the following:
    1. My problem is not dealing with subtle distractions yet. I need to work with subtle dullness first.
    2. The distinction between gross and subtle distractions is not master at stage 6. It needs to be mastered at stage 4 where you prevent potential subtle distractions from growing into gross distractions.

    Your lesson is well taken:

    “The inflection point is identifying (automatically, not with attention) when a subtle distraction has the potential to become a gross distraction, and renewing the intention to stay on the breath. If this isn’t happening automatically, then just enjoy practicing with it for a while until it becomes more automatic, and then go back to stage five practices and see if things have changed.”

    So, with the new light you threw into the situation, let me rephrase my question: How do you detect the inflection point when a subtle distraction becomes a gross distraction? Is it timing (a distraction longer than on breath) or is it content of distraction (as T Sparby pointed out in his reply)? This is the point where I am confused.

    (Let me clarify that I am mostly doing the stage 5 practice. But often, I go back to stages 4 and experience gross distractions and strong dullness. I never ever have master stage 5: there are just a few minutes doing the stage 5 practice when the mindfulness is strong and subtle dullness is overcome. Sometimes, I feel the actual discrete physical sensations instead of mental generalisations like in-breath and out-breath. I can feel the breath in my hands in those moments and I also feel sensations of small/pleasant energy currents in my head. So, I level these moments as crossing stage 5 momentarily and getting a glimpse of stage 6. That’s the peak I can touch till now in my meditation.)

    • This reply was modified 11 months, 1 week ago by  Sanjeev.

    Josh Geller

    I like Terje’s distinction between subtle and gross distraction. I have a different understanding of the difference which is based on the mind system model. My experience is that subtle distraction is caused by one submind introducing information into consciousness with a strong enough intention to capture attention. If other subminds are not then stimulated to create a cascade of information flowing into consciousness, the attention will go back to the intended meditation object and subtle distraction will have been experienced. However, if other subminds are not unified enough they will then create a cascade of information to be exchanged in consciousness. Many of these bits of information will have strong enough intentions to distract the attention and cause forgetting. The content of this cascade can include all the types mentioned by Terje above. So, my experience of the difference between gross and subtle distraction is based on the ability to notice when attention is responding to one submind versus the cascading effect of multiple subminds interacting. This ability increases with practice 🙂

    • This reply was modified 11 months ago by  Josh Geller.
    • This reply was modified 11 months ago by  Josh Geller.
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