SuttaCentral

ADHD and meditation

Preface: if you do not believe in the existence of ADHD, I ask that you please do not comment on this thread to voice your disbelief and instead use this opportunity to listen and learn.

I have consistently found that meditation feels practically impossible with ADHD. We know that the ADHD brain is basically geared towards constantly seeking new stimuli and without it, hyperfocus basically doesn’t kick in. It’s not a lack of attention, but a constant misdirection of attention or a difficulty in regulating where your attention settles. This makes meditation extremely difficult. Breath meditation feels almost too subtle. Walking meditation is one of the better options because at least there is movement and the use of senses. I also find that gazing practices, while perhaps not EBT, can be helpful, again, because one is engaging the senses.

My question is, given that the Buddha had a variety of methods for a variety of students with different needs, and he probably had ADHD students even if they weren’t categorized as such, what methods do you think particularly fit, according to the EBTs, for ADHD neurodivergence?

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There was a post in another thread by someone with ADHD who meditates. I forget who posted it and where. If you search you might be able to find it, and can DM with the person.

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I did actually search for “ADHD” before posting. And I had seen a post about Ritalin and meditation, so thought it was a slightly different topic than this one. I will recheck that thread if that is the one you are talking about,

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ADHD brain here. When I think about what someone said over and over and over again and then have to post a second or third comment. A practice I know the forum doesn’t appreciate and try to restrain myself from doing!

Anyway, my question is much more specific than the Ritalin question. For one, I prefer to be unmedicated (not because I am against medicating for ADHD, but because I am one of the few who doesn’t respond well to medication). And second, what my question is interested in is identifying disciples who come across as ADHD and who were given specific meditation advice given their adhd-like circumstances in the EBTs.

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Welcome to the club! :joy:

Which is exactly what we’re training in meditation.

Focus (and hyper-focus) comes when we find something compelling. The trick is learning how to take an interest in the given thing. This is extremely difficult, of course, but holy bejebus is learning how to do it rewarding.

For just one example: it was extremely difficult for me as a teenager to listen to people talk for any length of time. Needless to say, I didn’t have many friends. :joy:

After practicing meditation in college (to boost my focus to help with my studies) I found I could also choose to take an interest in people when they blabber on about themselves. :joy: What a transformative revelation!!

It was also helpful for me to realize, as I studied Buddhism, that everyone is a bit ADHD (delusional, addicted, crazy, what-have-you). It’s just a matter of degrees. And the mind is plastic. So there’s no need to catastrophize or identify. It’s just something you work on and get better at.

Yeah! I also found gazing meditation super useful. Instant biofeedback! As soon as your attention flags, the eyes move off the spot. Brilliant!

A traditional cure for restlessness is to meditate on the parts of the body. I’ve found it helpful when I’m hyperactive. Put all that energy into visualizing the parts of the body (or a corpse, in so many stages of decomposition!) in as much detail as you can muster in your mind’s eye. It feels frenetic and hardly like “meditating” but actually your body is sitting still and, amazingly, after a few minutes, the mind starts to calm down too.

So maybe some of that is helpful… :slightly_smiling_face:

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Would you say all the meditations on the elements (as described in the dhatuvibhanga sutta) to be helpful here—working on one element at a time progressively—or just the earth one/body parts? I will say that this Sutta is of specific interest to me… it’s probably my absolutely favorite Sutta on meditation in the entire canon—but I have yet to try to put it into practice.

I don’t know if that is quite how I would frame ADHD. For one, I no longer use a pathological framework for understanding ADHD. I don’t see it as a condition to be fixed or a problem necessarily. There are some interesting theories around the development of ADHD in terms of evolution. Specifically, that it provided evolutionary advantage for early hunter and gatherer humans. 1) ADHD brains tend to have a reverse sleep cycle from neurotypical and tend to be night owls, making them particularly good night guards for their social group (plus the hyperfocus means their attention will wander when hearing various sounds and other stuff alerting them to danger). 2) seeking new stimuli means good at scouting and scavenging—something that again would bring out the hyperfocus. To name a few things.

Rather than seeing adhd as a problem of addiction to stimuli and so forth, I rather see it as a cool part of me that doesn’t need to be fixed. Of course there are certain challenges, like how to work with one’s ADHD for choosing a good meditation practice, picking the right careers, or if in a career not well suited to you, but of interest to you (coughcough academia), what are strategies you can use to make adhd work in your favor?

Maybe Arhats still have adhd brains (despite plasticity) and it just looks different for Arhats than for the rest of us. But if my intuitions are correct about ADHD it’s not something to be overcome on the path to Arhatship and it’s still there for Arhats.

I suspect adhd would be particularly conducive for wander ascetics and dhutanga practices,

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Culapanthaka (Little wayman) seems to be a likely candidate for someone with ADHD who became an Arahant… :thinking:

EA20.12
Then the Exalted One took Cūḍapanthaka by the hand, returned with him to the vihāra and had him sitting down on the spot and holding a bamboo broom, saying to him, “What do you call this object? Pronounce the word for it.”

Now Cūḍapanthaka managed to pronounce “bamboo”, but he could not remember the word “broom”, and while he managed to pronounce “broom”, he forgot the word “bamboo”.

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I think so! As it gives the mind plenty to chew on. But I don’t have like… specific suttas I can cite to justify that

Well! Now is the time! :slight_smile:

Well, if it’s maladaptive it’s maladaptive, you know? Like: we can recognize that disability is contextual and socially contingent without letting that dictate what we must be. We’re so much more adaptable than that. So, if you want to go into academia, do it! I believe in you. :heart: :slightly_smiling_face:

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Oh no, I dropped out of that toxic and traumatizing mess of an institution a long time ago! I am a massage therapist (on sabbatical for covid) about to start osteopathy school in the autumn (you can see why anatomical meditation interests me here :wink: ).

I also I just have too many varied interests for academia! Narrow in on one speciality? Me? How? I have a background in gender studies and anthropology, I am immersed in medicine, and have an interest in translation and Buddhist philosophy across traditions. I am much better off pursuing these varied interests as a hobby and earn my keep with my hands.

I also study and practice traditional Thai medicine and its massage and herbalism. In fact the dhatuvibhanga is an extremely important Sutta for traditional Thai anatomy and physiology. And, if you relate adhd to a wind imbalance, the antidote is earth, so you are correct there too… but Thai medicine isn’t just grounded in the EBTs but also local plant knowledge and its own historical developments, the Abhidhamma, local animism, and the pre-modern esoteric practices. So I wanted to narrow down on just the EBTs and get a fresh perspective as it pertains to meditation.

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Venerable, do you know of any good contemporary practical meditation manuals centered on the dhatuvibhanga (of particularly EBT orientation)? The Sutta isn’t quite that clear on the how to meditate on the elements. Maybe Ven. Analayo has written one or @Sujato has a particular recommendation?

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Satipaṭṭhāna Practice_ Elements - Analayo.pdf (494.6 KB)

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Disclaimer: I’m not diagnosed, mainly because I haven’t been to the doctor’s. But I’ve been reading on it and now I’m pretty certain that I fit the description of ADHD Inattentive type. I plan to go get a diagnosis. I’ve been procrastinating for about 1,5 years now.

Well depends on the definition of meditation. If meditation is sitting on the cushion and trying to steady the mind, then that is definetely possible. But if you define meditation as jhanas (as the suttas do) then yes, it seems to be bordering on impossible.

After about 12-15 months of almost daily ~1h practice I got some improvements. I no longer get sleepy during the meditation, which is a big improvement. Needles to say, attention is still mostly anywhere except at the breath - unless I get a very good day. Few times keeping to the breath became effortless for a minute or two, which was awesome experience. Extremely hard to reproduce though.

For me doing more of it and more regularely helped a bit. That said after about 2 years of quite dedicated practice I still have much less attention control than many friends that never meditated. I’m loosing my faith in whether any significant improvement without medication is actually possible.

So true. Sometimes when after speaking for a long time they got silent expecting a response from me… they got the response, which was completely out of place since I’ve been in the dream world all the time and didn’t listen at all :sweat_smile:

Or reading. In school when I tried to learn I could spend half hour reading (and re-reading) one paragraph. Because mid-sentence I already had few distractions and didn’t remember the beginning of it.

It improved as I grew older, but still sometimes (especially when I’m tired, after beer, or both) I get to states where I barely know what’s going around.

Didn’t know that, but sure it fits my reality.

I’ve seen people claim on the Internets that Stream Entry fixed ADHD for them. But that were just random people claiming stuff so I take it with a (big) grain of salt.

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Reading these contributions there’s mostly a notable lack of inner reference. That means being aware of the hindrances and the dhamma and relating that to external experience. Mental tranquillity arises from sila which is an inner concern. External experience should trigger inner contemplation if dhamma is established:

“Just going for a walk and seeing dead leaves on the ground under a tree can provide an opportunity to contemplate impermanence. Both we and the leaves are the same: when we get old, we shrivel up and die. Other people are all the same. This is raising the mind to the level of vipassanā, contemplating the truth of the way things are, the whole time. Whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down, sati is sustained evenly and consistently. This is practising meditation correctly - you have to follow the mind closely, checking it at all times.”—-Ajahn Chah

When we make a separate study of impermanence (such as parts of the body) then that strengthens the spontaneous moments when the mind has to be corrected in its course.

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For those who do not know the acronym: Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

:anjal:

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There’s one senior monk (Bhante Yutadhammo) who encourages his ADHD students to meditate lying down. And apparently, it works for many people. Most people fall asleep when they meditate lying down. But if your mind is more active to begin with, lying down can provide just the right amount of tranquilisation.

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To be fair, a large part of school is normalizing the idea of doing things – not because you want to or because the task is meaningful or pleasurable to you – but because an authority figure told you to do it.

However, in the suttas, it’s clear that meditation is about pleasure (caveat: non-sensual pleasure).

E.g. you have the causal sequences that start with non-regret, recollecting past generosity or virtue or investigating the meaning of the Dhamma, etc. The pleasure, rapture and joy is what stills the mind and body, leading to absorption and insight.

The jhana similies are also about how pleasure stills the body and mind.

Maybe it’s because of school that we’re so conditioned to rely on willpower and discipline, and not to expect any inherent pleasure or meaningfulness in doing any task?

I would suggest that, maybe, if you have ADHD, you just need to generate a bit more pleasure to focus your mind? There’s nothing about ADHD that limits the practice of generosity or ethics, so I don’t see why it should be a disadvantage.

In fact, maybe it’s an advantage? You can’t rely on willpower as much, so you have to develop meditation “by the book” as it’s described in the suttas :slight_smile:

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Sure, but for some children this comes easily while for some others it seems to be extremely more difficult for no good reason (aside from brain chemistry).

It’s not that simple. Even when there is pleasure it’s not easy to keep on the task.
Before lockdown my biggest hobby was pool billiard. The game gives me a lot pleasure / fun, but even at that I do have a very hard time keeping focus. Ofted after a game friends discuss this or that shot while I usually don’t remember what I played two shots ago.

Well, the suttas prescribe it like this: go to the root of the tree, sit down and meditate, don’t they? :stuck_out_tongue:

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The other thing to remember about adhd is that rewards don’t work the same for the adhd brain. Whereas delayed gratification works as a motivator for neurotypicals, it does not for adhd. Adhd tends to go for the highest reward for the least effort. If something is perceived as boring, no matter how much pleasure you will gain once you go through boring bits, the closest pleasurable thing will get our attention first. This is why adhd and procrastination goes together.

Luckily, hyperfocus means some of the most boring tasks to some people could be fascinating. I can spend days digging through one verse of Nagarjuna in Sanskrit and Tibetan and Chinese and researching literature ad nauseam to the point of forgetting to eat (because preparing food means eating is a long term reward and in this scenario cooking and eating become an obstacle to the thing I am obsessing over—I love to cook too, but in this case, it becomes a chore). The issue is not being able to choose or regulate where the attention is placed. And other pleasurable activities are just not as pleasurable as this thing that has taken a hold of me.

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Why do you think meditation is about regulating where attention is placed?

When I read suttas like AN 10.2, I personally think that meditation has nothing to do with attention, or the ability to sustain it over time. I think that meditation is about learning to give rise to strong feelings of wholesome joy and pleasure, capable of automatically stilling the body and mind.

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I was diagnosed with ADHD in about 2014 by our marriage therapist. I bought a bunch of books but the one that stood out was The Gift of the Hunter Child which I think you made reference to. I don’t frame ADHD as a disease to cure but a situation to investigate and deal with. ADHD can be maddening, especially if I don’t pay attention the the 7 factors of awakening.

The backstory is that between ages 8 and 10 I had three head injuries where I was knocked unconscious and I was a heavy marijuana user from age 12 to 21 so I honestly have my suspicions that my brain is physically damaged. So I work with it and what better guidance than from the Buddha!

With all that said, I discovered Buddhism and daily meditation about 11 years ago and I attribute my positive progress solely on that. As the Venerable Khemarato has pointed out, the entry door for me has been the body and vedana. It’s what alerts me to the mind (or minds) spinning out and dragging me into the swamp. The various meditation approaches that the Buddha suggested helps me see what’s going on and how to move in the right direction and keep the train from going off the tracks.

It’s seems as if I have three mind operating systems (OS) possibly working. The first OS mind is consciousness; that mind that depends on namarupa for reality, particularly contact, vedana, perception and sankhara and creates a self that I identify with. Unknown and unchecked, this is the one that will take me off the rails because it’s “me". The second OS is the mind that remembers the Dhamma and wants to follow the Buddha to awakening by not so much doing but by somehow remembering and letting go of what OS1 is flapping and twirling about. OS3 is the elusive bare awareness of stillness and emptiness that I get to rest in periodically.

Meditation isn’t easy for ADHD. But it’s the only way for me. I love meditation, even when my thought world is five wild animals tethered to a post. It’s a daily pressure release valve which allows me to move on the path. For me, Buddhism without the practical application of meditation and reflection throughout the day would just add to the din of my thought world.

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