“Difficulties and obstacles, if properly understood and used, can turn out to be an unexpected source of strength.” Sogyal Rinpoche
“We don’t meditate to see heaven, but to end suffering.” Ajahn Chah
“Man learns through experience, and the spiritual path is full of different kinds of experiences. He will encounter many difficulties and obstacles, and they are the very experiences he needs to encourage and complete the cleansing process.” Sai Baba
Whether you’re a beginning or an experienced meditator, you will inevitably come up against problems. It’s in the overcoming of these hurdles that meditation presents an opportunity for growth. One that can have life-changing effects.
Theravada monk Bhante Gunaratana writes: “The reason we are all stuck in life’s mud is that we ceaselessly run from our problems and after our desires. Meditation provides us with a laboratory situation in which we can examine this syndrome and devise strategies for dealing with it.” 1
Here are a few ways you can carve a path around around some of the barriers to easeful practice.
Boredom isn’t clear-cut. We might equally say that we are feeling demotivated, lazy or that our mind is dull…all have a similar flavour. Boredom usually manifests as an aversion to practising: we can’t muster the energy to sit down in the first place, and when we do we’re just waiting for the session to end.
- Contemplate the advantages of meditation. How will awareness, and its propensity to calm your reactivity, benefit you in daily life? How will physically reducing your stress help? Consider questions like these to cultivate the desire to get your bum on the cushion.
- Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness. Use the arising of boredom as an opportunity to re-establish mindfulness. To quote Bhante again: “If the breath seems an exceedingly dull thing to observe over and over , you may rest assured of one thing: you have ceased to observe the process with true mindfulness.” 2
- Choose a time to practice when you’re well-rested and don’t have any pressing commitments. Often, you might not want to meditate because the need to unwind is more pressing. Research has shown that we’re more likely to follow through on a course of action if our need for recuperation has been met.
Buddhists usually refer to distraction as excitation, and it has varying degrees. Alan Wallace describes it thus: “When coarse excitation takes over the mind, we completely lose touch with our chosen object of meditation. It’s as if the mind is abducted against its will, and thrown in the trunk of a distracting thought or sensory stimulus. …The mind jumps from one object to another like a bird flitting from branch to branch, never at rest.” 3
- Relax more deeply. Take a handful of deep breaths, loosen tensions in your body, reflect on a calming image…whatever works for you. As Wallace goes on to say: “Such turbulence is overcome only by persistent skilful practice, cultivating deeper relaxation, a sense of inner ease.” 4 Relaxing the mind is the key to quieting it.
- Count your breaths. Counting each breath, saying the number silently to yourself after each exhalation, can often succeed in stilling the mind. You are essentially using the conceptual mind to help lessen its intrusion.
- Note the distractions (literally, if you need to). If there are many thoughts vying for your attention, note them. You might want to say them aloud or even write them down.
3. Physical Pain
- Make yourself more comfortable. Top marks for the obvious, I know! You will eventually adjust to your sitting posture. Having your hands rest in your lap and keeping your head level can go some way in reducing neck and upper-back discomfort. You may find a mat useful.
- Direct your attention onto the pain. If the pain becomes so pressing that it pulls you from your chosen object, simply use it as the focus of your mindfulness. This is what Bhante G recommends.
4. Am I doing this technique right? Can I possibly succeed?
This kind of negative self-talk is a good thing. You’re illuming some of your latent beliefs about meditation (and perhaps other things in your life). Perfectionism can be let go off, replaced with an attitude of gentleness and impartiality.
- Accept that self-criticism is normal and “return”. You will be frustrated. Accept this, as non-judgementally as you can, and re-establish mindfulness on your meditation object.
- Consciously affirm a playful attitude. Doing so will stop you from becoming frustrated at yourself when you think you’ve done something that’s “wrong.” Remind yourself that there is no exact right or wrong.
5. Ego is the enemy!
Ego isn’t the enemy. This is a usual, but not a useful, belief. Mind, self, ego…whatever you want to call it, it’s not the bad guy.
- Simply being aware of this belief can be enough to quell it. Treat all the rumination and the frustration that you may be experiencing as an opportunity for mindfulness. In doing so you are examining the workings of your mind, growing better able to accept and manage it in the long-term.
So there you go! What problems have you experienced and what have you found helpful? Let us know in the comments below!
If you want to go a little deeper, consider our selection of the best meditation books for beginners. We’ve also written a comprehensive introduction to meditation, alongside an introduction to the scientific dimension of practice. Also consider checking out our CD of guided meditations, Easeful.
1. H Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, 2011, p.91.
3. BA Wallace, The Attention Revolution, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, 2006, p.29.
4. ibid., p.30.