“Life is Difficult” – from “The Road Less Travelled”
So says psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in the first line of his seminal self-help book, “The Road Less Travelled”. The book has sold over 5 million copies in North America. Many of those buyers will have been tempted by that wise and instructive first line of the book.
So what does this have to do with meditation?
Well, meditation is difficult too. And just as in his book Peck says that if we truly accept this truth about life, we transcend it; the same applies to meditation too. That’s the power of acceptance.
But before we get there, we must confront some of the common-or-garden blockages that meditators face on their road less travelled. And there are many potential pitfalls – the contemplative traditions of the world have documented many of these in their voluminous writings.
What I’m trying to do here is to distill some of that wisdom, and to offer some guidance from an experienced meditator. There are potential traps that every practitioner is liable to encounter at some time or another, but that can be overcome.
Often in meditation, persistence pays off.
So whatever the reason that you are meditating – for inner peace, for self-improvement, for Enlightenment – then this post can help you on your journey.
Obstacle # 1 – Over thinking/busy mind
The biggie. Anyone who has sat, shut their eyes, been quiet, and listened to their mind, even for 5 minutes, will often be shocked at the sheer cacophony of noise that they are confronted with. Many people try meditation once, and are so shocked by this reality, that they vow never to do it again.
But this is the first step on the path. We must start somewhere.
The fact is that no matter how far we progress down the path of mindfulness, we will always encounter busy thoughts at some point during our sittings. They are part of the picture. Thoughts are simply what brains do. It’s how we respond to them that counts.
If our response is to get involved with the stream of thoughts in our heads, and try to rearrange them in some way, we are doomed to failure. This intervention is what our egos want us to do. To feed the monkey mind, the cocktail party in our heads. But this is not a skillful response.
Instead we should take a metaphorical step back each time we sit for meditation. We should just observe, non-judgmentally what is happening, rather like a dispassionate observer would watch a river go by. And as we do this, perhaps by focusing on an object like the breath, an amazing thing starts to happen.
Our mind starts to slow. And then, between the thoughts, stillness starts to appear. This is the beginning of true meditation, and the antidote to a busy mind – observation, non-judgmentally.
Try it, every day, for a week. Your life could change.
Obstacle # 2 – Tiredness
This is a tricky one. Tricky because meditation practice often takes place first thing in the morning, or last thing at night. This is when we are most tired, generally. And the mind will pay tricks on you, trying to persuade you to have 5 more minutes in bed during morning meditation, even when you are wide awake.
Sometimes we are genuinely shattered. Perhaps on the odd occasion we should give into the tiredness and have a nap or sleep rather than meditate. As the Dalai Lama says, “sometimes the best meditation is a long sleep.”
But not every time. Sometimes if we are sleepy we must fight it – but not directly.
If you are meditating lying down, try sitting up. A straight spine and practice can cure a variety of ills. The Zen masters have taught us that.
If that doesn’t work, try sitting in another room. Or turn the heating down. A too-warm room can sometimes work against inner peace.
Another tactic is to try meditating in 5 or 10 minute bursts. This is better than nothing and can get you back on the right track.
Obstacle # 3 – Dullness
Dullness is a Buddhist word which you may not be familiar with. It is related to feelings of laziness, sluggishness and torpor during practice. It basically means that you have lost focus and vitality during a sitting. It can go on for days, weeks, months, and monks say that it can hold you back from skillful practice in a big way.
Dullness is such a common affliction in meditation that its hard to assign a remedy for it. Sometimes it’s just a season in your practice, a phase that you may be going through. Just try to bring back your awareness to the breath as well as you can, and to cultivate mindful awareness. And don’t give up!
Obstacle # 4 – The three poisons – greed, hatred, and delusion
I’ve included a bit of Buddhist psychology here as I think it is relevant.
The Buddhist tradition teaches that the main obstacle to freedom in meditation is the three poisons – greed, hatred and delusion. These three basic attitudes are the Buddhist equivalent of Christianity’s 7 Deadly Sins – basic destructive thoughts that are the seed sins of all other destructive thoughts and behaviours.
Greed is essentially clinging and grasping onto good thoughts and experiences. Hatred is the opposite – the pushing away of “bad” thoughts and experiences. Delusion is the basic human sin – the ignorance of the true situation that keeps the whole thing going.
As the saying goes – so in meditation, so in life.
These three poisons combine to disrupt our meditation, and take us away from the humble self- acceptance that leads to the development of compassion, holiness, and wisdom.
So how do we combat the 3 Poisons?
Traditionally Buddhism has emphasised the application of the virtues of generosity, compassion and wisdom to counter each three of the sins.
Obstacle # 5 – Physical pain
Pain can be a blockage to mindfulness practice. I have personal experience with this – I have suffered from neck pain for years and find it hard to sit straight and meditate. This leads me to do most of my sessions lying down. Obviously, this can be problematic and it does lead to falling asleep on occasion, but I accept that and move on to a new session the next day.
So sometimes you just have to be pragmatic with bodily pain. Make sensible adjustments when you need to.
One tactic that I have used on occasion when I’ve had physical pain is to focus in on it, to observe it, to be mindful of it. What exactly does the pain feel like? What is its texture? Where is it located? Sometimes developing awareness can help put the pain in context. It can help.
Obstacle # 6 – Expectations
If there is a true mindfulness killer, its having expectations as you go into a session. The key to meditation is accepting non-judgmentally whatever is in the present moment. Expectations have you looking beyond the present moment. They have you looking to some now non-existent place that you inhabited once at a prior session.
In effect, having expectations in meditation – trying to create a certain type of experience that you previously had – is actually a form of nostalgia. Its about harking back to a day when you blissed out, when everything went right for you in a session. But as long as you are looking back, you cannot be centred and present in the here and now.
This is why, paradoxically, a great experience in mindfulness practice can actually put you back months. This is because pleasant experiences lead to meditative nostalgia, and constantly trying to recreate the past. Which of course you can never do.
It can be hard to let go of attachments to prior bliss.
Just let go. And let God.
Overall, I would say that experienced meditators will be confronted with all of these 6 obstacles at some point. The key is to make sensible adjustments, and carry on with your practice. Regular meditation is the key. Even if some days you only manage 10 minutes.
Persistence in mindfulness usually pays off; it can cover a multitude of sins.