If you were to do a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats analysis of your meditation practice, under “weaknesses” and “threats” you might include five basic challenges that every meditator has to deal with. In fact, failure to deal successfully with these five challenges often leads people to abandon their meditation practice entirely, never to meditate again.
It’s important to know that when one of these states arises in your meditation, you aren’t doing anything wrong. You are just a human being experiencing what it means to be alive. Often called hindrances, these challenging states can be worked with in different ways. But the key thing to know is that they are a part of every meditator’s practice, are perfectly normal, and can teach you a lot about yourself.
1) Desire. As you try to focus on your breath, you constantly find yourself thinking about your upcoming vacation, a new restaurant you want to try, a new car you want to buy. Acknowledge that you are experiencing desire. Notice what kinds of desires keep coming to the surface. Don’t judge yourself for having certain desires. Be curious about them. Where do you feel the desire in your body? What’s it like? Is it a pleasant sensation, or does it make you feel restless or discontented? When we start building a more conscious and objective relationship to our desires, we aren’t as controlled by them as before.
2. Ill Will. Anger is a frequent experience during meditation. In addition to outright rage, there are more subtle types of aversion that can manifest. Judgments about people, displeasure about certain scenarios that are happening at work or at home. Notice where the anger tends to be directed. Watch for the patterns to your anger. Again, bring your body into your investigation. Where do you feel the anger? What’s the texture, the weight, the temperature of the anger? Is the sensation of anger pleasant or unpleasant? In being mindful of anger, you will learn a lot about your heart and the places where you may be wounded. It’s also a useful rule of thumb to dis-identify with the experience – it’s an event taking place within awareness as an observable experience. Think “anger is arising, and it’s like this” rather than “MY anger is like this.”
3. Restlessness and anxiety. I used to meditate after my breakfast and found that I was constantly restless. It took me a while to realize that I was restless because I had had caffeine in the morning. As a result, I stopped meditating with caffeine in my system, grabbing my morning coffee or tea after my session. Pay attention to what conditions in your life may contribute to you being restless. Restlessness and anxiety are very difficult mind-body states to be with. And while it’s not a lot of fun to be with them, allowing them space in your awareness will give you important insight into what might be driving you, and even if you don’t think you feel any better after your meditation, you probably are feeling better than you realize, just because you were patient enough to ride it out with your anxiety and stay present. If you can sit with your restlessness for 20 minutes without needing to change or fix it, you will learn a great deal.
4. Sleepiness/laziness. There are two types of sleepiness. The type that comes from a sort of mental laziness or lack of focus, often called “sloth.” And physical tiredness that can come because of the time of day it is or because we haven’t gotten enough sleep. A great way of working with sleepiness is to stand up and do your breathing. I’ve never known anyone to fall asleep while standing and meditating! Sleepiness is sometimes a sign that you need to get more sleep; and sometimes it’s a sign that you are resisting being present with yourself and your mind has withdrawn into dullness as a defense. It just depends on what’s going on. Being curious about your sleepiness, as well as about any of these other states, is very helpful.
5. Doubt. “Why am I even doing this practice? What good is it for me? I don’t seem to be making much progress. I’m not really sure how to proceed.” These are all expressions one might encounter when one experiences the hindrance of doubt. Doubt in meditation is a form of confusion. The key here is to not believe your doubt. If you do, you may walk away from the mat and never practice again. Be curious about your doubt. Is it possible to sit with this doubt and see what happens? One thing’s for sure: if you sit with your doubt for long enough, it will change. When doubt changes, it often gives way to a greater clarity.
The word hindrance is actually not a very good one in some ways. It implies that these challenges hinder the arising of positive states of mind, like concentration, joy, and so on. That is one way of looking at them, certainly. The other way of looking at them is that when a hindrance arises, it becomes your practice to be with it. So if you are practicing focusing on the breath but your body is terribly restless and in distress, then what you become aware of is the restlessness and distress – rather than pushing those states away, you open to them, allow them, and be curious about them. When a hindrance keeps arising, there’s a lot it can teach us.
Ironically as we open to these difficult states they often even out, soften, or disappear entirely. Sometimes the reverse happens and anxiety, say, gets worse as we bring our attention to it. This is why it’s so important to keep using your breath as a home base for your attention. We don’t have to abandon the breath to be aware of a hindrance. It’s more like a foreground and background thing. As a hindrance becomes our object of focus, the breath eases into the background of our attention. As the hindrance becomes too difficult to be with in that moment, we bring the breath back into the foreground of our attention, letting the hindrance recede a bit into the background as we collect and stabilize the mind. A flexible approach is best when determining how to work with a hindrance. With practice, you learn to trust your intuition about how best to respond.
Ultimately, I have found it very helpful to have a welcoming attitude towards hindrances when they show up, knowing that they can teach me much about my heart and mind. Or, as an old saw goes: If it’s in the way, it IS the way.