Obstacles to Meditation

Some people have a knack of seeing an opportunity in every problem. This is precisely the attitude we want to cultivate when faced with what appear to be obstacles to our meditation.

In truth, each time an obstacle presents itself, what is actually happening is that the mind is, in effect, laying itself bare. It is opening up its inner workings to the light of conscious attention. The more often we meet a particular obstacle, the more deeply familiar we can become with the strategies by which the mind produces that obstacle.

So an obstacle during meditation is, in reality, an opportunity – if only we know how to avail ourselves of it! The following is a list of common obstacles and suggestions of how to make the best of them.

There are two categories of obstacle: natural and attitudinal. Let’s look at two of the principal natural obstacles first.

Distraction

This one is the “meat” of meditation. It’s the main one we all experience countless times. It’s also perfectly natural insofar as the mind is simply doing what it naturally does: following what interests it. Nevertheless, the arising of distractions can seem frustratingly insurmountable. “Why can’t I just meditate?” we may say to ourselves – or even practically scream it when we get really irked. “Everybody else talks about inner silence, bliss and peace. All I get is yesterday’s news, a bunch of emails and the phone bill!”

Now, if you truly have some pressing issue you must deal with, you will naturally find it nearly impossible to meditate. It may be that after months and years of meditation practice you’ll be able to put things aside, no matter how pressing, and just meditate. However, don’t expect this of yourself when you are still a beginner. If you have something that really needs your attention now, you had better attend to it and come back to your meditation later when you feel more relaxed.

You can even set aside a portion of your meditation period just to deal with the issue – thinking about it, planning what you need to do, etc. You may find that if you spend the first half of your sitting doing this, then the next half of your sitting will be relatively clear of distraction, allowing you better to stay with the relaxed, meditative state of mind.

This kind of distraction could be called a “deep distraction” – where something in your life is seriously bothering you and taking up your attention. We can also experience a lot of “shallow” distractions – thoughts about things that aren’t super important but that nevertheless fritter away our meditation session, taking us meandering through old memories and future hopes.

It's important not to confuse the notion of distractions – which effectively take us out of the meditative state of mind – with that of impressions. Impressions are whatever arises to the mind, whether it be sensations, feelings, thoughts – whatever constitutes our experience in the present moment. Impressions are constantly arising, and every new moment brings a new impression. As we meditate, impressions continue arising: we continue hearing sounds, feeling sensations, having thoughts. However, if we are successfully meditating, we don't get "caught up" in any particular impression or set of impressions. That is to say, we don't get caught up in distractions, which are collections of many individual impressions, a collection we "get lost in."

It may seem strange that thoughts can be simply impressions, without being classed as distractions. Of course, most of our thinking is distractive. But a thought itself is made up of a string of impressions and if we are fully immersed in the meditative state of mind, we can view this string of impressions simply as what it is: just another string of impressions, no different in kind or quality than the chirping of a bird or the sensation of clothes on our skin.

However, this ability to simply watch the impressions rise and fall, without adding or subtracting our own interest, thereby creating a distraction, comes at an advanced stage of meditation, so we should not expect ourselves to be able to accomplish this yet. For the time being, we just need a strategy that helps us deal with the distractions that without fail will arise; we don't yet need to master the art of "emptiness."

There are a number of ways to deal with the issue of distractions. The one we’re interested in for now as beginning meditators is the meditation method itself, employing remembrance of an anchor that then triggers us back into the meditative state. As soon as you discover that you are distracted, simply remember the anchor, repeat it to yourself once or twice, and return to meditating.

Each time this process occurs, you ever so slightly deepen the association of the anchor with the meditative state, making future distractions ever so slightly easier to dispense with.

If you don’t seem to be getting the anchoring/triggering effect, it may be because the anchor has not been properly established at the beginning of your session. Be sure to take your time to set up the anchor at the start. You do this by finding a relatively relaxed, non-distracted state of mind where you are just sitting doing nothing. You don’t have to be perfectly relaxed, just relatively relaxed compared to your state of mind before you started the session. It also does not need to last long, just as long as it takes you to repeat your anchor to yourself three or four times and then for a few more seconds afterwards. This will set up the anchor and give it a reference back to the meditative state of mind.

If it doesn’t happen the first time you sit down to meditate, give it at least a few more tries. Gradually, over the course of a week or two, the anchor will strengthen its association with the meditative state of mind. Be patient and in the meantime enjoy whatever relaxation you do find during your sessions. These two goals – to strengthen the anchor and enjoy relaxing – constitute the primary “work” we have before us as beginning practitioners.

Eventually you’ll notice that distractions start becoming more or less “surface” distractions, meaning that you see them arise and you might just barely follow them for a second or two, but they don’t really take hold and they fall away as quickly as they came. When you start experiencing more and more of these kinds of surface distractions, then you can consider yourself to have made some real progress in learning how to meditate. If a solid majority of the distractions that arise during a session are surface distractions, then you are ready for the next stage of development of your meditation practice, described in Expanding Your Practice.

There are other ways of dealing with distractions, in particular these surface distractions, but they are more suited to intermediate practitioners since they are concentrative methods that can introduce an element of striving if we have not successfully accomplished the “work” of the beginning practitioner. Again, these are described in the section Expanding Your Practice.

Restlessness

What is it that generates distractions in the first place? Why do they arise at all? The issue is complex, involving many different aspects of the personality and the structure of consciousness. But one aspect often present is restlessness.

If you watch yourself carefully when you find a lot of distractions arising, you will often notice an underlying feeling of restlessness. You're not frustrated, irritated or bored – just restless. Stuff just keeps coming up, and lots of it, and it seems no matter how much you try to return to the meditative state of mind, you don't really succeed. You just feel restless.

In one respect, this can be a difficult obstacle to deal with, since there are many possible causes for restlessness. One of the major ones is diet. Caffeine, whether in coffee, tea or soft drinks, certainly won't help your mind calm down. And you might have issues with a number of other foods as well. Certain items like onions, garlic, mushrooms, eggs, and meat (especially pork) can all cause restlessness. If you regularly eat any of these, you might try dropping them from your diet for a week or two and see if you notice any change.

Another possible cause of restlessness is, oddly enough, lack of sleep so if you're feeling restless during meditation and know you didn't sleep well the night before, there might be a connection. Issues with sleep is too large of a topic for this article, but in any case daily meditation can help reduce sleep disturbances. Try the other methods talked about here for dealing with restlessness, and you'll probably find you can ease away the restlessness.

Other causes can be more psychological in nature. You might simply be a restless person with a mind that is constantly on overdrive. Or you might have important issues in your life which are causing what we called above "deep" distractions. Restlessness can often accompany these kinds of issues. Or you might just be enjoying a "bouncy" day even though your mind is generally relatively calm.

Not to worry. Psychological restlessness is best countered by favoring the meditation method. If after 5 or 10 minutes you see that this just isn't working, then allow the restlessness to take its course. Allow yourself to be restless. This can work in the same way that flexing a muscle allows you better to subsequently relax it. You may notice that the restlessness does not always stay at one uniform level, but comes in waves, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker. See if you can't emphasize the weaker stages, in effect riding the waves of your restlessness. Gradually, the restlessness should dissipate and at a certain point, you'll find yourself able to successfully remember the anchor and recall the associated meditative state. From there on out, your session should proceed smoothly and relatively free of restlessness – though not necessarily free of distraction. Just free of the stronger kind of restlessness that indomitably produces a never-ending string of distractions.

If this method doesn't work, one other method is worth mentioning, though it's more suited to intermediate meditators. Try simply watching the restlessness for a few minutes. Closely observe all aspects of this experience of restlessness. But most importantly, do so always as an observer, as if you are watching a restless monkey inside a cage. Your restlessness is like that monkey, and you are standing outside, impassively watching. Once you have established this sense of closely but objectively watching the restlessness, begin to turn your attention towards this sense of two separate entities: the restlessness and the impassive observer. This impassive observer is commonly called the Witness. Try to get a full sense of that separateness between experience and Witness. Once you have this firmly in mind, begin to identify yourself with the impassive observing Witness. Find yourself, in effect, "one with" that Witness. Find that you are that Witness and you are no longer the restlessness. Relax into this sense, allowing yourself to rest as the Witness, no longer caught up in and identified with the restlessness. You will likely find that the restlessness magically disappears and that you are back in the meditative state of mind, simply watching, doing nothing.

Sleepiness

There are a number of possible causes of sleepiness during meditation. For one, we are relaxed when we meditate and most of us only experience this kind of relaxation after lying down at night to go to sleep. So our minds may habitually associate relaxation with sleep. Therefore, the best time to meditate is 15 minutes to half an hour after rising in the morning, when we have fulfilled our need for sleep and we feel wide awake, having washed our face, gone to the bathroom, etc. In this way, with time, the association between relaxation and sleep will dissipate.

One note about this, however: if you rely on caffeine (or any other drug) in the morning to “wake you up” to “normality” you will have a difficult time meditating. Your mind can’t relax after drinking caffeine, so you’ll have to meditate before. But you’re not awake enough until after you’ve had your fix. The only answer, hate to say it, is to wean yourself off caffeine. You may experience some headaches for a few days, but eventually your body will adjust. And, take it from all of us who have kicked the habit, you’ll feel much better for it. You simply won’t need it once you don’t need it anymore!

There can also be physical reasons for sleepiness. You may have just eaten a meal, and consequently the body is directing its energies towards digesting. Any relaxation of consciousness and suddenly you’re out. The simple answer is, don’t meditate after meals.

Another physical cause can be simple lack of sleep or tiredness from heavy physical or mental exertion. If that’s the case, the best answer is, get more sleep.

In all of these cases, you can go ahead and meditate, but you will find the going difficult. Nevertheless, you can learn much from continuing ahead regardless of sleepiness. Try to watch yourself attempting to stay awake. It’s not easy to do, but you will gain a deeper familiarity with the various layers of your mind that you will encounter in a more conscious manner as your meditative practice develops.

Which brings us to the deeper cause of sleepiness, or at least what may appear to be sleepiness. All of the abovementioned causes will be associated with an actual mental and/or physical sensation of tiredness. Your mind or body really just wants to fall asleep.

This last cause largely lacks the physical sensation of sleepiness. It arises due to what we can call the “descent” into the deeper layers of your mind. After the conscious mind, the first layer we encounter as our meditation deepens is the subconscious mind, where all manner of memories are stored – not only relatively “complete” memories of “times you had”, but also little bits and pieces: snatches of sound, words spoken, voices, images, smells. We can call this storehouse of bits and pieces “flux”.

As we fall asleep at night, we descend into this flux, though we are usually unaware of it. Sometimes we catch a scrap of it though: a word we heard that day, a brief bit of a sight we once saw. Or it can be a string of words that makes little sense. When this happens, it’s because you’ve awakened just enough to remember the last bit of flux that you experienced.

The arising of flux, therefore, is deeply associated with sleep, since falling asleep is the only time when we usually experience it. So when we first start making the descent into the subtler layers of our mind through a deepening of our meditation, we naturally associate the arising of flux with sleep and consequently we can experience mental feelings of sleepiness.

The way to overcome this problem is to develop witnessing, as described above in the section on Restlessness. Though this is a topic more suited to intermediate meditators, this particular cause of sleepiness is mentioned here because if you have determined that your sleepiness is not due to any of the other causes mentioned above, it may be because you are beginning to make the descent. In which case, it’s time to start looking into how to successfully deepen your meditation.

The last cause of sleepiness that we’ll deal with here could be said to be an attitudinal obstacle. The mind can be fairly tricky in how it deals with unwanted experience. If at some level, probably subconsciously, you really don’t want to meditate, you may find yourself falling asleep in order to avoid meditating. This might be because you have some trauma which you subconsciously fear might be triggered by relaxing too much, thereby allowing the material to come forth into memory. By falling asleep, the mind can avoid the release of that material.

There is actually very little real evidence of the existence of unconscious traumatic memories. Traumatic memories, while not always present in consciousness, are nevertheless consciously accessible and will play a part in the consciousness of the affected person’s life whenever he or she encounter situations that trigger those memories. The memory, while perhaps vague, becomes conscious during those situations.

That said, a traumatic memory is likely also to have a role in subconsciously affecting a person’s actions and behaviors. Excess tension, easy irritation or rage, panic attacks – all of these can result from traumatic incidents in the past, and can occur even while the person is not consciously recalling the incident. However, the incident itself is not “hidden away”. The person most likely knows it happened, though recalling it consciously, of course, can cause much discomfort.

The point is, if you have experienced a trauma, you very likely already know about it. Meditation in and of itself won't suddenly reveal to you some long hidden trauma of which you were never aware before. What it can do is relax you enough such that your defenses against constantly remembering a known trauma are lowered, and hence you find yourself reviewing that trauma, very likely too closely for comfort.

But what can the mind do instead? Rather than allowing you to get to that point, it can simply fall asleep. So what to do? If you find yourself in this situation, falling asleep during meditation and knowing you have experienced serious trauma, then just allow yourself to fall asleep. There is no reason to fight it. Continue your daily practice – perhaps falling asleep each time – but meanwhile, away from your meditation session, you might wish to review how you feel about continuing with meditation given the possibility of eventually having to deal “close up” with the old traumatic memories. You are the only person who can decide if you wish to go ahead or wait until some time in the future when you might feel more comfortable dealing with your trauma. Meditation in and of itself will not cure a trauma, but it can give you a relaxed space in which to review and gradually “defuse” it. But only you know whether that is something you want to do or not.

Frustration

The next three obstacles, frustration, irritation and boredom, are all clearly “attitudinal” obstacles.

Frustration can arise because you don’t feel like you’re succeeding with “overcoming” distractions. If this is the case, then you’ll need to make adjustments in your attitude towards and understanding of both the mind and what it means to meditate.

First off, you’d be better off dropping the notion of “overcoming” distractions. You may believe you can “beat them down” by some sort of superior effort, but this effort is more likely to create tension than to allow for the relaxed state of mind we’re seeking here. The belief that you should be able to overcome distractions is founded in a misunderstanding of the nature of the mind.

The mind is naturally attracted to certain topics. When we are not meditating and are operating in the standard waking state of mind, we don’t consider this attraction to be a distraction. It’s merely what we are interested in. Only when we are meditating do these natural interests seem suddenly to appear as intrusive, unwanted distractions.

Granted, they are – but only within the context of meditation. The fact is though, before we sat down to meditate, they weren’t distractions. They were just what we were doing.

So a far better attitude is to be accepting of distractions as the normal functioning of the mind, as opposed to condemning them as some sort of defective defilements of “monkey mind” (as many teachers suggest). It is better to do so because in this way we can sidestep the kind of frustration, founded in a subtle self-directed anger, which can arise when we feel unsuccessful in our attempts to quash that “monkey mind.” Again, the tensions associated with both the effort of "quashing" and the frustration resulting from failure in that effort can only take us away from success in meditation, pushing us ever further away from that towards which we wish to move.

So, again, rather than trying to overcome distractions, we simply accept them and, once we see that we are caught up in one, we remember our anchor and then calmly and without self-blame or self-criticism return to its associated meditative state of mind. And we do this as often as necessary, knowing that each time we do, we are gradually improving our meditation and thereby reducing the power of distractions.

Irritation

As an obstacle to meditation, irritation can often arise in people who are driven to constantly be “doing something.” It’s only natural, then, that they would find meditation irritating insofar as they are asking themselves to do nothing. All that valuable time wasted!

If you find yourself in this situation, the obvious first solution is to remind yourself of why you are choosing to meditate. You can frame your meditation within an overall goal of learning to relax, improving concentration, self-understanding – whatever your goal is, remind yourself of it. While meditating, you’ll generally need to “let go” of the goal and just let the process take care of itself, otherwise you’ll find it difficult to relax. But when the irritation creeps in, you can quickly review the goal, understand that your practice of meditation is directed towards achieving that goal, and then return to meditating.

If this doesn’t dispel the irritation, then take a few moments to simply watch it, as we do with restlessness, described above. This is a kind of doing and, in effect, will raise you somewhat out of the “do-nothingness” of the meditative state. However, insofar as you are feeling as if you need something to do, this subtle kind of doing will not only fulfill that need, it will also provide you with a deeper understanding and better perspective on your irritation and its roots. This kind of activity can also prepare you for the later expansion of your meditation covered in the next section.

Again, as with watching restlessness, watching our irritation means to take a kind of objective observer’s stance. It’s analogous to watching or looking at anything that is outside of our bodies. Instead of fully, actively participating in the irritation as an intimate and inseparable aspect of ourselves, we find within ourselves a part that can simply look at the irritation as something separate and we rest within that part – that part which we can call the Witness, insofar as we are witnessing the irritation without taking an active part in it, just as a person can witness an event without taking part in it.

Of course, the irritation will continue, and we continue to feel it. But the more we rest as the Witness, the less the irritation will be understood as an unavoidable and defining aspect of who we are in that moment. The irritation becomes experienced more as if it is just another impression arising during our meditation, like the sound of a passing car or the touch of our clothes on our skin – impressions which we allow to pass without getting caught up in them as distractions, always favoring the meditative state of mind.

Having watched and witnessed the irritation for a minute or so, we can remember our anchor and see if we don’t move back naturally into the meditative state of mind. If we don’t and if the irritation remains full force, we can try reminding ourselves of our goal again, then rest as the witness for another minute, simply watching the irritation play its part. Having done this, we can try remembering our anchor again. We can repeat this process for as long as the irritation remains enough of a distraction to make it difficult to relax; in any case, we’re likely to feel it lessen after the first or second time we do this.

We may find that irritation, unlike restlessness, does not simply disappear when we rest as the Witness. This is because the irritation is rooted as a belief structure, rather than a surface activity of the mind. Hence, it can remain even as we rest as the Witness, watching our irritation play itself out.

Nevertheless, by engaging our irritation in this way, irritation becomes an opportunity to learn about ourselves and our relationship to meditation rather than continuing as an obstacle that blocks us from meditating.

Boredom

The cause of boredom is typically quite similar to that of irritation, insofar as it arises in people who feel the need to be doing something. However, in this case the need is typically not achievement-oriented, as with those who are likely to experience irritation, but is instead what could be called experience-oriented. Boredom is likely to arise in people who seek out experience as a way of distracting or enjoying themselves, who like to have their minds filled with sensations, strong feelings, or thoughts.

So sitting still for twenty minutes doing nothing offers a prime opportunity to daydream and ruminate. Ah, but we’re supposed to relax and do nothing while meditating! How boring! And thus, boredom.

The “cure” for boredom is quite similar to that for irritation. First, remind yourself why you’re meditating. This in itself is not likely to dispel the boredom however, as it can for the irritated person who probably has a sense of being thwarted by sitting for meditation from achieving desired goals. Boredom is more likely to come about due to a sense of being thwarted from desired experience. In this case, daydreaming about going to the beach or mulling over Taoist philosophy feels to be a far more desirable experience than just sitting, relaxing and doing nothing. Nevertheless, by reminding ourselves why we are “doing nothing” we can somewhat counterbalance our desire to be doing something and thereby set the stage for the witnessing of our boredom, the next part of the “cure”.

This stage proceeds the same as for irritation: we watch our boredom from an objective perspective so that we can begin to understand it as just another impression arising during our meditation. Then we remember our anchor and return to meditating, applying the “cure” as often as necessary.

An Obstacle Test

Some people might wish to have a way to measure their progress in meditation. Here is a way to measure how much the obstacles are affecting your ability to stay in a meditative state of mind. That’s not the only kind of progress possible in meditation, but it can be a good indicator of how much “stuff” comes up during your sittings, keeping you from meditating more effectively.

There are two ways to do the test, both quite simple. For the first version, all you need is a piece of paper and pencil and about 10 to 15 minutes of quiet time. Now, assuming your favorite meditation posture, relax and meditate for a minute or two. Then start silently counting to yourself from 1 to 100, doing nothing else except watching how far you can get before an obstacle presents itself.

For example, you may find you get distracted around the time you reach the number 10. Of course, the very fact that you have become distracted will likely mean that you no longer remember which number you were on when you got distracted. But just jot down the largest of the numbers you can remember saying prior to getting distracted. Label that number “D” for “distracted”.

Perhaps you are able to continue counting without getting distracted, but by around the time you reach the number 25, boredom or irritation start setting in. Again, jot down that number, labeling it “B” for “boredom” or “I” for “irritation” as appropriate.

If you like, you can start over from 1 and see if anything changes – if you’re able to go for longer or shorter without an obstacle arising.

Set this paper aside (or enter the data into your online OML journal) and then don’t do the test for a few weeks. When you wish, try it again and see what differences, if any, you notice.

The second test has only one difference: instead of counting from 1 to 100, you can use a stopwatch, for instance the kind included with most cellphones. Typically, you get a new readout each time you press a button. When you meet with an obstacle, just press the button, jot down the readout and the letter corresponding to the obstacle met, and then continue with the test.

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