It’s a bit ironic for practitioners of a form of “spirituality” that emphasizes how life is stressful (it is the first noble truth after all) to sit around offering a litany of problems they face in practice! Why should practice be any different from the rest of life? Problems are inevitable! In fact, they should be seen as inevitable! The problems you will face on this path are precisely the means that will help you progress along the path! Facing these difficulties in meditation will give us practice in confronting problems in the rest of our lives. In time, you will see that the uncomfortable ‘stepping stones’ of the path are precious jewels! The most important aspect of practice is viriya (P; virya S) or persistence. Never give up and you can never fail!
The first noble truth tells us that life is stressful and meditation, being a microcosm of life, will present us with the same challenges we’ll find elsewhere in life. In fact, along with the difficulties we face in life that will arise while sitting, the very practice of sitting will bring its own special challenges. So, not only should we expect problems, we should welcome them!
Only the complete acceptance of discomfort, pain and stress lead to its amelioration. And to accept duhkha takes courage -- the determination to look at difficulty head-on, without averting our gaze. Courage is not fearlessness. In fact, fear is an essential component of courage. You cannot be courageous unless you can feel your fear completely. If you are able to stand your ground rather than averting your gaze or taking flight, that is courage. As Richard Petty, the greatest NASCAR driver of all time said: You’d have to be crazy not to be afraid to climb into a race car and take to the track with 40 other drivers going 240 miles an hour bumper to bumper! These men and women took the fear they had with them as they climbed into their chariots and drove with passion and courage.
If you think about it, the posture of meditation itself is the posture of courage: in determining to sit in stillness, we are declaring our willingness to look bravely at whatever our mind churns up without taking whatever our usual exit strategy might be. If you reflect for a moment, you’ll have to agree that the experiences that have most contributed to your personal development have been the trials you’ve faced and moved through. In retrospect, we understand this. In prospect, we fall into fear that they will overwhelm us, and yet often it is the fear and anxiety that is worse than the actual experience. As Mark Twain said, “I have known many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
Think of practice difficulties as simply aspects of experience that require attention. Many times, there really is nothing to do and nothing to solve – only something to watch, embrace, and learn from.
There are many difficulties that arise in meditation that are not really any different than those that arise in other aspects of our life. But, there are also some difficulties that may be specific to practice. Pain, for most of us, is one of these challenges. Almost everyone has to learn to deal with the discomfort of sitting: backaches, knee pain, feet that go to sleep. Some of these discomforts do lessen over time, but others never go away. One of my favorite sayings of Suzuki Roshi is something he said to his students on long retreat: “The problems that you have now you will always have.”
So, when you begin to experience pain in practice, first see what you can do to eliminate it. There is enough pain in life without you adding more of it with your practice. But when you find that there are certain discomforts that cannot be removed by changing external circumstances, mindfulness can show us that they can be mitigated by practice.
First, we can learn to see the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is an unpleasant sensation. Suffering is a mental and emotional reaction to pain. It may or may not be associated with the sensation of pain. It is possible to suffer without pain and equally possible to feel pain without suffering.
Suffering arises when we resist pain. We may feel a sense of unfairness, our fear of the pain may lead to panic. Resistance to pain arises because of the often unstated (and unconscious) belief that pain shouldn’t happen to us. Such belief is a major cause of suffering, conditioning anger, fear, anxiety and discouragement.
One way to work with the suffering of pain is to re-align ourselves with reality. Believing that pain shouldn’t happen to us is delusional. With sufficient practice, witnessing of the pain will lessen suffering and sometimes even lessen the pain, because our resistance is often what keeps the pain ‘locked in place.’
Allow the pain to become the object of mindfulness. Relax any tension or muscular contraction surrounding the painful sensation. Practice with ‘curious disinterest.’ Disinterest simply means you are not attached to any particular outcome or agenda. If you are paying attention as a strategy to lessen pain, that grasping for a particular outcome actually works against you.
Now, in the early stages of practice, it is absolutely unrealistic to expect that this ‘observational meditation’ will be easy or clearly beneficial. However, with time and experience, even the most severe kinds of pain can be ameliorated. Take your time; when you feel you’ve reached your capacity and begin to lose focus, do anything else – like changing your position, or scratching that persistent itch – to alleviate the discomfort, but do so mindfully.
Other problems specific to meditation are ‘strange’ phenomena that may arise. Sensations of floating, expansion and contraction that may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral may arise. You may feel like your spinning like a top, or fidgeting uncontrollably. You may become distracted by images arising internally if your eyes are closed and strange patterns on the floor (like faces morphing into weird shapes) if your eyes are open. When any such experience happens, treat it like anything else that arises: observe and reflect upon your reaction to it. Drop aversion and grasping and it will fade away soon enough. Just don’t make a big deal out of it.
The most tenacious problem while meditating is difficulty concentrating. This is particularly upsetting since concentration is such a necessary skill for any form of meditation. Remember that each time you catch the mind wandering and gently bring it back to the breath, you are concentrating and refining mindfulness.
If lethargy, sleepiness or fatigue is a problem, you may need to eat more moderately before practice or get more sleep. But keep in mind that just the typical fluctuations of daily life will impact your level and capacity for concentration. Various counting and labeling techniques, as well as mantra, and visual gazing strategies are available.
Doubt and discouragement often comes up when we are dissatisfied with what we may perceive as our “lack of success” in meditation. We may feel like giving up completely. First, if you find this happening, remind yourself that the absolutely only way to fail at meditation is not to do it! If you take your seat, then no matter what is happening while sitting, you are doing it! The struggles and so-called “failures” are all part of the process.
Second, look at the sense of discouragement itself as an object of mindfulness. See where it comes from; how it arises and what it feels like. Watch its coming and going, its wavering degrees of intensity. Discouragement is no different than any other mental formation: it is impermanent!
Sometimes the greatest problem in meditation practice is just sitting down. Regardless of how you feel about meditation at a particular moment, just do it anyway! You do not have to like it! Just do it – no argument, no excuses, no negotiations. As Jack Kornfield advises: “Just get your ass on the cushion.” Make that your absolute bottom line (no pun intended). Don’t even begin to think of how long you’re going to sit or what you’re going to do: just get your butt on the cushion.
If you can commit to this, you’ll find that generally, once you’re on the cushion, any aversive feelings you had to meditating evaporate after a few moments. Once you settle down, you can even begin to investigate what the aversion was all about. You may find some subtle fear was under it all that you can now observe with courage!