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Dealing with resistance to meditation

Sisyphus, Copyright Dorje-d, Some Rights ReservedYou know how it is. There’s something you really, really need to do — go out for a run, or get to work on a homework assignment, or start writing the next post in your blog, or get down to your meditation practice — but before you do it you’ll just have a cup of coffee, or check one more article online, or… my goodness, is that a cobweb over there? I really must do some tidying!

We’ve all been there. The mind sets up resistances and finds excuses to avoid doing what you think you should be doing. And this applies to meditation as well. You suddenly find all these other things that seem intensely compelling, and before you know it there’s no time left for your practice.

You may even be aware — intensely aware — of the fact you’re engaged in avoidance maneuvers, and you torture yourself as you indulge in a constant stream of distractions in order to stay off the cushion. You feel the power of the thought, “I should be meditating — I need to meditate,” at the same time as you experience an even more powerful feeling that you just don’t want to. Not yet. Not now. It’s very painful.

Even when your meditation practice is a source of great pleasure, you can find yourself avoiding it. Even when you know that your life it immeasurably richer, happier, and more fulfilled when you meditate regularly, you can find yourself avoiding the cushion. Even when you’ve promised yourself you’ll meditate every day, you find yourself avoiding that darned cushion!

There must be reasons of course, and we can end up torturing ourselves by engaging in psychoanalysis. Sure, there may be some part of ourselves that doesn’t want to change. Sure, it may be that we’re avoiding some kind of painful experience. Sure, we may be reacting to the fact that we’re using too many “shoulds” in our life and subtly or not so subtly coercing ourselves to meditate. We can spend hours coming up with such theories, and often we feel a bit happier once we’ve come up with a story that might explain why we’re not meditating, but the thing is, we’re still not meditating. We’re just involved in a slightly more refined way of avoiding meditation.

So here’s what you can do instead of torturing yourself.

When you find that you’re deferring your meditation practice — you just don’t feel like it, or you’d really like to be meditating but for some reason keep putting it off — become aware of the resistance itself. What feelings are present? Anxiety? Restlessness? Where are those feelings located? Perhaps in the pit of the stomach? Maybe some tension in the back of the neck? Become aware of those emotions and physical sensations, and make them into an object of awareness. In meditation there’s almost always some object that we use as the focal point for our experience. That could be the physical sensations of the breath, or it could be a visualized image, of the sound of a mantra, but it could just as easily be the feelings, emotions, and physical sensations associated with not wanting to meditate.

It’s important that, as you become aware of those sensations, you approach them without judgment. These are simply objects of awareness, just as the breath is an object of awareness in the mindfulness of breathing practice or your emotion connections are objects of awareness in the development of lovingkindness meditation. It’s unhelpful to become aware of the feelings, emotions, and physical sensations associated with not wanting to meditate with the intension of banishing them or “fixing” them. Just notice them. We should approach them with kindness, empathy, and a desire simply to be with them.

And you know what? You’re now meditating. Even if you’re standing in the kitchen, coffeepot poised to pour yourself a distracting cup of joe, you’re meditating. Even if you’re sitting at the computer, having just let go of the desire to read “one more article” (yeah, right!) online, you’re meditating.

At this point you may simply want to continue in place, paying attention to the feelings of resistance. Or you may want to sit somewhere quietly — maybe on your meditation cushion — and also notice your breath. Perhaps you could even, as you notice the sensations of resistance, wish yourself well: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.”

You’re now meditating. And the feelings of resistance may have passed, and you just keep going with your regular practice. Or they may persist and you’re meditating with those sensations and emotions as your object of meditation. It doesn’t matter. You’re now meditating. The resistance is no longer an obstacle to your meditation practice, but a means.

Comments

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Comment from s2
Time: July 7, 2009, 12:33 am

wanted to recommend this to think about the things we tell ourselves that stop us from doing new things, things we could be doing, etc. i think if you really, really read it and think about how all people avoid things it might, well, open you up to a new idea. i dunno. this helps me to think about exercising. on another note i’d like to know to more about the prophet and the years he spent meditating. i like how this article shows you that you find little moments of peace all day long.

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Comment from NicB
Time: November 4, 2009, 3:21 pm

Hi,

I followed your introductory course in August (Thanks Sunada) and have been meditating pretty consistantly first thing in the morning ever since. I alternate between doing Metta Bhavana and Mindfulness of breathing and also alternate between guided meditations using the course material and self-guided sessions.

Over the last couple of weeks I have found myself increasingly feelign resistant to sitting and when I do meditate it is a bit grudgingly with a feeling of ‘better get this over and done with’ rather than being entirely present for the session.

I really appreciate the advice above as one thing I do think will help is to try to bring mindfulness more into my everyday experiences rather than just the sitting time.

One question – I can see the benefit of meditating on the emotions underlying the resistance in the moment that they arise but are you also saying that this is something to focus on during ‘formal’ mediation practice too? That when I do sit, instead of only trying to focus on the practice (breath, loving kindness etc) I could try also to deliberately pay attention to any resistant feelings that arise?
Thanks

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 4, 2009, 3:30 pm

Hi, NicB.

When something “comes up” in meditation, like a strong resistance, it’s often beneficial to give it our attention and even to make it into the focus of our practice for as long as is necessary. We can get hung up that in, say, the mindfulness of breathing practice we’re supposed to be focusing on the breath, but sometimes there’s other stuff to pay attention to. It may be that your resistance is arising because there are parts of your experience you’re not allowing to be in your experience because you’re very intent on keeping the breath as your focal point. If there’s a part of you demanding attention, it’s probably the kindest thing to give it that attention. Perhaps the resistance is a form of protest — “Stop ignoring me!”

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Comment from NicB
Time: November 5, 2009, 8:22 am

Hi Bodhipaksa,

Thanks for your speedy reply!
It definately does feel as though I am ‘ignoring’ sometimes in meditation and using the focus on the breath, or whatever, to push the thoughts away. Will try to be kinder and allow them to be and see how that goes…

Best wishes,
Nic

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Comment from Mariama Davis
Time: January 14, 2010, 10:24 am

THANK YOU, SOOOOOOOOOOOO MUCH, FOR THIS ARTICLE. I’ve been resisting meditation for nearly a year now. So what did I do instead of meditation? a google search that led me to you….I will share it with some friends as well. thank you thank you thank you!!

Mariama

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Pingback from What’s the deal with not wanting to meditate? « on the precipice
Time: August 29, 2010, 4:52 pm

[...] “Dealing with Resistance to Meditation”, Wildmind Buddhist Meditation (provides some helpful tactics, i.e., using resistance as an object of meditation itself, from a choiceless awareness perspective) [...]

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Comment from Rob
Time: February 6, 2011, 3:48 pm

One thing I’m surprise you didn’t mention here is simple habit and routine. I meditate first thing in the morning, and (at least during the working week) I have a very fixed morning routine. This makes it much easier to get meditation done; I don’t even think about not doing it.

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Comment from Tom
Time: August 11, 2011, 2:03 pm

EXCELLENT! I keep hearing about just being with a disturbing feelings but never really knew what that meant. However what you wrote really clicked for me. My question is how to you deal with things like not wanting to exercise or do a project at work. I can see how you can become aware of the feelings behind the resistence, say boredom. As you said with meditation you can focus on the boredom and that focus becomes a meditation itself. However it doesn’t seem like focusing on boredom is going to get you to exercise or work on a project.
I would appreciate any thoughts you have.
Thanks.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: August 11, 2011, 2:21 pm

Hi, Tom.

There are several stages to the arising of resistance:

  1. Perception (e.g. being reminded of the gym)
  2. Gut response (e.g. tight feeling in the gut)
  3. Cognitive response (e.g. aversion to the thought of going to the gym, and even to the reminder that the gym exists). This response includes not just emotions (aversion) but also thought, such as rationalizations about why we shouldn’t go, or how we’ll “go later.”
  4. Action (or inaction) such as finding something else to do instead.

The way to use mindfulness in order to break into our habit of avoiding the gym is to become aware of stage 2 — the gut feeling (technically known as a vedana). If you focus on your gut feeling, sensing where the unpleasant sensations are located in the body, and acknowledging that it feels unpleasant to be reminded of the gym) then you’ve broken the chain, and at least temporarily you have the freedom to choose a different cognitive response, and hence a different action.

So you sense the unpleasant gut feeling, but you’re free to think about how your feelings will change as you exercise, or how good you’ll feel in the future when you look at your fit body, and so you can now talk yourself into exercising.

Does that make sense? I guess you’ll have to try it to find out.

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Comment from Alex
Time: May 7, 2012, 9:53 am

It was funny, I went to copy the URL of this site so I could re-read it later and just as I was about to, I realized that too was resistance! Thanks very much for the helpful article :)

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Comment from Dmitry
Time: September 7, 2012, 10:12 pm

These are simply objects of awareness – so instructive. It helped me to transform my Netflix obsession into an object of meditation. When U watching a movie U becoming a part of the movie – a virtual existence within the movie. It’s because my brain is stressed during normal business hours – I’m a programmer. It demands relaxation after work. Ego’s gone when I’m watching a movie. But this is a negative result since we replay negative emotions while watching movies. Acknowledgment of things that enslave your mind is the key to meditation. Let them come and go like waves. They push, we gently pull obstacles aside. Isn’t is a wonderful experience.

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Comment from Julie
Time: September 20, 2012, 10:50 am

I just wanted to add my gratitude for this article. The advice is so helpful, thank you. It’s also good to know that there are other people out there who struggle in the same way I do. I am looking forward to working with this practice and hope that my efforts benefit the whole.
Namaste.

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Comment from Julie
Time: September 20, 2012, 10:56 am

Hello again, I also have a question. I find that when I try to focus on the physical sensations associated with a feeling I just seem to end up still lost in my head “thinking” about the “feelings”. Does this make sense? I would appreciate your comments. Namaste.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 20, 2012, 11:00 am

It’s just a question of practice, Julie. Keep coming back to the actual sensations in the body, and it’ll become easier to stay with them and not get lost in thought. Try doing this while walking, driving, working, etc.

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Comment from Sue
Time: December 20, 2012, 11:53 am

Really enjoyed reading artical and everyones comments,,,,,, even though Im trained as a mindfulness and meditation instructor , i too feel resistant at times especially when ive just come home from work,im tired and its a freezing cold night and its my(personal) weekly meditation group meeting….Ive stayed at home promising myself ill go next week….. Thanks, now i can gaze kindly within to see what my resistance is really trying to tell me….and go more regularly to my meditation group.

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Comment from Mary
Time: January 10, 2014, 4:16 am

Thank you so much. I’ve been a practitioner for many years. Yet I still feel resistance. This article was such a relief, such a fresh breaze… Thank you!

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Comment from Derek
Time: May 27, 2014, 6:33 pm

Thank you, this article has helped me enormously.

In all our times of emotional imbalance; I now further understand the need for the individual to first stop; acknowledge and love the emotion; lean in and listen to what it is saying; learn from it; but never fight it. I am sure with daily practice throughout my life both within and without meditative practice this lesson will help me master emotional disturbances better and help bring all things in my life toward unity.

Thank you.

Love, Derek.

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Comment from Eileen Cain
Time: June 26, 2014, 4:55 pm

I’ve noticed that resistance to meditation is usually due to what we may call “selfing.” I’d rather be involved in my stories, focused on myself. Meditation is unselfing.

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