doubt

Overcoming resistance to meditation (a self-compassionate guide)

There can be lots of reasons for why we avoid meditating. We might not want to experience particular feelings. We might have built up a sense of failure around our meditation practice. We might worry that doing something for ourselves is selfish. We might be concerned that if we meditate we won’t get things done. Or we might be afraid of change.

And so we find excuses not to meditate. We know it’s good for us. We’ve read news article about it. We know that we’re happier when we meditate. We intend to meditate. But we find that we avoid it. We get busy. We just can’t bring ourselves to go sit on that meditation cushion.

I used to think it would help to understand why I resisted meditation. But that rarely achieved anything.

Ultimately, I found that the most important thing was not to analyze my resistance or to get into a debate with it, but to turn toward and embrace it. This is an important practice in mindful self-compassion.

So when resistance to meditation arises, try becoming mindful of the feelings that accompany this experience. Where are they situated in the body? What shape do they form? What “texture” do they have? What kinds of thoughts do they give rise to? Notice those things, and just be with the resistance. Let the resistance be an object of mindfulness. Resistance is a state of conflict, and may also include fear. These are forms of pain. Notice this pain and regard it kindly. Offer it some reassuring words: “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK. I’ll take good care of you.”

Now here’s the thing: as soon as you become mindful of your resistance, you’re already meditating. Your resistance is no longer a hindrance to developing mindfulness but an opportunity to do so. And so, wherever you are, you can just let your eyes close. Breathing in, experience the resistance. Breathing out, experience the resistance. Now you’re doing mindful breathing meditation!

Continue to talk to the fearful part of you, perhaps saying things like: “Hi there. I accept you as part of my experience. I care about you and I want you to be at ease. You’re free to stay for as long as you like, and you’re welcome to meditate with me.” Do this for as long as necessary, until you feel settled in your practice.

In this approach the specific content of your resistance isn’t important, because you’re not meeting your rationalizations on their own level. And that’s a good thing, because your resistance is sly.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your doubt can run circles around you, and arguing with it makes things worse. Your doubt knows exactly what you’re going to say and knows how to make you feel small and incapable. It’s had lots of practice doing this. The one thing your doubt doesn’t understand is how to resist being seen and accepted.

So instead of arguing with your resistance, outsmart it. Surround it with mindful awareness and with kindness.

If you find that the resistance goes on day after day, then set yourself a low bar for what counts as “a day in which you meditate.” Five minutes is fine. That may not sound like much, but regularity is ultimately far more important than the number of minutes you do each day. If you sit for just five minutes a day, you’re meditating regularly. You’ve outwitted your resistance.

One more tip: The only “bad meditation” is the one you don’t do. All the others are fine. So don’t worry about the quality. Just do the practice.

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The seven top frustrations for beginning meditators (and how to overcome them)

Recently I was asked to contribute a couple of paragraphs on top frustrations for beginning meditators (and how to overcome them). The link’s at the bottom of this article. I was in good company, with Tara Brach and Andy Puddicombe, for example. But two paragraphs isn’t enough to do justice to this topic and I thought I’d take the opportunity to come up with my own list.

So here it is: The seven top frustrations for beginning meditators, and how to overcome them.

1. Expecting instant results

A lot of people are looking for a quick fix. They hope that meditation is going to do something to them. Something good, of course. But meditation is actually us working with our own minds. And this takes time. We’ve built up habits of overthinking, reacting, self-judgment and so on over many years. We bring those habits into our meditation practice, and we have to learn first to identify them and then to work with them. It takes time to unlearn old habits. It takes time to develop newer, more helpful habits.

The solution: Understand that meditation is like exercise; you don’t go to the gym and become instantly fit. It’s something that you need to do regularly in order to see the benefits.

2. Realizing that the mind is so busy

It’s a very common experience to sit down to meditate and discover our minds are all over the place, with thinking going on almost non-stop. We sometimes call this “monkey mind” after the image of a monkey swinging from branch to branch, not settling down anywhere but instead always focusing on something new, until that’s abandoned for the next new thing. When we’re beginning it’s often not just hard to find any calmness, but actually impossible.

The solution: Accept that the mind is busy. Even people who have been meditating for years have times when their minds are thinking almost non-stop. The difference is that they don’t bother about it. They don’t see it as a sign that something is wrong. They know to accept that this is what the mind is like, sometimes. So they don’t get frustrated when lots of thoughts arise. They simply let go of the thinking, over and over again, and return to the meditation practice.

3. Physical discomfort

At first we may not know how to sit comfortably for meditation. This may happen when we try to force ourselves to sit in a cross-legged position when we don’t have the flexibility to do so. Or we may not have very good equipment, and we’re sitting on very soft cushions that can’t support our weight. Or even if we have a good posture and the right equipment, but it may just be that we’re not used to sitting that way for very long. The discomfort that comes from sitting in a posture that doesn’t work for us can make a meditation session sheer torture.

The solution: An experienced teacher can help you to find a good posture (and we have an online guide to posture right here on Wildmind. They can also help you choose the right equipment; some people need to use chairs, or special meditation benches, rather than try to sit on cushions. And once you have all that sorted out, your body will learn to be more at ease and you’ll be able to sit for longer without discomfort.

4. Getting bored

Boredom is a common problem for beginning meditators. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Are we there yet?

Boredom happens when we’ve begun to calm the mind down, but haven’t yet learned to appreciate the simply beauty of our experience. A lot of us are in our heads: we spend so much time thinking that we forget how to experience the body. And so when our thinking starts to slow down there’s just not much left for us to appreciate. And it’s hard to stay motivated doing something that we find boring, and so we just give up.

The solution: In the long-term, interoception (the ability to sense what’s going on in the body) is something that we get better at with practice. As we continue meditating we find that our experience of the body becomes richer, more detailed, and more pleasurable. Eventually the body can be a source of source of pleasure in every waking moment. If we just keep going, this will happen. On the way there, it’s helpful for us to let go of the idea of paying attention to the breath, and instead to be aware of the breathing. This opens up the way for us to have a much richer, fuller, and more enjoyable experience in meditation. The breathing involves the entire body in a dance of interwoven sensations. When we begin to experience it this way, we’re no longer bored. And we find that our interoceptive ability improves rapidly, so that we have a fuller and more satisfying experience of the body.

5. Not seeing progress

It’s natural to want your meditation practice to do something for you—to bring you benefits. And you wonder when it’s going to start doing that. Why is my mind still full of thoughts? you might wonder. The thing is that being overly concerned about where you hope meditation might take you actually interferes with your ability to experience and enjoy the present moment. Often people aren’t able to fully experience the degree to which they’re changing; other people may see them becoming calmer and happier, but they themselves don’t. Why? Because we’re so close to ourselves, we don’t see ourselves clearly.

The solution: You’ll make more progress if you aren’t so concerned about progress. Just be present. It’s like a family on a long car ride: the kids in the back are constantly asking how long is it going to be until we get there, while the adults are better able to relax into the journey, without wanting to be elsewhere.

6. Believing your doubts

Placing too much trust in the thoughts that the mind creates is something that affects experienced meditators as well as beginners. They can be a little or not so little voice saying things like, “You’re not very good at this. Other people are, but not you. You’re not really cut out to be a meditator. In fact you’re a terrible meditator. You might as well give up.” If we believe these voices, it can be very hard for us to continue with our practice.

The solution: It’s radical to realize that we don’t have to believe our thoughts. Thoughts are just stories. Sometimes they’re reasonable and helpful stories, but sometimes they’re just rationalizations of our fears. There can actually be parts of us that are afraid of changing in positive ways. And those parts of us can try to derail our practice by telling us how bad we are at it. So learn to step back and to treat your inner storyteller with skepticism. These kinds of negative monologues are what we call the hindrance of doubt. Once we learn to identify this hindrance, we’re less likely to be taken in by it.

7. Setting up a regular practice

It can be very hard indeed to set up a daily meditation practice. This is true even when meditation is going well for us and we’re enjoying it! We can find that we’re just too busy, or that there’s resistance even if we do have the time to sit. Sometimes this causes people to gradually give up meditation. They don’t sit for a few days, then maybe a couple of weeks go by and they forget to even try.

The solution: First, commit to sit, even if it’s just for five minutes a day. It’s better to meditate for a short time daily, than to do longer sits and skip days. It’s much better to do a little meditation than none! Second, try out my mantra: “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.”

Here’s a link to the original article.

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When the Buddha quit

Portrait of Lord BuddhaThere’s a discourse in the Buddhist scriptures that’s long intrigued me, and which I think can be interpreted as giving an account of a time that the Buddha quit as head of the monastic community. The discourse itself seems confused and contradictory, which suggests to me that the monks who passed it on weren’t sure how to handle it, and may have tried to tone down what actually happened. On the other hand maybe I’m reading too much into this particular sutta. You can make up your own mind.

The discourse in question is the Cātumā Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya, 67). It tells of a time that the Buddha was on the outskirts of a town called Cātumā, when a large band of monks (500, which just means “a large number’) arrive, creating a great disturbance. The monks are headed by the Buddha’s two main disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna.

There were a few things that the Buddha seems to have particularly disliked, and one of them was noisy monks. After telling the monks that they are behaving like a bunch of raucous fishermen hauling in a catch, he dismisses them, saying that he doesn’t want them near him.

Some householders appeal to the Buddha, saying that these monks, some of whom were newly ordained, need his guidance. But the way they phrase their request suggests that the Buddha was being called back to guide the entire monastic Sangha, not just this group of 500:

Let the Blessed One delight in the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One welcome the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One help the Sangha of the Bhikkhus as he used to help it in the past.

There’s no mention of the 500 monks here, but of “the Sangha of the Bhikkhus.” And the Buddha is being asked to help them as he has in the past (odd if this is a group that’s just arrived). This isn’t conclusive, but it makes me think that the Buddha is being asked to walk back a decision a bit more drastic than merely “firing” one group of monks.

Adding to the mystery, the householders now receive backup, in the form of Brahmā Sahampati. This god is the same being who originally entreated the Buddha to teach after his Enlightenment, for the benefit of the many beings who had the potential for awakening. Now, here he is again, but this time intervening on behalf of just one group of monks. Again, there’s nothing conclusive here, but the first time we meet Brahma he’s stepping in for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps originally he was doing the same here.

The Buddha is persuaded. Or, as the sutta puts it, his “confidence is restored.” The monks are called back.

The Buddha first talks to Sāriputta, and asks him what he had had thought when the Buddha had “fired” the monks. He replied that he assumed that the Buddha would “abide inactive, devoted to pleasant abiding here and now.” And he’d thought he’d do the same. Basically, Sāriputta was glad that of the opportunity just to get on with his practice.

The assumption that the Buddha would “abide inactive” is an odd one if the sutta is to be read literally. Since only 500 monks out of (presumably) thousands have been dismissed, surely the Buddha would have plenty to keep him busy! Sāriputta too, as a chief disciple, would still have plenty of teaching and organizing to attend to. He was, after all, the “General of the Dharma” (Dhammasenāpati).

After reproaching Sāriputta for this selfish train of thought, the Buddha asks Moggallāna what his own thoughts had been. He replies that he’d too thought that the Buddha would “abide inactive”, but that he and Sāriputta would “lead the Sangha of Bhikkhus.” The Buddha approves of this.

This is odd as well. If the 500 monks are no longer followers of the Buddha, what sense does it make that Moggallāna decides he’s going to lead them? Is he going to have his own Order of Bhikkhus, independent of the mainstream monastic Sangha? Are these 500 monks now no longer the Buddha’s disciples but still somehow with the Sangha as disciples of Sāriputta and Moggallāna? Why would the Buddha approve of such a relationship? If your boss tells you that your underling has been fired, then it makes no sense for you to say you’ll keep managing him, or for your boss to approve of you so doing.

Again, I think this suggests that the Buddha had quit, quite literally, “the Sangha of Bhikkhus”—not the 500 noisy monks, but the whole shebang. Only then it would make sense for both Sāriputta and Moggallāna to assume that the Buddha would “abide inactive,” for Sāriputta to think that he’d do likewise, and for Moggallāna to assume that he (and Sāriputta) would step in as head of “the Sangha of Bhikkhus.”

The rest of the sutta is an apparently unrelated teaching about various temptations and dangers that Bhikkhus faced, which might tempt them to return to the household life. It has nothing to do with monks being noisy.

I can’t understand this sutta to be saying anything other than “the Buddha quit.” I can well imagine that this would be a difficult message for the reciters (and, later, scribes) who passed on the teachings to take on board. And so I suspect that what had actually taken place was toned down, so that it wasn’t the entire Sangha that was dismissed, but just 500 monks.

There’s a tendency to assume that the Buddha was perfect, and that therefore the kind of scenario I’m proposing couldn’t possibly happen. But the Buddha was far more human than some assume. How human it was for the Buddha, in his later years, to say “I spit on old age.” How human it was that the Buddha experienced self-doubt, in the form of a taunting Māra, at various times in his life, including when he was confined to bed and wasn’t able to teach or to be of use to his disciples. How human it was that the Buddha seemed to find noise physically jarring, as in this sutta, or that he got so annoyed by being misquoted.

I actually feel closer to the Buddha knowing that he was a vulnerable human being. I have respect for him, knowing that he faced, and worked with, challenges and difficulties. I take the fact of his Enlightenment to mean not that he was perfect and free from doubt and irritability, but that he was a big enough being always to overcome these challenges.

And I feel admiration for him, and gratitude too, thinking that he once quit and was open to being talked into resuming the headship of the Sangha.

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Facing the demon of self-doubt

Someone wrote to me the other day, asking for advice:

I just started regularly meditating about a month ago. I’m scared to continue now though. I had a sudden feeling of self resentment and I felt it so deeply. I remembered the bad choices I have made in my life and felt so unworthy of love and compassion. I felt unworthy of the meditation itself. I felt like I was the most selfish person in the world. I can’t even begin to describe how painful it was.

What she’d described is what we call the “hindrance of doubt.” There are five of these hindrances, which are mental patterns that stop us from being at ease with ourselves. They are (1) craving, (2) ill will, (3) anxiety, (4) lethargy, and (5) doubt, which is the sneakiest of them all.

Doubt tells us stories that sap our confidence. This woman’s thoughts of unworthiness and of being “the most selfish person in the world” are doubt’s modus operandi. Sometimes the doubts are about our practice, but more commonly they’re about ourselves.

Doubt is the hardest of the hindrances to recognize, because the stories we’re telling ourselves “hit below the belt” emotionally and leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. We totally believe the stories we’re telling ourselves, and have difficulty questioning their validity.

It’s very important to learn to recognize the patterns through which doubt expresses itself, and to remind yourself that this is just doubt—that it’s not reality you’re describing to yourself. It’s just a story.

When you do that, you’re less inclined to believe what you’ve been telling yourself. Having a thought like “I am unworthy of love” isn’t actually much of a problem if you don’t believe it, and if you recognize that this is just some frightened part of yourself trying to “protect” you from positive change.

And I do think that the function of doubt is to “protect us.” It may be a fear-based response to some difficulty. By telling ourselves we’re not capable of meeting this challenge, we take away the possibility of failing. It may also arise from a fear of positive change, however. Habits we have that are going to be eliminated act like sub-personalities and try to prevent change from happening. My guess is that this is what was going on with this woman: after a month of meditation, parts of her were fearful of change.

Don’t be afraid of doubt. Recognize that it’s just a story, and don’t take it seriously.

There are huge benefits to doing this. Often when we’ve recognized doubt and chosen not to believe it, there’s an immediate upwelling of energy and confidence in ourselves and our practice. On the other side of doubt lies faith.

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On doing a variety of practices

Sometimes I have meditation students who have problems learning a particular meditation technique because it appears to be fundamentally different — even contradictory — to other approaches to meditating that they’ve learned.

In fact, I’ve had experiences myself that are similar in some ways to this. I once went on a retreat run by teachers who have a different approach to me in order to learn more about their techniques and perspectives, and I found that some of the things they said plunged me into doubt and confusion — and aversion.

I found myself in my meditation continually arguing about things that they had said and about how I thought they made no sense. There was one statement in particular that I thought was contrary to the Buddha’s teaching. A teacher said, “In vipassana we don’t try to get rid of the hindrances” — the hindrances being a traditional classification of distracted states of aversion, craving, and confusion. This threw me into turmoil for two days! I kept thinking of all the suttas (discourses of the Buddha) where he talks about the necessity of overcoming the hindrances. In the face of this (and other teachings), the advice not to try to rid the mind of the hindrances seemed positively un-Buddhist.

This turmoil went on until I had a chance to talk to the teacher who had made this statement. And when I told her I was confused, she replied, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that — it’s just something I say to the beginners.” The intention was to help beginners not to see it as “bad” that they were experiencing the hindrances: to help them avoid the trap of developing aversion to the hindrances and trying to push them away or suppress them.

So sometimes these confusions are apparent, and if you dig deeper you find that two seemingly different approaches aren’t as different as they might seem.

Other times meditation practices may actually be based on quite different premises. There are practices where you’re very definitely trying to bring particular states into being. For example you may be cultivating lovingkindness in the metta bhavana. There are other practices in which you may be just allowing your experience to arise, without interfering with anything. Those are very different approaches, but it’s not that one or the other is wrong: they’re just different tools.

When we cling to the idea that there’s one “right” way to meditate, and that new approaches are “wrong,” this isn’t very helpful. If you hear anyone saying that there’s only one way to meditate, I suspect they’re misinformed, caught up in clinging, or selling something.

The Buddha taught many different meditations: anapanasati (mindful breathing meditation) leading to jhana, meditations leading to the formless spheres, metta bhavana and the other brahmaviharas, six element reflection (and four- and five-element reflections), simply paying attention to the impermanence of our experience in meditation, etc. He taught visualization practices. He offered us a rich tool box of approaches to working with our experience.

These approaches are all valid and complementary, and the practice of one can enhance the experience of the others.

Some people might argue that in doing a number of meditation practices you’re digging many shallow wells rather than one deep well. But since meditation practices are different tools meant to accomplish specific tasks, it’s more like using a variety of tools to dig one deep well. Sometimes you need a shovel, sometimes you need a pickax, sometimes you might need a pry-bar, sometimes you need to take a rest (that’s a tool, too). You’re taking many different approaches — but to one end. There’s really only one task.

There are just two things I would add to this. One is that we need to be clear what the task is; what is the well you’re digging? And second, we need to use the right tool, or combination of tools.

That task, the well we’re digging through Buddhist meditation practice, is what I call “unselfing.” Any practice you’re doing is reducing the sense of having a fixed and separate self that leads us into suffering. Some of the approaches are “samatha” (i.e. they’re aimed at developing and strengthening positive qualities such as mindfulness and lovingkindness) and some are “vipassana” (i.e. they’re aimed at changing, on a fundamental level, how we see ourselves and our relation to the world) but all meditation practices involve unselfing.

Simply paying attention to your breathing — letting go of distractions as they arise and returning over and over to the breathing — unselfs us by quieting the constant thoughts we have that involve comparison, aversion, and clinging (activities that reinforce out sense of self).

Cultivating lovingkindness unselfs us by expanding our sense of concern beyond ourselves and into the lives of others, so that we see others’ joy and pain as being part of our concern. In a way we expand our sense of self, and thus dilute it.

Six element meditation unselfs us by helping us to see that there is no separate self. We’re not physically separate from the world, so there’s physically no “me.” Our consciousness is also not separate from the world either. There’s nothing to grasp onto; there’s not even a “me” to do any grasping.

“Just sitting” practices that lead to experiences of non-duality lead to unselfing by reducing our sense of separation.

Any meditation in which we’re observing the arising and passing of our experience is likewise unselfing. We train ourselves to see more and more clearly that there is no part of “us” that is stable. How, therefore, can there be a stable, static, separate self?

So we need to have a coherent sense of what it is that we’re actually doing. Deep down, there’s no conflict between these practices, because they’re all unselfing. Because the practices I do are all doing the same thing, but in different ways, they’re all complementing each other.

Then there’s a question of which tools to use, and in which combinations. For me, some form of mindfulness of breathing and some form of developing lovingkindness or compassion are crucial. These two practices are complementary to each other, and also essential. We need mindfulness. We need lovingkindness. And this may be all we do for a few years.

But eventually some form of vipassana approach is necessary as well, whether it’s six element meditation or simply observing the impermanence, non-self, or unsatisfactoriness of our experience (or doing all three).

I’m not too good at dealing with complexity, so two or three regular practices is about all I can manage, although when I’m on retreat I’m happy to explore other approaches. But I’d guess that for most experienced meditators something like three to four practices is enough to be getting on with. Precisely which ones

You may find it’s useful to have a schedule, and to plan out what practice you’re going to do on any given day: body scan on Monday, Mindfulness of Breathing on Tuesday, Metta Bhavana on Wednesday, etc. That might give your mind permission to be content with what you’re doing on any particular day. Or if you don’t suffer from the torment of not knowing which practice to do, you can just play it by ear. At times you might have to be disciplined so that you don’t avoid a practice you don’t think your “good at.” Other times you need to give yourself the flexibility to work on what needs to be worked on.

So to cut a long story short: don’t assume there’s only one right way to meditation. Be clear about what the well is that you’re digging, and see how the various tools available to you help you to dig that well. And lastly, choose the most appropriate meditative tools, and use them as wisely as you can.

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Inquiry and naming: Practices to dispel the trance

Sometimes, when our carefully constructed lives seem to be falling apart – when we get a divorce, lose a business, or are laid off, for example – we can torture and berate ourselves with stories about how we’re failures, what we could have done better, how no one cares about us. Yet, this response of course only digs us deeper into what I call “the trance of unworthiness.”

Distracted by our judgments, we are unable to recognize the raw pain of our emotions. In order to begin the process of waking up, we need to deepen our attention and touch our real experience.

One tool of mindfulness that can cut through our numbing trance is inquiry. As we ask ourselves questions about our experience, our attention gets engaged. We might begin by scanning our body, noticing what we are feeling, especially in the throat, chest, abdomen and stomach, and then asking “What wants my attention right now?” or “What is asking for acceptance?” Then we attend with genuine interest and care, listening to our heart, body and mind.

Inquiry is not a kind of analytic digging—we are not trying to figure out “Why do I feel this sadness?” This would only stir up more thoughts. In contrast to the approach of Western psychology, in which we might delve into further stories in order to understand what caused a current situation, the intention of inquiry is to awaken to our experience exactly as it is in this present moment. While inquiry may expose judgments and thoughts about what we feel is wrong, it focuses on our immediate feelings and sensations.

It’s important to approach inquiry with a genuine attitude of unconditional friendliness. If I were to ask myself what wants attention with even the slightest aversion, I would only deepen my self-judgment. It may take some practice to learn how to question ourselves with the same kindness and care we would show to a troubled friend.

Naming or noting is another tool of traditional mindfulness practice that we can apply when we’re lost. Mental noting, like inquiry, helps us recognize with care and gentleness the passing flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations. If I am feeling anxious and disconnected before giving a talk, for example, I often pause, ask myself what is happening or what wants my attention. With a soft mental whisper I’ll name what I’m aware of: “afraid, afraid, tight, tight.” If I notice myself anxiously assuming that my talk will be boring and fall flat, I simply continue naming: “story about blowing it, fear of rejection,” then, “judging, judging.” If instead of noting I try to ignore this undercurrent of fear, I carry it into my talk and end up speaking in an unnatural and insincere way. The simple action of having named the anxiety building before my talk opens my awareness. Anxiety may still be present, but the care and wakefulness I cultivate through noting allows me to feel more at home with myself.

Like inquiry, noting is an opportunity to communicate unconditional friendliness to our inner life. If fear arises and we pounce on it with a name, “Fear! Gotcha!” we’re only creating more tension. Naming an experience is not an attempt to nail a unpleasant experience or make it go away. Rather, it is a soft and gentle way of saying, “I see you, fear, anger, etc.” This attitude of Radical Acceptance makes it safe for the frightened and vulnerable parts of our being to let themselves be known.

The practices of inquiry and noting are actually ways to wake us up to the fact that we are suffering. Caught up in our stories, we can effectively deny the truth of our experience. I sometimes spend days being impatient and judgmental towards myself before I stop and pay attention to the feelings and beliefs that have been disconnecting me from my heart. When I do pause and look at what’s happening, I realize that I’ve been caught up in the suffering of anxiety and self-doubt.

I have worked with many clients and students who reach a critical gateway when they finally register just how much pain they are in. This juncture is very different from feeling self-pity or complaining about our lives. It is different from focusing on how many problems we have. Rather, seeing and feeling the degree of suffering we are living with reconnects us to our heart.

Recognizing that we are suffering is freeing—self-judgment falls away and we can regard ourselves with kindness. When we offer to ourselves the same quality of unconditional friendliness that we would offer to a friend, we stop denying our suffering. And, most importantly, as we figuratively sit beside ourselves and inquire, listen and name our experience, we can begin to open our heart in tenderness for the suffering before us.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

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Meditation hindrances and how to work with them

I remember my first weekend retreat at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in the summer of 1993. I took the weekend “off” from family and work obligations to learn how to meditate and take an Introduction to Buddhism class. My first meditation experience in the Meditation Hall at Aryaloka was blissful – even the outdoor birdsong quieted and the stillness was palpable.

During that first meditation class, I was excited to learn the list of hindrances to meditation: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety and skeptical doubt. I could relate to that list because I experienced those hindrances off the cushion too, to varying degrees, and regularly.

Having the list of hindrances was helpful because when I mediated and watched the antics of my mind, I had a way of working in meditation to move beyond them… sometimes.

The hindrances distract our minds with mundane thoughts that can, and often do, become obsessive. If we are obsessing about mundane issues, we are distracted from our spiritual work and spiritual progress.

Let’s explore the hindrances:

1. Sensual desire (kamacchanda)

Our meditations often reveal what we desire and crave. We sit down to meditate, to still the mind and find calm and tranquility and we start thinking about a person we are attracted to, or the aroma of the bread baking in the oven in our kitchen, or the concert we have tickets for – you know what’s on your list.

When we compulsively crave sensual pleasures (sex, food etc.) we are alienated from the depth of the here and now and from those people, places, thoughts and activities that are in the present moment. So there is nothing wrong with sensual pleasure, but when it becomes compulsive we distract ourselves from being present to the moment, being present to our lives.

When we become aware of  sensual desire we can bring our awareness back to the focus of the meditation. We can look at what we desire and see through our projections and unrealistic expectations. We can look at what discomfort might be beneath the compulsive desire. For instance, when we are distracted by thinking about someone we are attracted to, we may be distracting ourselves from looking at something that is troubling us in our relationships, or disappointment in not achieving a goal, or something we are concerned about. We might ask ourselves “What am I distracting myself from?”

Guarding the doors of the senses is a way of working with sense desire. This involves recognizing what situations, images and thoughts create sensual desire and avoiding them. For instance, when on a retreat or when meditating in a group, avoiding conversations just before the meditation.

2. Ill-will (byapada)

Ill will, or aversion, like sensual desire, obstructs our ability to be mindful and free and alienates us from kindness. We feel constricted and reactive rather than open-hearted and expansive.

Ill will can be sparked by:

  • remembering what we heard a friend say about us that was hurtful
  • going over an angry interchange with a relative
  • wishing we had something that someone else has (a material possession, a relationship, confidence, teaching ability etc.).

We can work with this hindrance by questioning the ill will, noticing the effects on our bodies, how it affects our energy and what it might be covering up such as frustrated ambition, fear, embarrassment or protection from feeling disappointment.

When we are aware of ill will, being attentive to it and stopping ourselves from fanning its flames will help it to dissolve and build confidence in our ability to be present and mindful.

When working with ill will, I realized I have sometimes reacted to someone or a situation, and come to see that the ill will was centered in my own story line or way of interpreting someone’s action or comment. Working with ill will offers the opportunity to have compassion toward myself and other people.

Practicing and cultivating loving kindness, empathy, equanimity and meditating on karma are good antidotes for ill will.

3. Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)

Sloth is a lack of energy and alertness to keep interested in the focus of meditation. We feel drowsy and sleepy and it feels as though our vitality and effort are limited.

Torpor is a lack of mental energy. The mind is dull or easily drifts in thought. This hindrance may be a result of discouragement, frustration, boredom, indifference, hopelessness or resistance.

Sloth and torpor may be overcome by consciously arousing more energy by walking meditation; sitting up with a more erect, energized posture; opening the eyes; washing the face with cool water; opening a window or bringing curiosity and finding interest in the object of meditation.

Bringing curiosity to why we are feeling sloth and torpor, understanding how particular thoughts, beliefs, and evaluations feed into the hindrance can be helpful.

Being mindful of what we eat before meditation and how what we eat affects our energy in meditation, reflection on impermanence and the importance of practicing here and now, reflecting on a dharmic topic that inspires us are all ways to work with this hindrance.

4. Restlessness and worry, anxiety or remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)

This hindrance manifests as being unable to settle and concentrate due to a physical feeling of wanting to move the body and is accompanied by memories and thoughts about things we are worried about or feel remorseful for.

We may feel agitated and restless, unsettled and uncomfortable. It takes courage, patience and discipline to stay with discomfort and explore our thoughts and actions to understand what triggers them (frustrated desire, pent-up aversion, fear and resentment, or dissatisfaction).

I have found reflection, writing in a journal and talking with spiritual friends helpful in working with this hindrance. Walking meditation, yoga and exercise are also helpful when dealing with restlessness and worry; and confession is beneficial when dealing with regret and remorse.

Remembering how it feels to be still and calm may help. Remembering to consciously breathe or focusing on the ongoing rhythm of breathing, can calm the body. The more attention that is given to breathing, the less attention is available to fuel the restlessness or worry.

Strong opinions about what is or is not supposed to be happening, judgments of what is “good and bad” seldom lead to calm. Attachment to a self-image can be agitating. It can be liberating to realize that we don’t have to believe every thought we have.

5. Skeptical doubt (vicikiccha)

This hindrance manifests as uncertainty about meditation (“Does meditation really work?”) and in one’s ability (“I’m not good at meditating.”) and culminates in a lack of confidence.

Some doubt inspires action and the impulse to understand, encourages deeper investigation and can be healthy.

Doubt that hinders meditation is a doubt in the practice, in the Dharmic teachings, in one’s teachers, and/or in oneself. When doubt involves uncertainty about the practice or the teachings, it is helpful to study and reflect on the Dharma itself.

Questioning deeply held beliefs, attending to unresolved feelings, challenging ingrained convictions about self-identity, remembering something that inspires us in the practice (such as a teaching, a person, or some experience you have had in the practice) can all help to dissipate doubt.

Working with the hindrances can help us to answer the following queries:

  • Where do I put my attention?
  • What thoughts and actions cause my mind to fixate its attention on what I want or don’t want?
  • How can I apply mindfulness rather than allowing this mental activity to continue?
  • How can I work with this impulse of preoccupation and obsessive thinking?
  • How can I bring curiosity and exploration, understanding, kindness and non-reactivity to my meditation practice?

Working with the hindrances can strengthen our faith, our firm conviction in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and remind us of why we meditate and practice ethics and how much we value our practice.

Faith gladdens the heart, clears away the hindrances and breathes life into our efforts to continue our path to freedom.

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Saying adios to doubt

In traditional Buddhist teaching, doubt is a hindrance to progress. Now the English word doubt can also mean something positive — the kind of skeptical enquiry upon when rational thought, science, and even true spiritual practice are based — but the hindrance of doubt is not a helpful thing. While healthy skepticism is an essential part of a search for truth, the hindrance of doubt (vicikiccha) is an avoidance or even denial of the truth.

Doubt is a form of storytelling. It’s the lies we tell ourselves. So when we hit an obstacle and tell ourselves “I can’t do this” or “this is a stupid task anyway,” that’s doubt. When we tell ourselves “this always happens,” that’s doubt. When we’re feeling depressed and hopeless and think that things will never change, that’s doubt.

The root of the word vicikiccha is cikicchati, a verb meaning “reflecting, thinking over.” That sounds like a good thing, right? But then we add the prefix “vi-“ and we go from “thinking” to something more like “over-thinking,” or ruminating. That’s not so helpful. Doubt is a kind of cognitive distortion: an inability to see what’s really going on, and an inability to recognize our own potential.

When we’re in a state of doubt, we profoundly limit ourselves. We believe the stories we tell ourselves, and so we end up stuck. We lose touch with our memories and experience of change and growth and competence.

If we’re hit by doubt while writing, we say “I can’t write,” and forget about all the times that our writing has come fluently. (Writer’s block is a classic form of doubt).

When doubt hits us and we tell ourselves “nobody likes me, I’m always alone,” we don’t recognize or value the connections we have with others. We forget about all the friendships we’ve had in the past, or currently have.

We can become so invested in the doubt that we’ll concoct all kinds of stories to explain away evidence that contradicts our narrative of hopelessness. If someone says “Yes, but I love you and care for you” we might tell ourselves “they’re only saying that to make me feel better” or think that if they like us their friendship can’t be worth much. Isn’t it crazy?

So how can we deal with doubt? Here are a few tips:

1. Link unhappiness and inner enquiry

First we have to recognize that what we’re experiencing is doubt. And that’s not easy. We live inside a web of stories, and rarely question our interpretation of reality, assuming that our interpretation is reality. So here’s a suggestion: when you’re not feeling happy, take a look at what your mind is doing to cause your unhappiness. We feel down, and we check to see what thought-patterns and emotional habits are making us miserable. This healthy skepticism becomes a habit. Once this habit becomes established, it’s harder to stay in a state of doubt.

2. Don’t believe everything you think

We need then to question the thought patterns that are presenting themselves to us, and look for more creative responses. So if we find ourselves saying “This isn’t fair — life sucks” we can remind ourselves that life has ups and downs, and that just as the ups are impermanent, so are the downs. If we’re telling ourselves that we can’t write, and that everything that comes from our pen is trite, we can remind ourselves that that’s what editing’s for, or remind ourselves of past successes.

3. But don’t judge your doubt

It’s tempting to say “Oh, heck, I’m experiencing doubt. How stupid of me. I’m always doing that. I’m a terrible person.” Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that just more doubt? Yup, unfortunately doubt has a way of hijacking the mind, so that recognizing doubt is just another excuse to experience more doubt.

So we also have to train ourselves to be nonjudgmental about our doubt. Doubt is just one of these things that happens. It’s no big deal. Just note the thoughts and let them go.

4. Give your doubt a name

Jack Kornfield suggeste that we give our inner critic a name. We can then listen to our doubts and then say, “OK, Betty. I’ll get back to you on that.”

It’s a great idea.

5. Align your spine

When we feel low, we actually physically get low, by slumping. When we slump we can’t breathe properly, and the brain runs at low efficiency, keeping us in a state of doubt.

So sit up! Upen your chest. And as we say in Britain, “Keep your pecker up.” (That always gets a smile from my American friends. Honestly, it means the same as “keep your chin up.”)

6. Connect with Awakening

Sometimes we can reach out to, and surrender to, our own potential Buddhahood. I often find the phrase, “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas,” going through my head. It’s a way of reminding myself of my potential. Another way of doing the same thing is to call to mind a Buddha or Bodhisattava, like Tara or Avalokiteshvara. Surrendering ourselves to these figures (who are simply embodiments of our potential) is a way of embracing change — and change, fundamentally, is what doubt tries to deny. Doubt and an awareness of change cannot long coexist, and so calling our potential to mind is a way of saying “adios” to doubt.

7. Reflect

The traditional way to dispel doubt is to reflect on the Dharma (the path and teachings that help us reach enlightenment). I’ve always thought “Oh, yeah, right!” when it comes to the effectiveness of this kind of reflection. But a few weeks ago I was sleep-deprived and feeling low, and I found myself reflecting that all things arise from conditions (the traditional teaching of pratitya-samutpada, or conditioned co-arising) and found that within seconds, almost, my doubt was gone.

So the tips above constitute a kind of toolbox for dealing with doubt. They’ve worked for me, and I hope they work for you.

Do you have any tips of your own that you’d like to share? If so, take a moment to comment below.

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Becoming doubtful of doubt

Some recent and ongoing research sheds light on how the experience of depression arises, and also squares with the Buddhist teaching on the hindrance of doubt (vicikicchā).

Buddhist meditation traditions speak of five hindrances to meditation. No, this isn’t things like throbbing knees or the neighbor playing his stereo too loud. The hindrances are five mental states or activities that “hijack” the mind and make it hard, if not impossible, for us to stay focused in meditation. The central one of these hindrances is doubt.

In English we use the word doubt to mean many things. We can talk about doubt in terms of a willingness to question, and a desire to seek the truth without taking ideas on board too quickly. You might be skeptical, for example, that there are in fact five hindrances to meditation, and want to know more about them. You might want to test out in your experience whether this model is valid and useful. And those are very useful responses. That’s part of the meaning of the English word doubt, but in Pali, the word vicikicchā is much more specific. It refers to a lack of confidence and clarity.

Doubt as a hindrance involves, on an emotional level, a collapse in trust. We lack confidence in ourselves, or we lack confidence in the practice we’re doing, or we lack confidence in others and in whether they have anything to offer us. At its mildest doubt can simply be a form of disgruntlement, disengagement, or confusion, but at its most severe it can be a crushing burden of depression.

Doubt has a more cognitive aspect as well. Accompanying the confused, critical, and sometimes depressed emotions are various kinds of disordered thinking. For example, we may be having a hard time with a task we’re working on — whether it’s meditation or something at work — and we generalize this into statements about ourselves (“I can’t do this … I’m not getting anywhere”) or about the task (“Meditation is stupid … this is pointless”) or about the world generally (“This isn’t fair … life sucks”).

Part of the cognitive distortion is that we’re temporarily unable to remember any counter-examples — times that we succeeded and when the task went well, and times when we experienced obstacles and difficulties and overcame them. We think of ourselves as trapped, and stuck, and can’t imagine any creative way out of our situation. The hindrance of doubt hijacks the mind — both our emotions and our thoughts — and leaves us feeling trapped.

The other day I was talking to a meditation student who is writing a novel, and he talked about the difficulty of actually finishing his writing. Being on the verge of completing a project, or being on the verge of a breakthrough, can often trigger doubt. Say the book isn’t popular; how are we going to deal with that? Say it is popular; we’re then faced with the problem of adjusting to a new self-view, and the dread of having other people’s expectations of future success to live up to. Sometimes it seems best just to delay completion.

The research I mentioned earlier, which is described in a New York Times article, illuminates the connection between the emotional aspect of doubt (at its most extreme, depression) and the cognitive.

People were given words, like “rejection” or “loved” and were asked to come up with one specific memory connected with the word. The word specific here meant an event that lasted less than one day.

For “rejected,” one participant answered, “A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss, and my ideas were rejected.” Another said, “My brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me.”

The second answer was wrong — it is not specific, and it refers to something that took place on several occasions.

You can see how the second response is a generalization. It’s highly unlikely that the brothers in question were literally “always” talking about going on holiday without the participant who wrote that comment. Sometimes people will take one or two examples that happened on specific occasions, and generalize them into an “always.” Sometimes counter-examples will be ignored: the time the writer was invited to go on vacation with his or her brothers but wasn’t able to go, or chose not to go for some reason. Sometimes the generalization in these cases is built on a misunderstanding: the intent wasn’t to exclude, perhaps, but the joint holiday was based on an activity that the brothers shared (like rock-climbing) and that the writer didn’t. With doubt, all the nuance gets squeezed out of the experience, and we’re left with a tight, hard statement of hopelessness expressing doubt in the brothers (“they don’t care about me”) and oneself (“I’m not likable enough to be invited”) and even the world (“Nobody likes me”).

These over-general memories seem to be connected with the arising of depression and related conditions:

Scientists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, assessed 46 firefighters during their initial training and again four years later, when all had experienced traumatic events like seeing comrades injured or killed. Those who could not recall the past in specific detail during the first assessment were much likelier to have developed the disorder by the later one.

Interestingly, Dr. Mark Williams, who is well-known for his research into how meditation can help with depression, has

induced an overgeneral style in subjects by coaching them to recall types of events (“when I drive to work”) rather than specific occasions (“when I drove to work last Saturday”). He found they were suddenly less able to solve problems, suggesting that overgeneral memory is capable of producing one symptom of depression.

Doubt is treatable. My advice to students when doubt arises in meditation is first to deal with their posture. When we’re feeling depressed the body usually slumps and the head drops, and this posture reinforces the feelings of depression. When we straighten up the body it’s harder to feel depressed. Remembering how the body feels when we’re full of confidence can help us change our posture and empower us by bringing confidence into our present-moment experience.

The next thing I advise is to cultivate a healthy distrust of our own stories. Just because we think something doesn’t mean it’s true. If we recognize the signs of vicikicchā — in the form of over-generalized thoughts and stories that disempower us — we can step back from them and not take them so seriously. Jack Kornfield has suggested giving this inner doubter a name. When you hear the nagging voice of doubt you can say something like “Thanks for your input, Betty. I’ll get back to you on that.”

I also suggest seeking a more balanced perspective by seeking the truth. “My brothers are always planning to go on vacation without me.” Really? How often? Twice? Three times? Is that really “always.” Is it a bad thing if they don’t invite me on a climbing trip given that I don’t climb? Have I ever invited them to go away with me? We need to be doubtful of our doubt.

“Meditation just doesn’t work?” Wait, is that true? Are there counter-examples? Well, I guess there are actually lots of times I’ve been on retreat and felt amazing afterward…

I’d expect that this research on depression and over-generalizing will end up by recognizing that depression is just the extreme end of a spectrum of doubt that starts with a mild lack of confidence, and that patterns of over-general thinking are the mechanism that get us from feeling just a bit “down” to a full-blown depressive attitude.

There’s good news in the article regarding how to circumvent this slide:

Williams has found that specificity can be increased with training in mindfulness, a form of meditation increasingly popular in combating some types of depression. Subjects are taught to focus on moment-to-moment experiences and to accept their negative thoughts rather than trying to avoid them. It may help by making people more tolerant of negative memories and short-circuit the impulse to escape them, which can lead to overgenerality.

We’re also told that:

Spanish researchers have reported that aging patients showed fewer symptoms of depression and hopelessness after they practiced techniques for retrieving detailed memories.

This is good news for depression sufferers, but it also shows other people how to maintain robust mental health: be specific in your recollections so that you don’t “talk yourself” into a depressed state of mind.

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Conquering self-doubt with mindfulness-based therapies

The boss loves your work. Your spouse thinks you’re sexy. The kids—and even the cat—shower you with affection. But then there’s the Voice, the nagging presence in your head that tells you you’re a homely, heartless slacker.

Even people who appear supremely fit, highly successful and hyper-organized are sometimes riddled with debilitating doubts, fears and self-criticisms.

“Most people are struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings. But the show we put on for others says ‘I’ve got it handled,'” says Steven C. Hayes, a professor of psychology at University of Nevada-Reno. In reality, however, “there’s a big difference between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside.”

Cognitive-behavioral therapy aims to help patients conquer their self doubts in two ways: Either by changing the behaviors that go along with it (I’m so fat—I need to get to the gym!) or by challenging the underlying thoughts, which are often distorted. (I’m 45-years old and I’m comparing myself to anorexic models. Get serious!)

Now, a third-wave of cognitive-behavioral therapy is catching on…

Read the rest of this article…

in psychology and self-help circles. It holds that simply observing your critical thoughts without judging them is a more effective way to tame them than pressuring yourself to change or denying their validity.

” ‘Tame’ is an interesting word,” says Dr. Hayes, who pioneered one approach, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. “How would you go about taming a wild horse? You wouldn’t whip it back into a corner. You’d pat it on the nose and give it some carrots and eventually try to ride it.”

This new psychology movement centers on mindfulness—the increasing popular emphasis on paying attention to the present moment. One of its key tenets is that urging people to stop thinking negative thoughts only tightens their grip—”like struggling with quicksand,” Dr. Hayes says. But simply observing them like passing clouds can diffuse their emotional power, proponents say, and open up more options. (“Here’s that old fat feeling again. You know, this happens every time I look at fashion magazines. I am sure judging myself harshly. Do I want to go to the gym? Or I could go to a movie. Or I could stop reading magazines.”)

“Part of what mindfulness does is get to you to recognize that these critical thoughts are really stories you have created about yourself. They are not necessarily true, but they can have self-fulfilling consequences,” says Zindel V. Segal, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who devised Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to help depressed patients. “If you can get some distance from them, you can see that there are choices about how to respond.”

Mindfulness also involves paying attention to your breathing and other physical sensations while observing your thoughts so you have a tapestry of information to consider, says Dr. Segal. In fact, neuro-imaging studies have shown that when people consider problems mindfully, they use additional brain circuits beyond those that simply involve problem-solving.

Although some critics initially dismissed mindfulness-based therapies as vacuous and New Age-y, dozens of randomized-controlled trials in the past decade have shown that they can be effective in managing depression, panic disorders, social phobias, sleep problems and even borderline personality disorder.

A study of 160 patients with major depression, led by Dr. Segal and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry last month, found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was just as good at as antidepressants at warding off relapses of depression.

The National Institutes of Health is funding more than 50 research studies involving mindfulness treatments for psychological problems.

A growing number of therapists are also using mindfulness-based acceptance in their practices. Katherine Muller, associate director of the Center for Integrative Psychotherapy in Allentown, Pa., says she sometimes brings out a little plastic gnome to represent a patient’s negative feelings. “The idea is, ‘These feelings are going to come. What are you going to do about them?’ ” she says. “You don’t have to react to them at all. Just allowing them to exist takes away their power.”

She also finds that practicing mindfulness is more effective at easing her own fear of flying than being reminded about the safety statistics.

On one flight, she says, “all my cognitive skills were going right out the window.” Then another psychologist suggested focusing on the tray table rather than fighting her fears. “It helped me center my head and get a grip,” she says. “It gave me a chance to watch the movie and talk to the person next to me, rather than focus on how the plane might go down in a fiery ball.”

Psychologist Dennis Tirch, director of the New York Center for Mindfulness, Acceptance and Compassion-Focused Therapies, uses this formula to help even people with profound developmental disabilities take control of their emotions: “Feel your soles of your feet. Feel yourself breathe. Label your emotions and make space for your thoughts.”

Extending some compassion for yourself is also an important part of the new mindfulness therapies, Dr. Tirch says. “I can’t tell you how many clients I have who are just beating themselves up about things” says Dr. Tirch. “Give yourself a break—not so you can curl up in bed and stay home, but so you can interact better with the world.”

Kindness and accepting your thoughts nonjudgmentally doesn’t mean having to settle for the status quo, proponents say. Rather than be paralyzed by negative thoughts, you can opt to change your situation—get to the gym or work harder—but with a clearer set of options based on what really matters.

Some critics note that such advice doesn’t sound so different from standard cognitive-behavioral therapy or being kind to the “inner child” of earlier psychotherapy approaches. And some experts say that still more scientific data are needed to evaluate its effectiveness, particularly now that it’s being applied to such a wide array of disorders.

It’s also not clear yet who might benefit most from mindfully accepting their thoughts rather than reasoning with them. For example, Dr. Tirch thinks that it’s still important to convince someone with severe agoraphobia that a piano won’t fall on their head if they leave the house.

Yet Marsha Linehan, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, found that the acceptance therapy she developed in the 1990s enabled suicidal patients and those with borderline personality disorder to accept their feelings and get help while trying to challenge them would only have created more bad feelings.

“It’s the nonjudgmental part that trips most people up,” says Dr. Linehan. “Most of us think that if we are judgmental enough, things will change. But judgment makes it harder to change.” She adds: “What happens in mindfulness over the long haul is that you finally accept that you’ve seen this soap opera before and you can turn off the TV.”

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