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.

See also:

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.

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative. Hundreds of people chip in monthly to cover our running costs, and in return receive access to amazing resources. Click here to find out more.

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Get your sit together in 2017

Meditating regularly has immense benefits. Meditating makes you happier, is good for your health, protects your brain from aging, boosts your intelligence, and helps reduce pain, stress, and depression. It improves your relationships with others, helps you be more effective, and gives you more of a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

So you might have read that and thought, “Great, but I don’t have the time to meditate.” Or you may have already learned to meditate, perhaps years ago, but have never been able to keep up a regular practice.

For many years I struggled with sustaining the habit of meditating daily. I knew the benefits of meditation, not just from studies that had been done, but from personal experience. When I meditated, I’d feel calmer and happier. When I came back from meditation retreats I’d feel tranquil and blissful. But even knowing all that both intellectually and experientially, I found it really hard to sit every day. I’d do well for a while, but then miss a day. Then I’d miss a few days. Sometimes a week would go by and I’d hardly have meditated. I knew other people who just meditated every day, and I felt a real sense of failure about my inability to do likewise. I just didn’t understand what was going on.

Now I meditate pretty much every day without fail. Every few months I might miss a day, but I no longer have a sense of failure and shame when that happens. The next day I just get back to my habit of meditating regularly.

I’m going to be sharing the lessons I’ve learned about setting up a daily meditation practice in a new online course called Get Your Sit Together, starting January 1 (when better to start a new habit!).

The aim of the course is to get you to the point of being a rock-solid daily meditator. Plan A is that you’ll sit for every day of the 28-day course. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, but if you miss a day or two that isn’t a problem. That’s not “failure” — it’s just you learning what can get in the way of developing a good habit. So Plan B is that by the end of the 28 days you’ll be sitting daily. And that’s fine, because it doesn’t matter if it takes a little time to develop a good habit, as long as we do it.

So what will Get Your Sit Together help you with? There are a number of things you’ll learn to do:

1. Recalibrate your sense of what a “real” meditation is

When I first went to meditation classes, the meditations were usually 20 to 30 minutes in length, although often they’d be longer — 40 or 50 minutes. We never did any sits of five or ten minutes. So, not unnaturally, I picked up the idea that a “real” meditation was a long meditation, and that a short meditation isn’t worth doing. And the problem was that it was difficult, if not impossible, to fit those “real” (i.e. long) meditations into my day. And so I ended up not doing short meditations because I didn’t have time to do long meditations! Crazy! So you’ll learn that even short meditations count, and on the course there will be guided meditations of five minutes, three minutes, and even one minute in length. Short sits like these make meditation doable. It’s suddenly possible to fit meditation into the inevitable spaces in your day. You may not have 40 minutes lying around, waiting to be filled by a new activity, but you almost certainly have several gaps of just a few minutes long. And if you don’t, they’re not that difficult to create.

2. Change your sense of self

For me this was the most important thing. I wanted to meditate regularly, but didn’t, and so I saw myself as someone who couldn’t meditate regularly. I saw this as a lack of willpower, but willpower had little to do with it. What I had was a false view of myself that I was trapped in: I thought I just wasn’t the kind of person who could meditate daily. So I’ll help you change your self-view so that you see yourself as someone who meditates every day, as someone who doesn’t miss days. Meditating daily will very quickly become just what you do. (You may not believe that right now, but you can quite quickly and easily learn to have confidence in your ability to sit daily.)

3. Develop accountability and tap into support

In developing a new habit, it helps to be accountable to ourselves and others. This can be as simple as putting a big red X every day on a calendar, and making sure we don’t “break the chain” of X’s. Or we can share with others how we’re doing, and the problems we’re facing. We have an online community set up for the class to help provide that accountability. “Accountability” can be a big and scary word, but we’re all working with the same difficulties, and so our community is a judgement-free zone. In fact it’s a zone of support, encouragement, and celebration. If you feel shame about missing a day, we can help you see that it’s not a big deal, it’s not failure, it’s just a small stumble on the way to developing a good habit.

4. Anticipate obstacles

It’s so easy to say, “Yeah, I’m going to meditate every day! Nailed it!” But then you forget the practicalities, and suddenly it’s 11:30 PM and you’re brain-dead and need to crawl into bed, and maybe you don’t even remember until then that you haven’t meditated yet. So we need to sit down and develop a plan: Here’s my opportunity to meditate for ten minutes tomorrow. Here’s another. It’s not just the busy days you have to anticipate; sometimes the open and spacious days are a challenge too, because we think it’ll be easy.

5. Recognize the voice of resistance

A lot of us believe whatever arises in our minds. So when we have thoughts like “I’m too busy/tired to meditate. I don’t have time,” we’ll learn to recognize this not as a voice we should listen to and be guided by, but the voice of resistance. We can say, “Hi, resistance. I hear that you don’t wanna meditate, but that’s what we’re gonna do, OK? But since you’re kind of tired, why don’t we start with just five minutes rather than our usual 10, and see how you feel then?” By establishing a dialog with our resistance, we stop ourselves from being hijacked by it.

6. Reward progress

One HUGE mistake people make is to forget to congratulate themselves on meditating. In fact they may punish themselves: “OK, I did it, but it was only 10 minutes and I should have done 20. I’m such a wimp. Loser!” If we punish ourselves for doing something, we’ll probably not repeat that action too much! So we’ll learn to celebrate, and to give ourselves a pat on the back. We’ll learn to feel good about meditating, so that our subconscious latches onto sitting as something it wants to do. Providing a reward is one of the most important things about successfully establishing a good habit.

While Get Your Sit Together is about learning to meditate daily, you’ll find that the principles involved — drawn from modern psychology and the Buddhist meditation tradition — are applicable to developing just about any good habit. But at the very least, as you follow the daily emails, listen to the guided meditations, and participate in the online community, you’ll find that you are able to sit daily. And that will give you the physical, psychological, and social benefits I outlined above. In short, you’ll become a happier person. You’ll experience a sense of thriving.

So why not join me! But don’t wait until January 1! Click here to head over to our Eventbrite page, enroll in Get Your Sit Together, and take the first step of a journey that will change your life.

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Overcoming resistance to meditation

Young man pushing a heavy cable spool

No matter how much experience we have of meditation being beneficial in our lives, and of not meditating making life harder for us, we can still end up experiencing resistance. And resistance to meditation can be very painful, especially when we get caught between that feeling that we “should” meditation and the feeling that we don’t want to.

Sometimes there’s a hidden agenda at work. We might on some level think that meditation is selfish. Or we might be worried about “not getting things done.” Or we might be afraid of change. If you can become aware of the underlying reason for your resistance you might be able to work at rediscovering your sense of motivation, but in some ways it doesn’t matter what the content of the resistance is.

One thing I’ve found very successful is to become mindful of the feeling of resistance. Where is it situated in the body? How large is it? What “texture” does it have? What kinds of thoughts does it give rise to? Notice those things, and just be with the resistance. Turn the resistance into an object of mindfulness. At that point you’re already meditating, so you might as well get on the cushion. Or you could just stay where you are, let your eyes close, and notice the breathing at that same time as you observe the resistance, or notice the resistance and send it your lovingkindness. In this kind of approach the specific content of your resistance isn’t important, because you’re not meeting your rationalizations on their own level. You’re not arguing with them; you’re outsmarting them by surrounding them with mindful awareness.

See also:

If truly want to meditate daily, but find that the resistance goes on day after day, then set yourself a low bar for what constitutes a day in which you meditate: five minutes works fine. That may not sound like much, but regularity is ultimately more important than the number of minutes you do each day. Do feel free to do more, but don’t try to impress yourself with how much meditation you can do. It’ll just lead to more resistance.

You want to get, as quickly as possible, to the point where you don’t even have to decide to meditate every day. It shouldn’t be a decision. It should just be what you do. So I have a mantra: “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.” If you want to meditate absolutely every day, then keep reciting that mantra (and meditate for at least five minutes each day, although preferably more) until you start to believe the mantra on a deep level. If you miss days at first, that’s OK. Just keep repeating the mantra: “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.”

It works!

Wildmind is a Community-Supported  Meditation Initiative. Bodhipaksa is supported by numerous sponsors who generously donate each month to help him explore and teach meditation. Wildmind’s sponsors get access to an online community and to a large number of  meditation courses Bodhipaksa has developed over the years. Click here to check out the Meditation Initiative.

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“To be creative means to consider the whole process of life as a process of birth.” Eric Fromm

Eric Fromm

For social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, creativity wasn’t necessarily about bringing something — a poem, a symphony, a sculpture — into being. For him, creativity was an attitude.

And so he said, “To be creative means to consider the whole process of life as a process of birth, and not to take any stage of life as a final stage.”

Creativity for him was the ability first to be aware, and then to respond. In this sense, creativity may produce works of art that can be viewed in a gallery, but it is also just as much a way of living. Creativity may produce not only art but a life lived with awareness, a life imbued with meaning, a life lived well. Creativity is about allowing life to come into being — fully.

When I sat down to write this post just a few minutes ago, I looked at this quote, which I had chosen last week, and felt an inner heaviness. “I have nothing to say” was my thought. My impulse was to head to the internet to find something “easier” to write about — something that would unleash an instant torrent of thoughts. Fromm’s words had looked appealing last week, but today they evoked nothing but fear.

I was experiencing resistance. I was experiencing doubt. But to be creative is “not to take any stage of life as a final stage.” Resistance and doubt are not final stages. They are not substantive. They are not fixed or solid. They’re like fog born over a lake in the hours before dawn, destined to dissipate as the sun rises. If we react to doubt, though, we take it to be something solid, something to be feared and to escape from. But it’s only a delusion that it’s solid.

So this is the awareness I bring to meet my resistance: Here you are. I find you unpleasant to be with, but although I fear you I will turn toward you. I will bring the sun of my awareness to meet you, and watch you dissipate.

And another birth happens. As doubt dissolves away, words appear, and confidence is born.

When we take the birth of something we find uncomfortable, like doubt and resistance, as being “final,” we make a judgement about ourselves (“I can’t do this; I have nothing to say; I’d better not do anything or people will think it sucks”). We run from the unpleasant, since we have deemed ourselves incapable of enduring it. We seek an easy escape from our pain. We cease to live creatively and responsively. And in doing so we give life to our doubts, making them appear more solid and substantive than they actually are. The judgements we make become our self-view (“I’m not the creative type”). We fix ourselves. We take ourselves as something final. We fail to act responsively. We fail to truly live.

To be creative is to live. It’s to live fully. The Buddha said that only those who are aware are truly alive. He said that those who lack awareness are like the dead. In the zombie-like state in which most of us spend the majority of our lives, we are not mindful, and so instead of responding we merely react. Rather than living as fully aware and responsive beings, a bundle of habits stumbles through a simulacrum of life.

Mindfulness allows us not so much to live life without fear, but to see our fears (and that which we fear) as just one more part of the process of life; as just one more impermanent arising; as the fog before the dawn.

Mindfulness opens the way for us to view everything we experience in this way. Our very sense of self may dissolve away. It’s not that we entirely lose our sense of self, but that we stop seeing our self as composed of anything substantive. Our “self” is not a final stage. It’s something in process. It’s composed of change. We see, in a way, that our “self” isn’t a “self.” It is nothing but moments of birth and death.

Mindfulness brings understanding, or wisdom. And with this wisdom we recognize which of the processes unfolding within us are life-denying, born of fear. Fear itself has this life-denying quality, as do grasping, hatred, resistance, and aversion. These qualities are manifestations of our inability to see all experiences as transitory and evanescent events. They represent our false belief that some stages are final. And we respond not by fleeing from these inhibiting and life-denying processes, but by turning toward them with mindfulness, seeing them as impermanent and insubstantial, and seeing through them.

When we respond in this way, creativity is already emerging. We are already living with awareness and living with wisdom. And increasingly, creativity is not something that we do. It’s something that happens of its own accord. It is life, living through us, unchecked, unfettered, and free.

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Getting your meditation practice back on track

You committed to yourself that you’ll meditate. And you do, for a few days or weeks. But then something happens. You miss one day. Then another. And before you know it, you’ve stopped entirely. Hmmmm…. What happened?

As a meditation teacher, I’ve been involved in many conversations on this subject. So I thought I’d look at what leads us to choose not to meditate, and how we might work with that choice more skillfully.

Less than ideal conditions

A very common scenario is putting off meditation on a day when we’re just not feeling up to it. Maybe we’re feeling lousy or distracted. Or the rest of the household is too noisy. Or we only have ten minutes – not enough time, we say. We find all kinds of reasons, big or small, why this is not a good time to meditate.

But let’s think a moment. What are the reasons you took up meditation in the first place? Wasn’t one of them that you wanted to be less a victim of your moods, whims, and circumstances? Sure, a perfect 20-minute sit where you can create a lovely inner oasis would be ideal. But isn’t avoiding meditation altogether when conditions aren’t so ideal a way of falling into your same old traps?

So how strong is your resolve to overcome your habitual tendencies? If we’re serious about changing, then here’s a perfect opportunity right in front of us. We can start by examining our own self-talk that convinces us to slink away from our commitments. And those distractions – are they really as insurmountable as we think they are? What happens when we try sitting anyway, just as we are, just as things are, and let go of our childish desire to have things be exactly the way we want?

Resistance to discipline

Does the thought of meditation bring out your rebellious side? Maybe your attempts at discipline bring up associations of growing up in strict family or school. Or feeling forced to attend religious services that had no meaning for you. Or maybe the idea of sitting still just makes you want to do the exact the opposite.

When we meet our own resistance, I think it’s a good idea to listen to it. I don’t mean to give in to it, but to hear out what it’s really saying deep down inside.

I think people with a rebellious nature tend to be questioners – those that want fully to understand something before accepting it. And the Buddha encouraged this kind of questioning as a necessary skill in our spiritual work. So why not take advantage of this valuable skill that you already seem to have in spades? Why not engage the questioning skeptic, and let her find her own way in?

For example, what if you dropped all the formal structures of meditation, and just let the rebellious side of you enjoy herself? What if you sat in your favorite comfortable chair and did nothing for a while? Don’t even think about getting into a meditation posture. Forget about counting breaths. Instead, you could let waves of relaxation flow through your body along with each exhale. Explore bodily sensations and indulge your curiosity like a child with a new toy. Try approaching meditation in the spirit of what it’s meant to be – an open inquiry into the nature of your experience – as opposed to forcing yourself to follow the form.

I’d suggest that you eventually go back to a formal practice, but there’s no hurry. You can wait until your rebellious side is happy and engaged enough to begin working with you rather than against you.

Frustration over lack of “results”

We all take up meditation with an expectation that it will change us for the better. On the other hand, getting frustrated that it’s not happening as we thought isn’t a good place to be. I often hear meditators say they’re not able to get to a calm and peaceful state. And that leads to a lot of discouragement, self-doubt, and reasons to skip out.

But rather than facing down our discouragement head-on, let’s look at why it comes up. What happens when we get caught up in our ideas of what we think meditation is supposed to be? We try to force our experience to match our ideas — like trying to be calm and peaceful when our mind is nothing like that. We end up sitting and thinking ABOUT meditation – what we want or don’t want – and fighting our experience rather than being with what actually IS. And that does nothing but get us more agitated.

Meditation is about being with whatever is going on, whether it’s distraction, discomfort, unhappiness, even frustration. Whatever it is, there’s nothing “wrong” with it. There’s no such thing as a “bad” meditation experience, as long as you’re mindfully present with it. Because it’s the mindful presence that’s important, not whatever else is going on. There’s a feeling of wholeness and integrity that comes with being with myself and my situation as it is. And paradoxically, it’s when we stop fighting with ourselves that the calm and peacefulness arise naturally, without having to strive for it.

See also:

Pushing boundaries more skillfully

There’s a common thread running through all these scenarios, and it’s this: to view our difficulties as the raw material of our practice. They aren’t problems that we need to get rid of. They’re great reasons to get us ON our cushion, not to avoid it. Because they are our path of practice. They’re there to help us learn how to stretch, to grow, to learn to push our boundaries. And isn’t that what we took up meditation for?

There are two key things I always keep in mind when I navigate my way through my practice. One is to be really honest with myself, and take responsibility for my choices. If I choose not to sit one day, that will have consequences. That doesn’t mean that I’m a bad girl, or that I’ve done something wrong. There’s no moral judgment here. I simply mean that not sitting sets in motion a habit of not meditating that will make things a little harder next time. The focus is on my actions and choices, not judgments of my goodness or badness.

At the same time, it’s really important to be compassionate to myself. There are some days when it really IS difficult to get to the cushion. And that’s OK. There’s no blame, no shame. While I stay mindful of the consequences of my choices, I let the whole thing go. Sometimes the best choice is to not meditate on a given day. And I accept that.

When we can see everything we encounter as part of our practice, that’s when our practice starts really to take hold.

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Travelling into the breath

Day 1

Preparing myself with consideration of my back problem, balancing the pelvis, and seeing that my neck is as least as possible strained. I feel a slight tension in my belly and this possibly has to do with an expectation of resistance to listening once again to the instructions of setting up a posture, a resistance to resistance, i breath into it and i experience that the resistance doesn’t come.

For a moment i am aware that i am sitting a bit sloped, sometimes i have the impression that my right shoulder is hanging more towards the earth than my left one after the injury at work.

So adjusting this posture…

…sitting with a feeling of stability, groundedness and interest in the breathing, i breathe in thousands a times a day, breath out thousands a time a day and for most of the time i am not aware of this breath, ‘my’ breath…

dropping the counting very quickly and rather spontaneously, it feels natural not to count and i focus my attention on the outbreath in the first stage and on the inbreath in the second stage…

i wonder if this dropping of the counting has to do with a subtle fear of failure when i would notice that after one or two counts my mind already has drifted

…my mind is drifting as well when not counting

…i try to follow the natural flow of the breath and i see that my breath is faster as i had thought it would be

… i wonder what is then this natural flow? I have the feeling that however i breath my breath is for most of the time determined by my state of mind

…what then is the natural flow? I am a bit puzzled also because i realise that i am nearly always altering my breath somehow, wanting to change the breath, wanting the breath to become calmer and more still

…i return to the coming and going of the breath, focusing on the inbreath (second stage), being aware of the stability in my lower body

…the neck is hurting, there is more strain so turning the head now and then to loosen up the pain and strain, sometimes drawing circles with the neck to bring some relief

…after this i go back to the breath, the following of the breath, in and out, without focusing on the in or outbreath, just following the breath and reflecting again on the natural flow of the breath

…it comes to my mind that when i am cycling and climbing for instance i am following the natural flow of my breath, due to the severe efforts i just follow my breath, it doesn’t feel as if i have a choice then

…but sitting in meditation it is not as clear as that… i suspect in this meditation, the Mindfulness of Breathing, i am confronted more than elsewhere, with a difficulty of giving myself over to what really happens in the moment

…in the fourth stage the comparison with the butterfly like mind matches my experience, the quality of the butterfly settling down on a flower with lightness and sensitivity as well as the tendency to move quickly towards another flower.

Day 2

It’s in the afternoon, normally the least good time for me to meditate as i tend to fall asleep most of the time when i do meditate in these period. But I will give it a go as i am in the process of writing a diary and i am always glad when it is finished, not in a demonstrative way or so but more on a subtle level

…i guess it has to do with stressing myself

…in theory i have time this evening but i want to get it done with as soon as possible…the general feeling in this meditation was a sense of relaxation, of ease

…of being ok with all what was going on, i was decisive not to fall asleep and i was interested in the natural flow of the breath

…i definitely had a tendency to doze off but i counteracted this by opening my eyes for some time and i just went on, breathing in and out, feeling quite at ease with how it all went, not bothering about if the breath was too slow, too shallow, too fast, etc

…i felt the breathing as ok and i thought that if i do not interfere with the body and the breath at all, simply by breathing and following this breath through sensitive listening to the body and feeling — really feeling — where the inbreath stops and pauses and the outbreath begins then it is all right

…no interferences of my mind and opinions and all kinds of judgments

…i realised that my breath went faster than i normally should prefer but i felt all right with it and at ease so what’s the problem? I felt content albeit a careful contentment

…thinking it over now, i just carried on with it and i was not so much in the grip of my own judgments

…so being tired has partly a good influence on diminishing all kinds of resistance (like for instance not wanting to give oneself over to what is going on)

Day 3

Sitting like a rock with a firm contact with the earth below. I am intending to lower my expectations and enjoy the breath. I have done some reflection on the meditations of the last two days and it seems that i sometimes don’t trust my own experience or that i want the breath to be something special instead of leaving the breath being breath

…so really feeling grounded, my eyelids so to speak don’t have the slightest intention to open up, they enjoy staying closed and focused, my hands are in my lap as if they are sculptured in that way and they feel light and right, correct, precise

…i feel like i am sailing on the flow of the breath and now and then there are little boats who draw my attention but rather quickly they are blown away by the wind

…several thoughts are crossing my mind, about football, retreats, the convention of next year, ice cream etc but they are little stories who seems to loose their reliability, boats blown away

…i enjoy sitting like a rock, being stable, feeling my feet and legs firmly on the floor, seeing the thoughts so now and then growing stiller, becoming more silenced

…i realise that it is a tricky one for me in this situation to grasp the silence, wanting that no more thoughts at all will come but i can gently and with a smile meet new thoughts and let them pass

…i don’t have to be perfectly still. Feeling a kind of refreshing awareness, curious about the breath going in and out around the tip of my nose, curious about the different sensations

…closing the meditation enjoying once more the groundedness  and stability of my sitting in this session…

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When practice goes backwards

U-bend in road

I’ve not been feeling very well the last couple months. I feel tired and achy a lot of the time. When I meditate, I catch myself dozing off before too long. My concentration is off. I’m finding it especially difficult to write. I can’t put it into words, but something is just not right.

A couple weeks ago, my preceptor (the woman who ordained me) came to visit for several days. She had some helpful and encouraging words to say about this, and I thought I’d pass them on.

Sometimes when we have particularly deep and intense experiences, as I did on my retreat last July, we need some time afterward to assimilate. Sure, it’s only natural for the wonderful positivity of a peak experience to fade away. But she said it’s also not unusual for some part of us to resist afterwards. Or maybe just feel unsteady from all the inner rearranging that’s taken place. And it can feel like a step or two backwards, a regression.

That feels right to me. I have an image of me as a big elastic band. I stretched beyond my usual way of being, and now I’ve sprung back some. And to mix metaphors, it’s like my body and mind are working really hard to find their footing on this new ground they find themselves on.

Something inside me said “yes!” when she said that. There was relief in seeing this as a perfectly natural process. That given time, things will find their balance again.

I’ve long since given up on grieving over peak experiences. They were the result of a particular set of conducive conditions that will never be again. I can’t recreate them, and it’s pointless to wish for it. And I don’t begrudge the inevitable doldrums that come afterwards. What I’m going through now is also a result of the conditions that are in place. I’ve learned to trust in this natural flow of things.

And really, I don’t think my practice is going backwards at all, despite what I titled this post. This IS my practice. Learning how to move forward through unknown territory. Getting to know when to push ahead and when to rest. (And it seems now is a time for me to rest!) Finding out how to navigate similar roadblocks when they appear again next time. To be honest, I can’t imagine anything I go through is ever lost. Something stays with me and comes to fruition later, in some unpredictable way.

This is how I’ve gotten to where I am now. And I’m just going to keep moving forward. Because really, there’s no such thing as moving backwards.

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

I made three resolutions for this year’s summer trip:

· be extra patient with my partner
· don’t drink wine every day
· meditate

By the end of week one however, wine bottles were chinking in campsite recycling bins, I’d shouted GET ON WITH IT several times and had only meditated once, on the first morning.

Something about good resolutions makes me do the exact opposite. I want to be a better person. But it’s as if my definition of ‘better’ doesn’t always win the rubber stamp of approval from some mysterious internal committee. And this committee has a habit of voting with its feet.

Earlier this year, for example, I booked onto a two-week meditation retreat where the norm would be to meditate 6-8 hours a day. I usually meditate for half an hour daily, so I decided in the weeks leading up to the retreat to ‘build up’ my practice a bit. In came the goal-setting: I would add an evening sit and extend the morning one to forty minutes.

I didn’t even do it once. In fact, in the run up to the retreat, I stopped meditating altogether.

Once on the retreat, I planned to eat mindfully. A golden opportunity. Others might be doing something similar and if they weren’t, no one would be able to say anything because we were all in silence!

The plan lasted until day three. Surrounded incessantly by mindful eaters, the deliberate way they cut up their food drove me mad. And the way they chewed! The way they put their knife and fork down between mouthfuls. GET ON WITH IT I wanted to shout. I had to go and sit next to some big blokes who shovelled their food down any old how.

My aims often fail in this way. Perhaps I don’t have enough self-discipline. Perhaps I should cultivate aims that are less off-the-peg. Perhaps my motivation is wrong – too self-focussed. Or maybe my goals are too ambitious and I need to break them down into small, achievable outcomes. All of that sounds plausible.

And yet, I don’t know. Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’ comes to mind, in which the poet talks to his neighbour about mending their dividing wall. ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down. I could say ‘Elves’ to him/But it’s not elves exactly.’

Well, something there is that doesn’t love a goal either, I reckon. That wants it to fail. I could say ‘resistance’. But it’s not resistance exactly.

It’s probably closer to elves, and I’m interested in elves. I can’t shake off the feeling that they have friends on my internal committee and that those friends might be trying to tell me something.

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Unweaving pain’s tapestry

There are three main approaches that can help make meditation enjoyable and sustainable when meditating with pain.

1. Learning to deal with resistance

The first hurdle is actually getting down to meditation. Even after meditating for 20 years I almost always have to overcome resistance — and I’m not alone. This tendency is especially pronounced if you’re living with pain. When you meditate you turn towards your experience in an honest and open way, including your pain. That takes courage, but often I don’t feel so brave and when I contemplate meditating suddenly I find many other things that need doing instead. I’ll make that phone call, I’ll have another cup of tea, I’ll check my emails. Alternatively, I may think, I can’t bear to sit with myself and my pain — I’m too tired. Then I roll over in bed and go back to sleep.

But I always regret it when I give in to the resistance and I always feel better when I find the energy and courage to meditate. Even if I struggle in a particular session, I still end up feeling more honest and aware, which leads to more confidence and stability as I learn to be with my pain in a clean way. It’s important to persevere and to recognize resistance rather than to be ruled by it.

2. Examining your agenda

Even when you’ve got down to meditating, attitudes still affect the practice and it’s important to investigate them. Most of us living with pain or illness long for our pain to go away and you’ll probably bring this desire with you when you start to practice meditation and mindfulness. No matter how much you think you’ve accepted your pain, many of us retain a secret hope that meditation will reduce or even eliminate it. On the face of it, this is entirely reasonable, but for people with intractable pain, mindfulness means coming to terms at the deepest level with the aspects of pain you can’t avoid and making peace with the situation.

When I first encountered meditation in my mid-twenties I definitely brought an escapist agenda to my practice. I had intolerable pain and I wasn’t coping well; I wanted to escape my body and dwell in states of calm and bliss and I hoped meditation would be a quick fix. That fantasy was understandable if you consider the ideas that circulate about meditation. I’d read books on Buddhism and meditation — and selectively remembered certain parts. Most of the literature gives a rounded picture of the human condition and describes how meditation can help you to be more awake. But instead I focused on descriptions of people who achieved meditative states in which they no longer experienced their body or described having a heart and mind that was vast, clear and boundless, or described the body becoming so spacious and diffuse that it was like having a body of light. Fantastic, I thought, I want some of that.

These descriptions of higher meditative states were very attractive and each time I meditated, I strained to be magically transported to a pain-free, blissful state. I even became adept at generating similar states through willpower and fantasy. At this stage, I would gather my awareness in my head, away from my painful body or outside my body altogether, and for a time the pain would lessen and I felt calm and joyful. But there was also a lot of strain and as soon as the meditation ended, I crash-landed back in my body and felt worse than before I’d started.

Many of us who learn to meditate when living with pain are motivated by a similar wish to escape the experience of the body — friends who are experienced meditators and also live with painful bodies have told me they had experiences of strain and escapism in their early meditation experiences that were very like my own. One woman, who has a great deal of pain, told me how her practice has finally become much deeper and quieter:

My body is aging and stiffening. More and more, I’m seeing this as an advantage as I simply can’t be very active and the frustrations just have to be faced and accepted. My life has greatly simplified this year, internally as well as externally … I’m seeing more clearly how I’ve pushed against life! Relaxation is what I’m learning right now (and I’m discovering how unrelaxed I am at a deep level). I’m meditating much more than ever before, but without pushing at it. Life is more painful, but more real and therefore more rich.

Another friend suffers from a degenerative spinal condition that causes him a great deal of pain and stiffness. He describes the end of an escapist meditation session as, “crash-landing back in hell,” which was very confusing and unpleasant. All three of us have now moved on to the next phase: using meditation to dwell ever more deeply within the body and using the experience of pain to cultivate equanimity and peace with life as it is.

One of the wonderful things about meditation is that it seems to bring out one’s native intelligence and wisdom. If you meditate with sincerity and bring an unrealistic agenda, you’ll realize that something’s not quite right. In my case it took many years to realize this, but eventually instead of trying to move away from my experience, I turned to face it. I began the journey of engaging with my body with awareness.

3. Understanding the paradox of pain

Rather than trying to move out of the body in a vain attempt to escape pain, the answer seems to lie in moving towards it, going more and more deeply into the body. This might seem a bitter pill to swallow — it’s certainly counterintuitive. It may sound as if I’m suggesting that day after day, your whole meditation experience will involve sitting with awareness of pain. Hardly an inspiring prospect! But what I’m actually suggesting goes far deeper than that. To a large extent my meditation practice consists of simply sitting with an experience that includes the discomfort and pain, noticing the thoughts and emotions that arise and working with my reactions to avoid piling on secondary suffering. But there are also times when I become awake to my experience in a very accurate and refined way. My awareness sinks deeply into my body, which starts to feel diffuse and spacious. The sense of space and translucence that fills me comes not from going outside myself into space, but from sinking so far inside that space and light seem to arise from within.

As a metaphor for this experience, consider the image of a tapestry such as those you might you see in country mansions and châteaux. From a distance the tapestry depicts a complex scene that looks dense and solid, but as you come closer you realize it’s made up of thousands of colored threads. If you looked into the weave of the threads with a microscope, you’d see millions of tiny spaces in between the threads. Through meditation, you develop this open, expansive perspective and you find the spaces in the weave of your experience and gently rest there.

These experiences of profound spaciousness are part of the world opened up by meditation. They are the states that I’d read about and been drawn to when I first learned to meditate but then I made the mistake of trying to bypass my body to achieve them. Only by sitting with the pain can one access intense joy. I like to say that the open sky lies beneath the earth. Feeling supported by the earth, you can take your awareness so far inside the body that you come to a place of peace and calm.

This article is extracted and adapted from her book, “Living Well with Pain and Illness: the mindful way to free yourself from suffering,” published by Little, Brown in November of 2008.

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Waking up into the moment

The goal of Buddhist practice is “bodhi” or “Awakening.” Waking up fully to reality may yet be far off, but Vimalasara reflects on how in our day-to-day lives the times just before and after sleep can be valuable opportunities for practice.

The first thought when I woke up was, “I want my mind back.” After years of working hard to meet deadlines as a journalist and partying all night with my friends it felt like my brain was riddled with holes. There were big gaps in my memory and I’d sometimes joked that my brain was poisoned with stimulants and alcohol. And it was poisoned, but even worse my heart was toxic as well. And when I woke that morning, at the age of twenty-nine, I knew I had to make a change in my life. And I did.

And it often seems to work like that. We wake in the morning and some things have sorted themselves out. We’re clearer. We know what we need to do.

In my case I’d been meditating and starting to reflect on my life, but on that morning I had a sense of urgency to change how I was living. Meditation was the thing that woke me up, but it was sleep that provided the means for it to do so.

In my book, Detox Your Heart, I talk about how important it is that we pause in our lives so that we can connect with ourselves, and sleep is one of the places we pause. We may not pause at all during the day, but when we get into bed the physical body stops. So sleep was a place where I would stop, and where I had no control over what happened in my dreams or thoughts. In my waking life I’d try to control things, but in my sleeping life I couldn’t do that. When sleeping, our conscious habits of control are on hold, and other inner voices can make themselves heard. So it’s perhaps not surprising that there are moments of insight when we wake up, moments when we’re clearer and have a better sense of what we really need.

I think it’s really important to become aware of what we feel first thing in the morning. Waking up is a significant moment for getting in touch with what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, and how we’re doing. It’s a significant moment in which to check in. But often we don’t. The alarm goes off, we’ve got to get up, and we’ve got all these things to do. But waking up is a significant moment where it can really benefit us to take a few minutes to just to check in and gauge how we are feeling and thinking.

I often say that turning inwards in this way is a revolutionary act because it has such a profound impact on how we live. If we check in with ourselves in the morning and we know we’re feeling vulnerable, for example, we can put on a layer of emotional protection before we go out of the door and know that we need to take extra care. Otherwise we’re likely to find ourselves getting angry later in the day and be surprised about it and not know why it’s happened. Or if we wake up and we’re already angry then at least we’re forewarned and we can deal with the anger as best we can — befriending it, taking it as a warning that we need to take care of ourselves throughout the day, allowing the experience to be there but letting go of it and softening the heart. When we take the time to tune in in the morning it alerts us to what’s going on and we can deal with that appropriately.

It’s important to become aware of what we’re feeling because that’s what we’re taking into the world and that’s what we’re communicating through. If we could be aware of what’s going on 24/7 that would be great, but that’s difficult to do and I think that the morning is one of those times where we can really begin to introduce the practice of mindfulness, because it is the time when we’ve stopped, we’ve slowed down.

I’m one of these people that sometimes wakes up and pretends to be asleep. By “pretending to be asleep” I mean I’ll have an insight but not want to acknowledge it. I don’t want to know something I already know. I want to avoid truths that I find are uncomfortable. I want to pretend that something isn’t happening when it is.

I think a lot of people pretend to be asleep. I had a friend who told me she hadn’t read my book yet and so I asked her why not. And she said that she hadn’t read it because she knew she’d have to start doing things differently in her life. And I laughed, because it’s so common that people know, but they don’t want to know that they know.

Unless we’ve mastered the art of lucid dreaming we can’t directly affect what goes on in our sleeping lives — any maybe we shouldn’t — but we can choose what we’re going to do just before we sleep and the moment we wake up, and those choices can have a big effect on our lives.

When I’m mindful I’m really aware of what I do before I go to sleep. I don’t like to watch intense films — films with murder in them for example — just before I go to bed. Like most people I wouldn’t drink coffee just before going to bed because it stimulates the mind, yet intense movies can be just as stimulating. And I notice that if I just sit and check in for a few minutes it has a completely different impact than if I just go straight to bed from whatever I’ve just been doing. Even cleaning your teeth with mindfulness is a really good thing to do before going to bed. It’s a time of pausing.

We can also reflect before we go to sleep. This week I’ve been reflecting on impermanence by sitting and turning over in my head that the sexual relationship I’m in will change, and that it will end one day, even if it’s through death. I’ve been reflecting on all the things that I’m attached to in this way. I’ve been doing this because I still find that I react emotionally much more to the prospect of paying a large phone bill than I do to the fact that I’m going to die some day! Sometimes our priorities are just completely out of proportion and we need to reflect to bring things back into balance.

And reflecting on impermanence before going to bed has led to me feeling much more in the present this week. I’ve been quicker to notice my mind going off, have brought myself back to my experience more quickly, and have been enjoying the preciousness of life, or at least getting more glimpses of that preciousness.

What we consciously think about first thing in the morning is an important practice. There are several exercises in my book where I suggest that people do a specific action first thing when they wake up — taking some deep breaths, or checking in, or using an affirmation. If I use an affirmation first thing in the morning it’ll be with me for the whole day. What we first think about in the morning has a significant impact. If my affirmation is “I am lovable, I am lovable” that sets me up for the day and when difficult things happen I remember my affirmation and it gives me support.

We all have rituals in the morning. My partner gets up especially early to have a long bath and read. When I was a journalist I had to start with reading or listening to the news — and I was glad to be able to give that up because it was such a harsh way to start the day. So what I suggest to people is that they introduce positive rituals — rituals that support a healthier mind and heart.

Buddhism talks about the goal of practice being to wake up in a metaphorical sense. And yet our literal waking up is such an important time. It’s when we have breakthroughs, it’s when we have a natural opportunity to check in with ourselves, and it’s when we can start developing positive rituals that help us to be more awake and aware in our daily lives.

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