Overcoming Obsticles to Sitting Meditation*
By Michael Isaacs
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Many attempt sitting meditation but few stay on the path.
This article will apply to all forms of sitting meditation focusing on a particular object, whether the goal is relaxation, stress-reduction, or spiritual growth. The content reflects the personal experience I have had over many years as a psychotherapist, practitioner and teacher of body-mind modalities, and spiritual seeker.
The ideas and strategies in this article hopefully will be of value to those considering meditation, beginners, and students practicing meditation for many years.
Why is the dropout rate so high in meditation?
First, it is not easy to introduce, get started and stay with any new path. Any change for good is difficult. We fear change, do not want to let go of bad habits. So while most know the importance of proper diet and exercise, how difficult it is to take the steps required to accomplish these ends! Busy schedules, conflicting priorities, and psychological blocks can get in the way and can become excuses to do what needs to be done. If changing habits were easy, would we need so many New Year’s resolutions? For those interested in how to stay motivated to effect desired change, I refer you to my article “How to Develop a Daily Relaxation Practice” on my website, michaelisaacs.net
Second, meditation is basically alien to the Western mind. Our society is oriented towards materialism and competition. Much good comes from this involvement. Nevertheless, these strivings are focused on the external rather than the internal world. In contrast, in Oriental cultures it is more natural to go within for happiness. In these societies, meditation has been around for thousands of years.
Third, in the meditation process itself, the most challenging obstacle is discouragement over not being able to sufficiently control the wandering mind. As a former yoga and meditation teacher, I heard over and over again these themes from meditation drop-outs: “I just can’t control my mind”; “I can’t do this –the mind distractions drive me crazy”, “I’m not succeeding so why bother”; “focusing on my mantra is impossible”; and “I wanted more peace, but in meditation my thoughts, feelings, and racing mind have become worse”. No one likes to fail, to feel not good enough, not worthy, and not successful.
Controlling the mind is no easy task. This was known thousands of years ago by the sages in India. Here are some pertinent passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Hindu wisdom writing. When the word “mind” is used, the sages meant mind and emotions, thoughts and feelings.
Doubtless …the mind is restless and hard to control; but by practice and detachment…it can be restrained
For the mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, and obstinate… to control it is as hard as to control the wind
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s Vivekenanda, one of the first illumined souls from India to visit the United States wrote:
How hard it is to control the mind. Well has it been compared to a maddened monkey!
In this article I will at times use the letters DTF for a distracting thought and feeling. And when I write about mind it includes both mind and feelings.
The first part of this article will be how to deal with the obstacles of mind distractions. The second part will explain how they are not just nuisances but actually make valuable contributions to the meditation experience.
Most of us will experience in meditation body sensations such as itching, coughing, sneezing, yawning, and a running nose. To one who is committed to meditation and does it regularly, this is no big deal.
Pain in the body can range from heavy duty pain to slight pain. If the pain is great, then common sense would be to put off the meditation to another time when the pain ceases or is sufficiently lessened. If the pain is tolerable, try to treat both the pain itself and the feelings about the pain the usual way described in this article.
Body experiences, for many, seem to be more frequent and pronounced during meditation rather than at other events. This is certainly true in my case. I am not sure why this is. I can speculate that they may occur when I am experiencing fear, boredom, or resistance in face of quietness. Another possibility is that I become more aware of bodily manifestations in silence, which effects I would not notice when preoccupied with usual every day concerns.
DON'T BATTLE DTF'S
Realize that, except for rare individuals, staying completely focused on an object of meditation without multiple mind distractions is impossible.
The secret is to give up the battle to eliminate mind interference. Never expect to willfully defeat them. When you recognize that they are diverting you from your object of meditation, without judgment and self-blame, return to the object.
Understand meditation as firstly focusing on an object of mediation, secondly recognizing one or more DTF’S, and lastly returning to the object. This repetitive cycle is the “practice” of meditation. Thus, the practice of meditation calls for adapting, tolerating, and coexisting with the distracted mind.
There is an ancient Yogic Indian observation:
Being free from thoughts does not mean stopping thoughts
And, an old Chinese proverb:
You may not be able to avoid birds flying above your head. But you can prevent them from building nests in your hair
TYPES OF DTF’S
Thought distractions are predominantly about thoughts as differentiated from those that are predominantly about feelings.
This hypothetical situation involves a thought. A stockbroker works in a large City and commutes to and from the suburbs. He usually drives to work, but occasionally, if the weather is bad, he travels by train. One morning when he arises he looks out the window and observes rainy weather. Thereafter, during his usual morning meditation, he has a distracting thought about whether or not he should take the car or the train. The affect as he experienced it was a simple thought, without any accompanying emotion.
Here are other thoughts some of which could further be labeled in your mind as trivial or humorous:
What will I have for dinner? Think I forgot to turn off the computer Wonder if ten minutes are up What am I doing here? Wonder what day it is. What did I have for breakfast?
Feeling distractions are predominantly about emotions. They are heart centered, energy or charged, and sometimes passionate. They can be positive or negative.
Positive feelings are pleasant and exciting. Examples are sense pleasures such as enjoyment of nature, food, and love. Other positive feeling DTF’S are the passion and joy of creative and inspired ideas.
Negative feelings can be disturbing and intense. Examples of negative effects are fear, guilt, envy, worry, jealousy, anger, and lust. The emergence of these feelings can be jarring. You thought that meditation would lead you to peace but in the quiet of meditation often comes disharmony, turbulence, and discord! Later I will explain how these emotions experiences can be of great value.
Certain mind distractions can be attributed to such bodily disturbances as pain, noise, and other sensations.
Noise as a disruption often poses a major obstacle to beginning students of meditation, because they are not familiar with the quietness of going inward. Noise can be fatal to aspiring beginners. Therefore, for beginners, it is particularly important to meditate in a quiet atmosphere. It has been said that experienced aspirants would not be distracted doing meditation sitting in a boiler room or sitting on the steps of the library in a big city..
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*Published in NECTAR, A Journal of Universal Religious and Philosophical Teachings Issue #27, 2012