As I write this, I am aware that I stand on the shoulders of giants. My meditation practice, and all of my understanding of meditation, is solely based on what I have learned from my direct day-to-day teachers, the countless books that I have read and the few, stand-out trainings that I have attended by masters like Thich Nhat Hanh and The Dalai Lama. I’d like to specifically honor Jeremy Morrelli for sharing with me his nuanced, profound knowledge of meditation and Buddhist thought, Dr. Peter Alan Roberts whose gigantic, Oxford-educated, encyclopedic brain has been an ongoing reference for corrections in my understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, and Dr. Lobsang Rapgay, whose psychological research work at UCLA inspired me to include this practice in my daily life and in my work. All that said, I have only a droplet of understanding on this subject, so this post might be some version of the blind leading the blind. Here’s hoping that we can all get there together, with one another’s help! So without further ado…
Despite the recent trendiness of mindfulness branded as self-help, meditation has been around for 5,000 years and it is not just the specialty domain of yoga instructors and Wise Men. It belongs to each of us and my goal is for meditation to unquestionably belong to you, as if you taught it to yourself. With a skill like language, we don’t walk around all the time saying ‘thank goodness for my first grade teacher, Mrs. Jones who taught me to read’ (although we should). Meditation is a fundamental human skill like reading and I hope that you will find a way to make meditation your own, so much so that like reading, you forget that you had to learn it.
When I was first learning to meditate, I think I was 16 years old, I sat there fidgeting in a dimly lit room, shifting around in my seat. I was told to sit still and focus on my breathing. I wondered, ‘should something so profound and life altering have such simple instructions?’ Funny, those same instructions are pretty much all that I have learned ever since, over and over. “Sit still, focus on your breathing and impartially begin to notice your thoughts and your experience.” It sounds easy enough, right? It is easy, until it isn’t. Non-judgmentally watching your experience is what becomes very difficult. As I mentioned in a previous post, the mind moves with discursive thought and the brain grasps at the spinning thoughts like a child pushing a merry go round. Smartly, some traditions add mantras to smooth things out and put the mind to work. This comes with its own set of problems (one possible outcome being an addiction to tuning out on the sedative of a mantra). Meditation is a way of being in the world you’re in; being in it as it is and not being out of it through an escape. Here we will continue to focus on mindfulness, which does not use a mantra.
INSTRUCTION: Mindfulness is a non-judgmental watchfulness of your mind and your experience. Sit down cross legged with eyes fixed, comfortably looking down the end of your nose at a point on the floor. Sit with your spine upright (as much as possible), steadily breathe in and out without force, and engage in watching your experience with an impartial state of mind. Do not make a plan to “not judge” or “not think.” Just sit there and use your observing mind. To set your intention, I like the meditation training metaphor of the sky:
Your mind is like the sky, perfect and stainless. Like the blue sky, unstained by the clouds, so is your mind, unstained by thoughts.
There are chapters and chapters of books and books with various explanations of how to meditate. I like Dr. Rapgay’s “Real Meditation in Minutes a Day” as it has a succinct, Western research-style, how to breakdown of meditative components. The instruction above is overly simplistic, but for now it will do the trick.
Now back to business: Obstacles. I stopped meditating after my first effort at age sixteen because obstacles are something that teenagers aren’t into. I later picked it up again in my mid twenties and since then, I have developed a love affair with the obstacles of meditation. Obstacles are a means to grow and deepen my life experience and meditation practice. Some obstacles will be readily visible (even by others) and then there will be those that are invisible. Paradoxically, I ask that you don’t make the mistake of getting roped into the trappings of overcoming obstacles and fantasies of ideal meditation. This is about being in the real world, right here and now. I’ll give you a personal example of the trappings of obstacles. This is regarding obstacle #1, sitting still. When I attend teachings on Buddhism, a group of us sit on the floor crossed legged and most of the teachings have some period of time for meditation. At the second teaching that I had ever attended, I was earnest and determined to sit very still and quiet. I looked stiff and nearly frozen. My effort was contrived and forced, but another student sitting next to me remarked on how still I was. She said that I was “very good at meditation.” I was thrilled with pride that I was already so good at meditation. Ha! Are you laughing? This is funny. Nearly ten years later, after I had attended retreats, sat in “meditation” for up to 8 hrs, been silent for days and knew all the “advanced” trappings of training, I was at a weekly group and one of my colleagues, a man with over twenty years of meditation experience, said to me, “Wow, you must be a very experienced practitioner. I sat behind you for two hours and you didn’t move.” I laughed and felt no pride this time. Had he seen me the day before, I would have been coughing and twitching the whole two hours. The difference between this time and that first training was that with many years of experience, had I been uncomfortable, I would have let myself cough and wiggle if necessary. I’m no longer willing to suck up my own suffering for a false appearance of what is meant to be an honest relationship with my real experience. I will try to sit still as far as observing my edge goes, but if the pain is too great, I give it a nod, and say ‘ok, you win this round.’ But my tolerance is a lot higher and my edge is a lot further out these days. I had to get to this point of softness and acceptance with a lot training– none of that training was really in meditation (though some of it arose from meditation), but rather in learning self-regulation and learning to observe and control my instinctive reactions.
As an aside, did you know that there are research studies on monks who do not flinch at the sound of a gun being shot off? How’s that for achieving self-regulation through optimal frontal cortex functioning and overcoming your base instincts?
So let’s start with this…
Obstacle 1. Sitting still (Physical Pain, Strange Physical Sensations, Legs Falling Asleep)
If you’re not used to sitting on the floor cross legged, there is going to be an adjustment period– it may get painful. What I didn’t know when I was forcing myself to sit so still, is that I was inadvertently training myself to put up with what I consider to be the premier obstacle. You have to put up with sitting still. For many reasons, this can be very hard. We are not really taught to sit still. People these days are very busy and when they might be physically still (like at this computer, for instance) we are busy with something else. I taught a meditation class to teenagers. Sitting still was their main difficulty (of course) because they are so full of life’s energy and they are just learning to gather self control with newly growing cortical regions. As adults, we don’t have the excuse of an underdeveloped frontal cortex, so what keeps us from comfortably sitting still? Aversion to pain, restlessness, numbness in ankles and legs, to name a few.
Unless you have a physical disability, or you are sitting for hours on end like some monks do, you will not harm yourself if your legs fall asleep. However, in full disclosure, I do know a monk who ended up getting nerve damage in his early monastic training because he was sitting for 8 hours per day, everyday, without any stretching. Don’t do that. Start with short sittings, say 15 minutes, and observe the tingling sensation rather than flee from it. If you have chronic back pain, consult with a yoga expert on how to correctly bolster your sitting position to support you and expand your flexibility. You can adapt to make your situation as comfortable as possible and then after that– sit still and recognize that you are now developing a relationship with your mind, encouraging your ability to self regulate and tolerate reality as it is. As soon as you know how to regulate your reactions to the pain, the pain will subside. There is a difference between pain and suffering; where pain is inevitable (we’ve all been there), suffering is not. Pain is the sensation in your body and suffering is your aversive reaction to it. When the pain is difficult, relax into it. When we relax our mind, we relax our body. This is not about masochism, but rather, re-empowering yourself to see that your quick reaction to pain reinforces the pain itself. As far as strange floating sensations and dizziness goes, if you aren’t about to faint from low blood sugar because you haven’t eaten in days, just ride out the sensations. You’re not going to float away.
Obstacle 2. Emotions (Fear, Agitation, Boredom, Anxiety)
Oh, you’re bored are you? Of course you are. Poor thing. You’re not being overstimulated by blinking lights, dinging sounds, rapid paced Tweets and flashing video edits. Nowadays in a big city like Los Angeles, I rarely see a person sitting or walking alone who isn’t looking at their smart phone. Our monkey minds are so desperate for stimulation. Sure, you’re bored, but this is the first time you’ve taken to sit down and be with yourself, so drink it up. Also, observe it. You’re going to try to “clear your mind of thoughts” (the dreamy ideal goal) but take this rare moment to understand why you’re so bored. A gifted colleague of mine has a useful theory that loneliness masquerades as boredom. You’re sitting still, alone in a quiet room… are you lonely? Boredom is the ultimate illusion of a person who’s lost the freshness of the present moment. Mindfulness sees everything as if it’s brand new, so look again. Are you bored? Are you afraid? Fear comes up in meditation for people who are panicked by their own thinking process and their disconnected relationship with themselves. Sitting still and observing the chaos of your own mind is darned scary; you’re going to see the truth of who you are, the things you’re attached to and finally, the illusions of your fears. If you’ve created a painful life for yourself, getting mindful about it is going to take some gumption, but jump in– eventually you’ll be set free. Overcoming this obstacle liberates you from all suffering. Observe your emotional life compassionately. Sitting through the icky fear, agitation, restlessness, and boredom is the pinnacle of your spiritual life’s work.
Obstacle 3. Fatigue (Drowsiness, Dullness, Difficulty with Concentration)
If you’re tired because you haven’t slept for days, then go take a nap. Otherwise, if you frequently feel a mental dullness, stupor or drifting feeling during meditation, this is likely a defense against letting yourself mindfully, actively engage with Obstacle #2, emotions. This flat feeling or sleepiness can be the result of something intolerable in your internal experience… an avoidance of physical pain, painful memory or painful emotion. Honor that something may be too difficult to be with, then gently allow yourself to search for the source of your avoidance. However, if your stuporific feeling is enjoyable, oddly pleasant and zoned out, then you’re losing your mindfulness and direct relationship with being. Instead, you’re taking a ride on the healthy version of getting stoned on escapism. What Erich Fromm calls “getting high on expanded consciousness.” This is not expanded consciousness at all, this is a divorce from the body, in psychology what might be called a dissociative experience. Take a deep breath, watch, and re-engage with the present moment. Observe without language and engage your “baby mind.”
Our greatest gift is to be with life on life’s terms and trust ourselves to wade into it.
Obstacle 4. Defeat (Resistance, Giving up, Discouragement, Overdoing it, Trying too hard)
Don’t indulge. Go sit down on your pillow. Let it drop.