Problems While Meditating
by Eric Van Horn
Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn
for free distribution
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Table of Contents
Everyone encounters problems and difficult patches in the course of meditating, so don’t let them get you upset. Don’t view them as signs that you’re making no progress or that you’re a hopeless meditator. Problems are an excellent opportunity for figuring out where you have unskillful habits and learning how to do something about them. This is what develops your discernment. In fact, the process of learning how to deal with the two most common problems in meditation, pain and wandering thoughts, is what has brought many people in the past to Awakening.
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, With Each & Every Breath]
The mind is a complex thing, and when you meditate a myriad of problems come up. I can’t cover every possible contingency, so I am going to address the most common issues. The most important principle to remember is that at this stage in your meditation practice, the goal is to cultivate concentration and tranquility. Any activity or meditation practice that aids that process is helpful. Anything else is not.
There will come a time when turning your attention towards a painful mind state will be the practice. Many teachers tell you to do it at this point, at an early stage of your practice. You can do that now, but it is an extremely challenging and painful way to proceed. What we are trying is to lay a groundwork of well-being so that those difficult mind states become more workable.
Breathing Through the Distraction
The most common problem is simply staying with the breath. There are two methods that I find work in most cases, and the first one is breathing through the problem. Thoughts arise and we keep falling off of the breath. If this is a problem – and it almost always is – put yourself in a frame of mind where you are keeping most of your attention on the breath and some of your attention on your thoughts (i.e., the 80-20 rule). Then when you see a thought begin to arise, breathe right through it.
Another category of problems is when there is a personal issue that is very strong. This may be a powerful emotion – like fear – or a problem like death, illness, divorce, a lost job. See if you can breath through those thoughts as well.
Apropos of difficult life issues, I have already mentioned the practice of metta, loving-kindness. Later we will discuss a more formal way to do this. For now, if you are in a difficult life situation, it is helpful to know that part of metta practice is to wish good will for all living beings. Somewhere in the world, at any time and in many places, there are people doing this practice. You are a living being, so someone is always wishing you true happiness. In some Buddhist countries they believe that metta is an energy, and it is directed toward those who suffer. This includes people who are not in the human realm. There are good-hearted people everywhere who want nothing more than for you to find peace and happiness.
Have a Little Conversation With Yourself
The meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein once commented on how much he likes to think, and what a problem that is for him. I don’t think he is alone in that. We give our thoughts such power and importance. And when you are doing sitting meditation it is a perfect opportunity to do just that. We aren’t doing anything else, so why not think?
Some thoughts are useful. Remember the rule: anything that helps improve concentration and tranquility is helpful. You have to use the thinking process to see what is going on in your mind and to make adjustments. The Buddha called this "directed thought and evaluation". You direct your thoughts to the process of maintaining concentration, and you evaluate what is going on so you stay on the breath.
However, chances are that most of your thoughts are not of this type. And sometimes you have a problem, and you talk yourself into thinking that it is OK to work on that while you are meditating. Our mind has all sorts of rationalizations to keep us from doing what we are supposed to be doing.
Sometimes you can have a little talk with yourself. Tell yourself that yes, this is an important topic, but for this period of time it has to be put on hold. This time is precious. You can think about that problem when you are done sitting.
One of the things that can happen when the mind gets quiet is that some problems solve themselves. This is because of how the mind solves problems. People who have studied this process say that it happens in two steps. The first step is a programming phase. That is when we gather information, and this is a conscious intellectual process. The second phase, however, happens in the subconscious. In that phase the intellectual part of the mind has to quiet down so the subconscious can do its work. This is why you can be struggling with a problem, and then you go for a walk or do housework, and minutes later the solution presents itself. You can even solve problems in your sleep.
Many people on retreat have had this happen. I have solved engineering problems that way. Figuring out how to handle family and work and life problems can happen in this way. So if you are trying to negotiate your way out of thinking about something, it might be helpful to remember that a quiet mind is pretty good at working things out.
We usually think of our minds as being one, monolithic thing. But inside our minds are many voices. It is like the cartoons where an angel is on one shoulder and the devil is on the other, and they are arguing. Unfortunately it is worse than just two voices. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says that our mind is like a committee, and not a well-functioning one. It is like the “Chicago city council”. That reference is little dated, but I think you get the idea. One of the things that we need to learn how to do is sort out the committee members, to make the wise ones more powerful, and stop listening to the foolish ones. We have to make the angel on our shoulder win the argument.
The Five Hindrances
The two methods I just described are not canonical. The Buddha never mentions them. However, he does – famously – list “five hindrances” to meditation:
There are five impediments and hindrances, overgrowths of the mind that stultify insight. What five?
Sensual desire is an impediment and hindrance, an overgrowth of the mind that stultifies insight. Ill-will... Sloth and torpor... Restlessness and remorse... Skeptical doubt are impediments and hindrances, overgrowths of the mind that stultify insight.
Without having overcome these five, it is impossible for a monk whose insight thus lacks strength and power, to know his own true good, the good of others, and the good of both; nor will he be capable of realizing that superhuman state of distinctive achievement, the knowledge and vision enabling the attainment of sanctity.
But if a monk has overcome these five impediments and hindrances, these overgrowths of the mind that stultify insight, then it is possible that, with his strong insight, he can know his own true good, the good of others, and the good of both; and he will be capable of realizing that superhuman state of distinctive achievement, the knowledge and vision enabling the attainment of sanctity. - [AN 5:51]
Suppose there were a bowl of water mixed with lac, turmeric, blue dye, or crimson dye. If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would not know and see it as it really is. So too, when one dwells with a mind obsessed and oppressed by sensual lust, and one does not understand as it really is the escape from arisen sensual lust, on that occasion one does not know and see as it really is one’s own good, the good of others, and the good of both. - [AN 5.193]
One of the fundamental teachings of the Buddha is that craving is at the root of our unhappiness. We get a thought or some sensation and suddenly we want food, sex, etc. We are overcome by a sense of wanting. We live lives that in ways subtle and not-so-subtle are dictated by our addictions. And to be clear, the Buddha’s way is not about denial, but it is about freedom, being free from our habits, conditions, and cravings.
It is useful to think about craving in terms of addiction. It is something over which we do not have control. We smell food and suddenly we are hungry. We see an attractive woman or man and we want to have sex with them. These are all compulsions. There is no free choice involved. And it gets us into all sorts of mischief. Imagine what it would be like to be free from all that.
In this case we are talking specifically about what happens on the cushion. We have several committee members who want nothing more than to fantasize.
One thing that happens to all forms of desire is that they fade away as our concentration improves. We are replacing sense desire with the "desire born of seclusion". "Seclusion" has two aspects to it. The first is physical seclusion. This is why monks and nuns go off to monasteries. It is easier to quiet the mind when there are fewer external distractions.
The second meaning of "seclusion" is "seclusion from sense desire". This is an internal phenomena. When the mind is quiet and concentrated, it is also secluded from sense desire. This can happen - if the person is skilled enough - in any external circumstance, even one with lots of distractions.
The desire born of seclusion is free from the mischief-making that is inherent in sense desire. No one ever committed a crime or started a war because they were too serene. There are no crimes of dispassion.
Sexual desire is, of course, the most powerful type of desire. The Buddha had a few tricks to help us with those. One is to put the aging process on fast forward:
"And what, bhikkhus, is the gratification in the case of material form? Suppose there were a girl of the noble class or the brahmin class or of householder stock, in her fifteenth or sixteenth year, neither too tall nor too short, neither too thin nor too fat, neither too dark nor too fair. Is her beauty and loveliness then at its height?”
“Yes, venerable sir.”
“Now the pleasure and joy that arise in dependence on that beauty and loveliness are the gratification in the case of material form.
"And what, bhikkhus, is the danger in the case of material form? Later on one might see that same woman here at eighty, ninety, or a hundred years, aged, as crooked as a roof bracket, doubled up, supported by a walking stick, tottering, frail, her youth gone, her teeth broken, grey-haired, scanty-haired, bald, wrinkled, with limbs all blotchy. What do you think, bhikkhus? Has her former beauty and loveliness vanished and the danger become evident?”
“Yes, venerable sir.”
“Bhikkhus, this is a danger in the case of material form". - [AN 13.18-19]
This is a lesson in how fleeting and unsatisfactory physical beauty is.
Another practice for overcoming sense desire is the "contemplation of the body parts":
…a bhikkhu reviews this same body up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the hair, bounded by skin, as full of many kinds of impurity thus: ‘In this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, contents of the stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.’ Just as though there were a bag with an opening at both ends full of many sorts of grain, such as hill rice, red rice, beans, peas, millet, and white rice, and a man with good eyes were to open it and review it thus: ‘This is hill rice, this is red rice, these are beans, these are peas, this is millet, this is white rice’; so too, a bhikkhu reviews this same body…as full of many kinds of impurity thus: ‘In this body there are head-hairs…and urine.’ - [MN 10.10]
Here we are invited to look into the deep nature of the body. We start with our own body, and then make this contemplation “externally”, meaning that the bodies of others are exactly the same. If you strip the skin off of that attractive person, they won't look very attractive.
If these practices seem a little extreme to you, do not worry about it. Play with them if and when you feel like it. We will be going into greater detail on the teachings on impermanence and stress at a later time.
Nonetheless, this gives you three tools to help with distraction due to sense pleasure: concentration, aging, and contemplation of body parts. Of these, concentration is certainly the most pleasant option.
Suppose there were a bowl of water being heated over a fire, bubbling and boiling. If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would not know and see it as it really is. So too, when one dwells with a mind obsessed and oppressed by ill will, and one does not understand as it really is the escape from arisen ill will, on that occasion one does not know and see as it really is one’s own good, the good of others, and the good of both. - [AN 5.193]
The hindrance of ill will covers a variety of similar feelings: fear, anxiety, anger, etc. The traditional antidote to ill will is metta, wishing good will for yourself and others.
If the problem is anxiety or fear, the method is to wish metta for yourself, as we discussed in Establishing a Mental Posture. One thing you might try, in addition, is to place the focus on the center of the chest when you do this. That is the heart chakra. It is the epicenter of loving-kindness. A second focal point to try is the base of the sternum, which is the center of self-confidence. This is more helpful if the problem is anxiety.
If the problem is anger or ill will toward someone else, the process is very similar. Start by feeling loving-kindness for someone you really love and care about. Get in touch with that feeling. Then transfer that feeling to the other person. Remember, everyone wants happiness. We were all babies once, and someone loved that baby, even if they are giving you problems now. This does not mean that you have to agree with them or like what they are doing. Metta is the love that a parent has for a child. It does not necessarily mean that you approve of what they are doing. But it does mean that you will love them no matter what.
Many years ago there was a book written by Norman Mailer called "The Executioner’s Song". It is about Gary Gilmore, who was the first person put to death following a long ban on capital punishment by the Supreme Court. Gilmore was a sociopath who murdered two people.
As you can imagine, he came from a pretty dysfunctional background. But his mother – who was fully aware of what he had done and what kind of person he was – still loved him. She pleaded for mercy to the court simply on the grounds that she loved him. She asked as a mother that they not kill her only child.
This is from the "Metta Sutta: the Discourse on Loving-kindness":
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings; - [SN 1.8]
If you find that you simply cannot feel metta toward this person, an alternative is compassion. People who do unwholesome things suffer more from those acts than anyone else. So you can try feeling compassion for how much suffering they are causing themselves through their unskillful behavior. It is their ignorance that causes them to make their lives – now and in the future – full of great unhappiness.
If compassion does not work, try to establish equanimity. Be even-keeled. Put the problem into a bigger space. Will this be a problem in 100 years? This is not to push the problem away or act like it doesn't exist. It is just to have some perspective. Even momentous historical events fade into the past.
A week before my 18th birthday my father died. I love my father and I still think about him. But life moves on if you let it. A friend of mine uses the phrase "living around" these events. You don't act like something never happened, but you don't indulge it, either. You develop a balanced view about it.
Sloth and Torpor
Suppose there were a bowl of water covered over with algae and water plants. If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would not know and see it as it really is. So too, when one dwells with a mind obsessed and oppressed by dullness and drowsiness, and one does not understand as it really is the escape from arisen dullness and drowsiness, on that occasion one does not know and see as it really is one’s own good, the good of others, and the good of both. - [AN 5.193]
So you are sitting on the cushion trying your very best to keep your attention on the breath, and… zzzzzzz… you are mind-bogglingly sluggish. You may even fall asleep.
(I heard a story once about a Zen master who was leading a sesshin - a Zen retreat. Everyone in the hall was diligently practicing, waiting for him to speak. Time went on and on and on and finally… all they could hear was the sound of him snoring.)
There is a legendary Buddhist from the 20th century named Dipa Ma. She was an extraordinary practitioner. She married at the age of 12. She had three children, two of whom died. Her husband, who she had come to love deeply, also died. She fell into deep despair. She was emotionally crippled. One day her doctor told her that if she did not do something to turn her life around, she would simply die.
She went to a monastery in her home country of Burma. But she was so affected emotionally that she could not even walk properly. She had to drag herself up the steps of the monastery to meditate. She later recounted that before she went to the monastery, she was unable to sleep, and once she started to meditate all she could do was sleep.
Sometimes the mind simply needs to shut down. It is a defense mechanism. While I am about to offer some antidotes to sloth and torpor, if you have suffered a trauma, be kind to yourself. Show yourself at least as much compassion as you would for your most beloved person.
The Buddha gives a great deal of advice on overcoming this hindrance. His most complete instructions are from the Anguttara Nikāya:
Once the Exalted One spoke to the Venerable Maha-Moggallana thus: "Are you drowsy, Moggallana? Are you drowsy, Moggallana?"
"Yes, venerable sir".
"Well then, Moggallana, at whatever thought torpor has befallen you, to that thought you should not give attention, you should not dwell on it frequently. Then it is possible that, by so doing, torpor will disappear.
"But if, by so doing, that torpor does not disappear, you should think and reflect within your mind about the Dhamma as you have heard and learned it, and you should mentally review it. Then it is possible that, by so doing, torpor will disappear.
"But if, by so doing, that torpor does not disappear, you should learn by heart the Dhamma in its fullness, as you have heard and learned it. Then it is possible...
"But if, by so doing, that torpor does not disappear, you should shake your ears, and rub your limbs with the palm of your hand. Then it is possible...
"But if, by so doing, that torpor does not disappear, you should get up from your seat, and after washing your eyes with water, you should look around in all directions and look upwards to the stars in the sky. Then it is possible...
"But if, by so doing, that torpor does not disappear, you should firmly establish the (inner) perception of light: as it is by day, so also by night; as it is by night, so also by day. Thus with a mind clear and unobstructed, you should develop a consciousness which is full of brightness. Then it is possible...
"But if, by so doing, that torpor does not disappear, you should, conscious of that which is before and behind, walk up and down, with your senses turned inwards, with your mind not going outwards. Then it is possible...
"But if, by so doing, that torpor does not disappear, you may lie down on your right side, taking up the lion's posture, covering foot with foot - mindful, clearly conscious, keeping in mind the thought of rising. Having awakened again, you should quickly rise, thinking: 'I won't indulge in the enjoyment of lying down and reclining, in the enjoyment of sleep!'
"Thus, Moggallana, you should train yourself!" - [AN 7:58]
Even in the 5th century BCE in India, splashing a little water on your face was a remedy for sleepiness. And notice that when all else fails, there is nothing like a little sleep.
Probably the most common cure – at least during a retreat – is walking meditation. We have not covered that yet, but some brisk walking can be very helpful.
Finally, although this is not canonical, a little 5 Hour Energy can help. 5 Hour Energy was developed in India by the Buddhist monk Manoj Bhargava to faciliate meditation. It was not developed as an energy drink, but something for “focus”, as he puts it. But the FDA would not let him market it as a "focus drink", because they do not have a category for something that helps you to concentrate.
Suppose there were a bowl of water stirred by the wind, rippling, swirling, churned into wavelets. If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would not know and see it as it really is. So too, when one dwells with a mind obsessed and oppressed by restlessness and worry, and one does not understand as it really is the escape from arisen restlessness and worry, on that occasion one does not know and see as it really is one’s own good, the good of others, and the good of both. - [AN 5.193]
The opposite of sloth and torpor is restlessness.
There you are, sitting on your cushion, there is a statue of the Buddha on the altar, and what you see is complete serenity, and that Mona Lisa half-smile on his face. This is what you want, right? You want a mind that is still and quiet and serene. And your mind and body simply won’t cooperate. You are shifting and restless and your mind is going 90 mph.
A number of the practices already discussed can be of help, most especially counting the breath and sweeping. Chanting – which we will discuss – can also be very helpful in quieting the mind. You can do walking meditation. This can help settle the body, which can then extend to the mind.
Restlessness will be with you for a long time. According to the Buddha, restlessness only goes away completely when you attain a full Awakening. Sometimes it is helpful to just see it and not turn it into a problem.
Suppose there were a bowl of water that is cloudy, turbid, and muddy, placed in the dark. If a man with good sight were to examine his own facial reflection in it, he would not know and see it as it really is. So too, when one dwells with a mind obsessed and oppressed by doubt, and one does not understand as it really is the escape from arisen doubt, on that occasion one does not know and see as it really is one’s own good, the good of others, and the good of both. - [AN 5.193]
This means doubt in the Buddha’s teaching, and in the path that you are following. You practice and practice and practice, and nothing is working. Doubt in this case can also mean doubt in yourself. You have faith in the path, but you are not sure that you will be able to follow it. (Hint: You can.)
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu once said that he once went back through all of his teacher Ajahn Lee’s Dharma talks, and 90% of them were about encouraging his students. This is a path that is going to have its ups and downs.
The antidote to doubt is faith. A lot of Westerners do not like to hear that word, faith. But there are many kinds of faith. The kind of faith to which people usually object is blind faith, believing in something that can never be proven. In the "Cankī Sutta: With Cankī" the Buddha takes a dim view of such faith:
There are five things, Bhāradvāja, that may turn out in two different ways here and now. What five? Faith, approval, oral tradition, reasoned cogitation, and reflective acceptance of a view. These five things may turn out in two different ways here and now. Now something may be fully accepted out of faith, yet it may be empty, hollow, and false; but something else may not be fully accepted out of faith, yet it may be factual, true, and unmistaken. Again, something may be fully approved of…well transmitted…well cogitated…well reflected upon, yet it may be empty, hollow, and false; but something else may not be well reflected upon, yet it may be factual, true, and unmistaken. [Under these conditions] it is not proper for a wise man who preserves truth to come to the definite conclusion: ‘Only this is true, anything else is wrong.’ - [MN 95]
(Note: "Oral tradition" is here because in India that is how everything was transmitted. It applies equally to "written tradition", which is what we have in the West. The point the Buddha is making here is that just because something is written down does not mean that it is true.)
However, we do a lot of things in life on faith. People go to college because they have faith that it will lead to a better life. Now, of course, there is a body of evidence that this is (sometimes? usually?) the case. But it is faith nonetheless.
In the Buddhist tradition there is a long tradition of respect for “faith followers”. According to the Buddha, there are two types of people who become awakened: Dharma followers and faith followers.
The disciple enters upon the first supramundane path either as a Dhamma-follower (dhammānusārin) or as a faith-follower (saddhānusārin); the former is one in whom wisdom is the dominant faculty, the latter one who progresses by the impetus of faith.
- [Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli; Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Introduction]
There has always been a great deal of respect for faith followers. They are people who have such faith in the Dharma that they Awaken simply because they believe so strongly that it will happen. Enlightenment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There is another kind of faith in Buddhism, and that is sometimes rendered as “confirmed confidence”. When you start a meditation practice you do not know if it is going to be of any value. But over time, with patience and persistence, you begin to see results. Thus your initial faith transforms into confirmed confidence. You have some evidence that the practice is working.
One thing that can be helpful in overcoming doubt is studying the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha's teachings hang together in a remarkably coherent way.
For help with self-doubt, it can be helpful to read the "Theragāthā" ("Verses of the Elder Monks") and "Therīgāthā" ("Verses of the Elder Nuns"). There are tales of the struggles that many of them had on the path. This can help you realize that you are not alone. Many of the monks and nuns had problems that are far greater than most people will ever experience. They also confirm that the result is worth it.
Another antidote that the Buddha recommends is the company of good friends. In fact, he says that this is one of the criteria for an Awakening. There is this often-quoted, heart-warming passage from the Saṃyutta Nikāya. It starts with a statement by the Buddha’s attendant Ānanda:
[Ānanda:] “Venerable sir, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”
[Buddha:] “Not so, Ānanda! Not so, Ānanda! This is the entire holy life, Ānanda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.” - [SN 45.2]
(I once had a teacher – a Ph.D - who claimed that what the Buddha means here is a metaphorical type of friendship – like a clear mind - not real human beings. However, in the Anguttara Nikāya there are many passages that make it clear that what the Buddha meant by “good friends” are flesh and blood human beings. Here is just one of them:)
Bhikkhus, possessing eight qualities, a bhikkhu is worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of reverential salutation, an unsurpassed field of merit for the world. What eight?
Here, a bhikkhu is virtuous…. Having undertaken the training rules, he trains in them.
He has learned much … and penetrated well by view.
He has good friends, good companions, good comrades…. - [AN 8.56]
Sometimes you can over-think things.
In this section we discussed two methods for helping to keep the mind on the breath, as well as the classic "five hindrances" to meditation:
- Breathing through the distraction.
- Having a conversation with yourself.
- The five hindrances
- Sense desire
- Ill will
- Sloth and torpor