One of the topics we explored early on in the recent meditation retreat I attended was obstacles to meditation. These are handy to know because they can normalize our meditation experience. It can be pretty easy to get disheartened by how active our minds are or how little progress we seem to be making against some ill-defined yard stick of what we think meditation ought to be.
Knowing the obstacles means we can plan for them, notice them and develop insight into our habits. We can also apply the antidotes to the obstacles when they arise to help us come back to our meditation intentions.
5 different obstacles were highlighted by my meditation teacher, Mal Huxter. Our first task is to notice the obstacles when they arise, and often simply noting or naming the obstacle is a good way to then redirect our mind back to our meditation focus. However for each obstacle there are some specific practices we can choose to strengthen our meditation experience over time.
Obstacle one: Clinging, obsessive desire.
This is the mind activity where we get fixated on wanting something, eg we might be sitting in meditation but thinking about what we want for dinner, or a movie we want to see, or some other pleasurable activity we wish we were doing. Clinging is when we seek gratification from things, people etc outside ourselves. In meditation it can draw us away from our intention to focus the mind. Antidotes to this obstacle are contemplating the impermanence of all things, cultivating the attitudes of gratitude for what we already have.
Obstacle two: Aversion, or avoiding.
Essentially the opposite of the first obstacle, this is where the mind finds particular things distasteful and wants to avoid them. In meditation it might show up as boredom as we reject what is showing up in the present moment. We might then find it difficult to stay with our mediation intention because we don’t perceive enjoyment in the practice.
The ways to deal with this are to cultivate loving kindness, initially for ourselves. Staying curious and open is also a way of responding to this obstacle.
Obstacle three: Lethargy or mental dullness.
This is less about being genuinely tired and more about struggling to put the effort in to the practice. Meditation can be mentally exhausting, and a strong intention needs to be developed to persevere with the practice. We can find ourselves falling asleep, even when we are not actually tired.
Ways to overcome this include forming a strong intention to stay awake, sitting up rather than lying down, building up time gradually and slowly and forming an intention to be diligent with the practice of meditation. It can also be useful to experiment with having your eyes open, or use movement either walking or yoga as your meditative focus. Sometimes this obstacle comes from an energetic imbalance, and using pranayam or some yoga asana prior to meditation can also be of benefit.
Obstacle four: Restlessness and worry.
This obstacle shows up as a busy mind, jumping from thought to thought. We are often future focused, our minds replay scenarios and conversations in our head while meditating, or we start planning future events. These thoughts can easily trap us into the stories of the mind while meditating and take us away from focusing on the present moment.
Using naming and developing mindfulness of thought is useful to overcome this obstacle. For example, a past argument could be labelled as “the argument” or a “worry” or “that story again”. This stops us from following the train of thought and becoming distracted or drawn in to them.
Obstacle five: Paralyzing doubt.
These are the kind of thoughts that tell us we are not doing something well enough or make us question our technique, or the teacher, or the space we are in......These type of thoughts often end up in mental paralysis, we might go over the same thing again and again in a loop. It might even stop you from starting a mediation session.
To deal with this it is useful to be aware that developing mindfulness, which is an awareness of how the mind behaves, will help cultivate clarity and wisdom and can inform your choices about your life. Making this your intention to your practice can help focus the mind when doubt arises while meditating. Noting and naming doubt is also a useful strategy, as can joining in a class environment to gain encouragement and support for your practice from other students.
Sometimes in a meditation practice, all 5 obstacles will show up for me, or sometimes there will be one that I seem to get stuck on. As Mal says, the only bad meditation is the one we didn’t do. Just starting to be aware of what comes up for you as you meditate is a powerful way of developing mindfulness of thought.