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Obstacles to Meditation are Many, but so are the Solutions.
Note: This article is on the long side, but it offers actionable advice on how to overcome obstacles and rekindle your enthusiasm for meditation. You can download a full PFD version of the guide for ease of reference.
For some of us, the decision to take up a meditation practice comes with a great sense of anticipation. We’ve heard of the peace, bliss, and clarity that meditation is supposed to deliver, and we wonder if we’ll be lucky enough to experience them. Unfortunately, for many of us the practice never takes off, mostly because we decide after a few false starts that it’s impossible to quiet our restless mind. Those of us who persist inevitably see some fruits from our labor. As our mind begins to slow down, we catch the first glimpses of the blissful expanse of pure Awareness that lies just behind our thoughts.
When we first touch upon that bliss, the joy it brings is almost unimaginable since it’s so different from anything else we’ve ever experienced. It’s a higher and more refined level of happiness, one that doesn’t depend on external objects but is instead fully self-contained. For the first time, we realize that we don’t need anything outside of us to make us feel whole and perfect.
Our practice during this honeymoon period can feel effortless, and the thought of not meditating seems ludicrous. But inevitably there comes a time, whether it’s months or years down the road, where it feels as if our natural ability to meditate has all but disappeared. Instead of sinking into deep states of awareness, we find ourselves dragged around by a rushing torrent of thoughts and feelings, as if we had never meditated before. The peace, bliss, and concentration of mind that were so easy to come by are nowhere to be found. In short, we feel we’ve hit a brick wall.
At this point, when we reach out for help, we are usually told that such “dry spells” are common, and that they will disappear on their own as quickly as they arrived. While this advice is almost always true, for a small number of us the joy of meditation never returns (at least not fast enough); and what was once a rich practice turns into a chore, until it is finally abandoned.
If either of these situations apply to us (giving up too quickly or losing our ability to quiet our mind), there is no need to despair. Instead of turning our back on meditation, we should look at these phases as opportunities to refine our practice, whether through small or major adjustments.
The purpose of this guide is to provide a few pointers and suggestions that will help us identify and eliminate the most common obstacles hindering our meditation. Since the ability to meditate is innate to the mind, there is no doubt that we can find our way back to the heart of our practice.
To keep things simple, I’ve divided our obstacles into two classes: external and internal. Chapter 1 deals with common external obstacles such as time of day, location, posture, breathing, illness, and life circumstances. Chapter 2 deals with the internal obstacles (that is, obstacles that emanate directly from the mind) including motivation, expectations, understanding, and methods. Before we dive into our discussion, let’s first define what meditation is.
We can begin by asking ourselves how our meditation is progressing. Answering this question is more challenging than it sounds, since meditation is an entirely subjective experience. While we may believe that we are reaching deep states of meditation, our meditation (by another person’s measure) may not have even begun. So how do we know if we are meditating well?
As I’ve written elsewhere, we can define meditation as our attempt to make our mind rest in its own innate awareness. To do this, we might take the support of our breath, a mantra, or, at a more advanced level, we might focus directly on our innate sense of being, our I-feeling.
When we first sit down to meditate, we’ll notice our mind roiling like a cauldron of boiling water. Instead of deciding that our effort to meditate is hopeless, we need to understand that a restless mind is perfectly natural. In fact, it might feel as if our mind is more restless than ever, which happens when we pay attention to it for the first time. After practicing meditation for some time, we should begin to experience our thoughts slowing down, along with a rising sense of peace and contentment.
If, however, we haven’t sensed any stillness of mind after several months of sitting, it might just mean that we are doing something wrong. Some teachers discourage placing value judgments on our meditation, since meditation is about letting go of all expectations, including the idea that we are doing something called meditation. If we sit with the idea that we need to experience this or that to call our meditation “successful,” we have created our first block. While this teaching is absolutely correct, we need to distinguish between skillful means of practice and the teacher’s ability to gauge his or her student’s progress. For example, Buddhist meditation teachers routinely assess their students through personal interviews, so it is neither wrong nor impossible to determine the quality of one’s meditation. Accordingly, while striving to empty our mind of all expectations is vital, it is equally important to learn to how to apply a number of specific techniques. (In fact, shunning expectations is itself a technique). Otherwise, meditation becomes whatever we imagine it to be. Instead, we need to develop a solid conceptual and practical foundation that is very specific in terms of its methods. If we don’t, we probably won’t be able to recognize (much less remove) any number of obstacles that arise from time to time.
The depth of our meditation will vary greatly depending on our understanding of its potential and its goal. If we are what I like to call secular meditators, then our interest will be limited to learning how to quiet our mind in order to experience peace, relaxation, and general well-being. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, it goes without saying that meditation can be so much more. Those of us who are spiritual seekers view meditation as a practice that enables us to attain the highest purpose of a human life: the direct experience of our true nature as undivided Consciousness.
The first obstacles we’ll examine are pretty self-evident, but they are worth mentioning because it would be difficult to achieve any degree of meditation if we haven’t taken care of them.
Time of Day
Outside of formal retreats, where participants meditate multiple times a day, the best time to meditate is either at dawn or at dusk. Twilight marks the transition point between day and night, and entry into deeper states of awareness happens when we penetrate into the juncture between any two things or states, such as our inhalation and exhalation, or the point between waking and sleeping. Meditating during the transition between night and day facilitates this effort.
Getting up early, usually between four and six in the morning, takes advantage of our natural brain cycles. In the early mornings, our thought patterns are calm, and the external environment is usually quieter. That said, we can also meditate well from six to seven or seven to eight as long as we have a quiet place to practice. If we are having trouble getting up early to meditate, the most obvious factor relates to motivation, which we’ll examine in chapter 2. For now, all we need to remember is that meditating at dawn or at dusk is most supportive of our practice. The closer we get to noon, the harder it is to still our mind.
It’s also beneficial to take a shower before we meditate, since a shower does away with sleepiness. If we can’t shower, we should at least wash our face and pat the crown of our head with a little water. Drinking a few sips of water is also helpful.
In terms of duration, we should try to meditate for at least thirty minutes, since it takes time for our mind to quiet down. A full hour of meditation is ideal. In fact, it is not uncommon to observe the mind spinning for forty or fifty minutes, only to see it calm down during the last few minutes of our session. A common reason for believing we cannot meditate is simply because we stop our meditation too soon. If we are only sitting for twenty-five minutes, we might not be giving our mind the time it needs to settle down. When we finish our session, it’s important to come out of it slowly, without rushing. How we exit meditation affects how we enter it the next time.
Where we meditate is equally important. Ideally, we should have a separate room or corner of a room that is reserved only for our practice. We should be alone when we meditate, with no phones or other things to distract us. While it’s preferable to sit in the dark or in low light, daylight is not really an impediment. What matters is that we have a quiet space where we can retreat from the world for an hour. More than total seclusion, what matters is to be undisturbed. If, for example, we live in a small apartment with other family members, we can meditate in a corner of an empty room (even the living room) before anyone else wakes up.
Where and how we sit to practice is especially important, so much so that it can mean the difference between success and failure. The first thing to keep in mind is that it is not advisable to sit directly on wood or stone (or grass or earth if we are outside). We should sit on a carpet or meditation mat in order to shield our meditative energy from dissipating into the floor.
It is equally important to use a meditation cushion to slightly elevate our hips. We need to create an incline so that our knees rest slightly lower than our hips. Otherwise, when we cross our legs, our knees will point up into the air, which is what appears in 99 percent of the pictures on Google when you type in the word “meditation.” This posture is guaranteed to sabotage our meditation efforts, since keeping our knees up in the air places undue strain on our lower back. Instead, our hips should be elevated enough that they allow our knees to rest on the carpet. If after using a cushion we still find our knees pointing up, we should do daily stretching exercises to increase our flexibility. Once we’ve stretched our flexor muscles, we’ll be able to sit with our legs crossed in easy posture or, preferably, in half-lotus, with one foot resting over the opposite thigh. If we are experienced Hatha yogins, we can sit in full lotus.
Our choice of cushion is extremely important. It should not be too high or too low. If it’s too high, we might feel as though we are about to tip over. If it’s too low, we won’t achieve the necessary incline. Since each body is different, we need to experiment with different cushions to find the one that is just right. The cushion should not be so large that it catches a lot of our thighs, i.e., our buttocks should cover most of the cushion’s area, leaving perhaps an extra inch and a half all around. A cushion filled with buckwheat hulls is highly recommended since it molds perfectly to our body.
Once we have selected a cushion and established the right incline, holding a stable posture becomes very easy. All that is required is to sit comfortably with a naturally elongated spine. Our neck and jaw should feel relaxed. While our back might change positions during meditation, it is vital to begin each session with a straight and relaxed back.
Those of us who are unable to sit on the floor can always meditate sitting on a chair. We should slide forward a bit, to encourage our back to remain nice and straight and to ensure that our feet rest firmly on the ground.
How we breathe during meditation is more complicated than perfecting our sitting posture, since breathing techniques vary greatly between traditions. Zen meditation, for example, places enormous emphasis on breathing and teaches very specific methods. Other traditions, such as Advaita Vedanta, hardly care about breathing. For this reason, it would be imprudent to make sweeping statements about the exact or right method of breathing. Generally, all traditions agree that at minimum we need to open up our lungs, and we can do this simply by taking a few slow and deep breaths at the start of our session, making sure to bring air into the lowest part of our lungs. After fully oxygenating our lungs, we should go back to breathing at our natural pace, always through our nose. Then we can turn our attention to the meditation techniques we have learned.
All of the obstacles mentioned above are relatively easy to manage because they are mostly within our control. The next set of obstacles pose a greater challenge, since sometimes there is little we can do to prevent them.
As we can imagine, it’s going to be difficult if not impossible to sustain a meditation practice when our body is ill. Physical pain or disease can prevent us from turning our attention within. General weakness and fatigue will also stop us in our tracks. For this reason, even yogic traditions that advocate transcending the body make it clear that enlightenment is only possible to attain through the vehicle of a healthy body. This is why exercise and proper diet are stressed across all meditative traditions. If improving our health is within our grasp, then it should be our first priority. On the other hand, if we happen to be in a situation where all we can do is manage or cope with our illness, then we need to tap into our willpower to the best of our abilities. In such situations, all we can do is try, even if it means meditating while lying flat on our bed. If we are very sick, we should try to feel love and compassion for ourself, along with a sense of natural surrender. As much as possible, we should try to let our mind rest in its own divine nature, which means that we remember that our mind along with everything else rises from Consciousness and returns to Consciousness, like a wave in the ocean.
Problems with external circumstances, whether they pertain to work, relationships, or other matters can be equally challenging. If, for example, we happen to be in a tough job that demands long hours and is very stressful, or if we are working for an abusive employer, the toll on our body and mind can hamper our meditation efforts. The same applies when we are navigating a difficult relationship. This is an important but often underappreciated point because many people turn to meditation to help cope with these very types of problems, never realizing that our ability to meditate is itself influenced by what’s happening in our lives. To be clear, I’m not suggesting for a moment that we not meditate when we are facing difficult circumstances. On the contrary, meditation is essential.
If our life is full of dark clouds, what should we do? While there is no point resisting our situation, we should at the same time do everything in our power to improve our external circumstances. Since this sounds like a contradiction, let’s examine the issue more closely.
If we are suffering, there is no doubt that meditation can help us in a number of important ways. Stilling our mind by even a small degree can fill us with peace, which gives us more strength and energy to face our problems. Meditation also makes us better at letting go and living in the moment, since during meditation our mind is intensely absorbed in the present. When our mind is paying attention to the present, instead of being preoccupied with the past or future, it makes it easier to accept things as they are, especially bad things. Why would we want to accept bad things? We accept them not to pretend they are good, but to reduce our amount of resistance, which is the root cause of suffering. In other words, resisting a negative situation only causes us more pain, without accomplishing anything. Instead, we should direct our energy into improving things while doing our best to accept what is unfolding.
Unfortunately, we will only be able to truly accept things as they are if we are able to see everything as part of the same whole, i.e., as a manifestation of an undivided Consciousness. Equally valid is to shift our identity to the witnessing consciousness behind our body and mind, which means that we stop identifying with anything outside of our own sense of being. Needless to say, these are not intellectual positions we can choose to adopt but spiritual realizations. Since most of us are at the beginning stages of practice, our efforts to “accept things as they are” are not going to be very effective. Efforts such as positive thinking, affirmations, and even meditation might help us cope, but they won’t really remove our deep resistance to whatever is bothering us. For this reason, as long as we are resisting, the best thing we can do is to try to improve our situation as quickly as possible. Otherwise, mimicking a spiritual realization that we haven’t attained can actually make matters worse.
Making a blunt effort to accept things as they are can cause beginners to fall into a state of hopeless resignation, which only increases stress. We misread the “do not resist” teaching as an instruction to force ourselves to accept whatever is going on, however dreadful. In fact, surrendering to the moment is not a call to passivity. It means making an effort to recognize any situation as an expression of Consciousness. However, there is nothing in the teaching to suggest that we should not do whatever we can to improve our situation. Taking action to fix something while at the same time not putting up any mental resistance (to the extent of our capacity) are not diametrically opposed. The impulse to fix something is equally an expression of Consciousness as much as the bad thing itself, although we need to be careful to avoid falling into a relativistic frame of mind, which is governed by the ego.
When the going gets tough, meditation is there to help us cope, but in the early stages it is not going to be a silver bullet for all of our problems. At the very least, meditation offers a positive and beneficial escape from our situation, at least during our session. In this sense, taking up a meditation practice can be a lifesaving decision, although we also need to address the fact that trying circumstances can interfere with our ability to meditate. Until we become advanced meditators, prolonged exposure to stressful circumstances will lessen our ability to quiet our minds; so it’s important for us to deal with them as quickly as possible. The Buddhists are well aware of this, which is why they name “restlessness-worry” as one of the five principal hindrances to meditation.
So far, the obstacles discussed pertain to the world, our body, or our breath, meaning that they are external to the mind. Next we’ll examine challenges that emanate directly from the mind.
Before we begin, we should mention the nine obstacles presented in Patañjali’s classic text on meditation, the Yoga Sūtra. They are: illness, dullness, indecision, negligence, laziness, craving, erroneous thinking, failure to attain, and instability of attainment.
Except for illness, the other eight obstacles all pertain to the mind. While we won’t stick to Patañjali’s exact order, our discussion below captures all of these concerns.
Wavering motivation is a problem all meditators are bound to face. For some of us, weak motivation is present from the beginning. Others take up a meditation practice with great passion, only to see their inner fire fade away. If we look closely, we’ll discover that most of our problems with motivation can be traced back to wrong understanding, which is why a solid intellectual foundation is so important. Still, even advanced meditators with years of practice under their belts can be swept away by tides of diminished motivation.
Our degree of motivation is informed by what we expect meditation to accomplish. If we consider meditation nothing but a simple relaxation tool, then our motivation tends to be more fickle. When life is good, we might not feel the urge to meditate; but as soon as we feel stressed, we take shelter in our practice. Secular meditators sometimes also do the opposite: they drop their meditation the moment they are faced with a big crisis.
Why would a person abandon a good relaxation technique when they are highly stressed? The answer is that a crisis can force our mind to become so agitated and externalized that we feel that sitting down to quiet our mind is a betrayal of our responsibility to manage our situation. Although this reaction is quite natural, it’s misplaced. During a serious crisis, the best thing we can do is to meditate, since quieting our mind helps us think clearly and allows us to gather more energy to manage our problems.
Positive activities work in the same way. For example, when we are caught up in the excitement of planning a wedding, or preparing for a big trip, our involvement in our external world is so real and energizing that we might resist the impulse to sit down and unplug for a while.
The tendency to waver is common as long as we separate meditation from the rest of our world. To overcome this issue, we need to understand that all the joys and sorrows of the world emanate from the same Consciousness we are trying to experience when we sit and close our eyes. If we practice seeing the world as a manifestation of Consciousness, we’ll gradually overcome the disconnect between “inner” and “outer.”
To be clear, I am not suggesting that every person is going to resist or abandon their meditation practice. It happens more often with people who haven’t experienced any significant change in their consciousness even after practicing for several months. On the other hand, the practice can become quite addictive to those who have tasted the peace and bliss of deep meditation, regardless of what is happening in the outside world.
Whether we are secular or spiritual meditators, as long as we’ve experienced the joy of a quieting mind, we’ll find it easier to stay motivated. In this way, deep meditation encourages more meditation through positive reinforcement. Still, even the most ardent meditator will be tested since so-called dry spells (which we can define as long periods of time where it feels as though nothing is happening or, worse, we have lost our ability to meditate) are not only inevitable, they mark an important phase in our practice.
Those of us who meditate with the goal of attaining spiritual enlightenment tend to have an easier time maintaining our resolve. This is because we are not meditating to experience an immediate effect, such as mental relaxation, but are meditating in the service of a higher and long-term goal. Whatever our aim, strong motivation leads to strong continuity of practice. The latter is very important because the depth of our meditation is something that increases when we meditate and decreases when we stop. When we hit pause on our practice, our mind quickly reverts to its old habits and restless tendencies. In this way, meditation is like a mirror that we need to keep dusting if we want it to stay spotless. As long as we stay motivated, continuity of practice follows naturally.
Since even the most blissful and peaceful states are bound to come and go, those of us who bring expectations to our practice will also suffer with diminished motivation if we fail to understand the natural cycles that are part of the journey. But we’ll come to that later.
Expectations are a meditator’s worst enemy, because they reinforce the very individual consciousness we are trying to transcend. A meditation experience can only happen to a particular person, so thirsting after experiences reinforces our sense of being a separate person. We need to remember that when we meditate, we do so in order to merge our limited awareness into the ocean of undivided Consciousness. This doesn’t mean that we won’t have mystical experiences or that we should look down on them, as some traditions do. On the contrary, passing through a rich landscape of spiritual experiences (visions, movements of energy in the body, sensations, and other phenomena) marks an important phase of practice. Spiritual experiences can be deeply revelatory, which means they should be acknowledged and properly understood, but never grasped at, lest we turn them into obstacles in their own right.
Expectations of any kind—whether for stillness, peace, bliss, or mystical experiences—only lead to frustration and distraction, which precipitates the end of our practice. To avoid falling into the trap of expectations, we need to cultivate a sense of letting go and surrender to whatever happens the moment we sit on our cushion. The urge to throw up our arms and exclaim, “It’s just not working,” or “Nothing is happening,” should, in theory, only happen to neophyte meditators who haven’t learned how to let go. The more we are able to let go and empty our mind of all expectations, the deeper our meditation will be.
Right understanding is the opposite of limited or wrong understanding, and it is the single most important factor in allowing us to maintain a lifelong meditation practice.
To begin, we need to understand that all efforts to meditate are beneficial. Just sitting on our cushion each morning demonstrates a desire to connect to our deeper Self, whether we know it or not. The desire for inner peace is always an impulse toward inner Consciousness. Each time we meditate, we benefit even if we spend thirty minutes facing an agitated mind, because becoming aware of our mind is a necessary first step in learning how to calm it. Knowing that our efforts to meditate are never a waste is one aspect of right understanding.
The above does not contradict my comments in the introduction, where I stated that it’s not only possible but helpful to distinguish between surface and deep meditation. Here I am only pointing out that any effort to meditate is beneficial, regardless of perceived results, and this knowledge by itself can add fuel to our motivation, at least for a period of time.
A proper grasp of the natural cycles and phases that unfold during meditation is another key aspect in establishing right understanding. When we first start to meditate, our mind will roil like a cauldron of boiling water, but after some time we’ll notice our thoughts thinning out, accompanied with the rise of peace and bliss. This is a wonderful phase where we feel highly motivated and quite pleased with ourselves. We might even pat ourselves on the back because we’ve become such advanced meditators. Mystical experiences of different sorts may begin to unfold, and we may believe that we are becoming a guru or that we’ll become enlightened by the end of the year. (Spiritual pride is an insidious and dangerous obstacle that must be carefully avoided.) Alas, a few weeks or months later our newfound confidence comes crashing down when we realize, to our dismay, that our mind has gone back to being a boiling pot of water.
So why does this happen? It’s not that Consciousness is trying to play a cruel joke, it’s that our mind is designed to go through cycles of progress and plateau. In fact, so-called plateaus are not a pause in our progress. They are a step forward, albeit one happening beneath our conscious mind.
When the mind appears to plateau or revert to its ordinary state, what is usually going on is that it is taking time to build additional strength. Another set of deep mental impressions called samskāras are being brought up and expunged from our system, and during this process our mind might appear more restless than ever. We may even experience a whole range of intense phenomena during these cycles, some affecting the mind and some affecting the body. When the mind is slowing down, it might appear to accelerate, in the same way that a spinning top seems to move faster when it wobbles, when in reality it is slowing down.
Once we understand this, we can relax and stop judging our meditation. We no longer have to worry whether our mind is cooperating or not. In fact, it frees us to ignore how busy or quiet our mind appears to be. It allows us to turn our attention to the right target of focus, which is usually our breath, a mantra, or our I-feeling. Put differently, the knowledge that we pass through cycles and phases makes it easier to let go of expectations and helps us develop patience. We come to appreciate that meditation does not follow a strict linear progression but is more cyclical in nature (although there still is a line of progress). We begin to appreciate that our meditation is unfolding exactly as it should.
Here I would like to take a moment to comment on the opposite face of spiritual pride, which is to believe that enlightenment is eons away; something that us mortals only have a dim hope of attaining. This attitude is as harmful as spiritual pride, because if we don’t actually believe, or better, understand that Self-awareness is our natural state, then we have sabotaged our efforts before they’ve even begun. Enlightenment is an inner state that is absolutely real and achievable, and there are plenty of examples of modern enlightened beings. Self-realization is not something that belonged exclusively to the Buddha, or to mythical figures, as so many people seem to believe. As we embark on our meditation practice, we need to couple genuine humility with the conviction that elevated states of Self-awareness are possible to attain.
Cultivating patience is the next aspect of right understanding. When we meditate, we need to appreciate that we are not the ones who make anything happen. Yes, we have a role to play in applying proper methods, but ultimately what transpires in any given session is beyond our control. Our only job is to practice our meditation technique to the best of our ability, taking comfort in the fact that the power of pure Consciousness is responsible for delivering the results. If we are atheists and don’t accept concepts such as pure Consciousness, then we can take comfort in knowing that a solid technique is bound to yield results, especially if we are applying one that’s been tested and practiced for thousands of years. The point is that by adopting an attitude that says, “results flow naturally,” we can attenuate any performance pressure or anxiety. This makes it easier to develop patience and eliminate expectations. When we realize that we are not in control, we develop spiritual humility, which moves us even closer to pure Consciousness.
Like humility, the sincere experience of gratitude is another sign that our understanding is on the right track. Authentic gratitude manifests when the other qualities of letting go, absence of expectations, patience, and right technique are all in alignment. Sincere gratitude is one of the most important feelings we can gift ourselves, because it floods the mind with peace and bliss at lightning speed. Even secular meditators who are not working with devotional feelings toward their higher Self can reap enormous benefits by cultivating gratitude. Nothing releases us from pain and suffering as quickly as gratitude, which naturally includes compassion and forgiveness within its fold. To know that the opportunity to meditate is a great blessing is a significant attainment.
Sometimes, however, despite years of cultivating right understanding on many levels, we might find ourselves struggling with motivation for no particular reason. This happens because our intellect is not the only governing factor. There are other forces at play, known as the gunas, or qualities of nature. The gunas are divided into sattva, rajas, and tamas, or harmony and light, activity and passion, and dullness and inertia, respectively. These qualities of nature affect our mind, so that sometimes our commitment and enthusiasm feel effortless (when sattva guna predominates), while at other times we feel we have to make great efforts just to keep up our practice. The gunas rotate constantly, which is another reason to remain calm when we feel we are in a rut.
If, for whatever reason, even the above understanding fails to sustain our motivation, then we’ll need to invoke a strong act of the will to commit to practice under any circumstance, especially during the first few months, just as we did when we were learning to swim or to drive. All it takes is a firm resolve. In general, the power of our will is stronger than the power of the gunas, so we should use it to our benefit.
Even if we sit on top of a mountain of right understanding, the reality is that most of us will only make meditation a lifelong habit if we are able to detect tangible benefits. Otherwise, sacrificing sleep to drag ourselves out of bed in the early hours of the morning is only going to last for so long, despite our best intentions. At some point, we need to experience a touch of that fabled meditative bliss and peace. So how do we get there?
I’ve titled this section “Appropriate Methods” instead of “Ineffective or Incorrect Methods” because different people need different techniques. What is right for one person might be entirely wrong for another. To a large part, our approach to meditation is informed by our philosophical position (secular or spiritual) and by our level of understanding. By that I mean that a spiritual seeker with a very refined level of philosophical understanding will be able to meditate at a deeper level than a meditator whose primary goal is to calm his or her mind, even if both are using the same technique. For example, if we learn to meditate with a mantra, our effectiveness in harnessing the mantra depends greatly on some very subtle levels of understanding, which translates into the application of subtle skills. This does not mean our mantra won’t prove useful if we have limited training or background, only that it will function at a lower level. The same holds true even when we are meditating with something as common as the breath, since the breath is much more powerful and subtle than most people realize. For this reason, learning to meditate from an experienced teacher that belongs to a proven tradition is highly advisable.
Unlike secular meditators, spiritual meditators support their meditation away from their cushion through a number of practices they observe in their daily lives. They adhere to moral and ethical precepts, control their diet, check their desires and senses, control negative emotions such as anger and greed, avoid bad company, avoid fault-finding, and so forth. They study wisdom texts, chant sacred scriptures, and perform selfless service, among other things. For some, spiritual life is all encompassing, as in the case of those who become monks and nuns. But the strictures imposed on them are not done to torture them.
If we go to the root of many religious practices, at least Eastern religious practices, we’ll discover that rules exist because they directly support meditation. Celibacy, for example, is an absolutely essential support for the deeper stages of meditation. Now before we roll our eyes and decide to forget about this whole thing called meditation, we should remember that like everything in life there is a spectrum of attainment. Many of us swim simply for enjoyment and good health, as millions of people do, or we can swim because we are bent on winning an Olympic gold medal. If we want the Olympic medal, we are going to have to dramatically change our lifestyle and do many things that ordinary swimmers don’t do. Yet for both types of people, the activity remains the same: swimming in a pool. Those of us who practice a sport for good health would never stop doing it because we feel we can’t handle the discipline required to make it to the Olympics. We don’t even think or care about the Olympics. Likewise, we can meditate with great joy without having to worry about taking it to a level that does not apply to our life.
The so-called do’s and don’ts discussed in various scriptures are designed to establish a fit vessel for the practice of meditation. That said, if all we want to do is relax our mind, we shouldn’t feel intimidated by advanced spiritual meditators. They are on a completely different path, which carries its own demands and struggles. For us, the basic meditation techniques we’ll learn will be of enormous benefit in helping us improve our quality of life. With regard to a detailed examination of different meditation techniques, I’ve written extensively on that subject in The Essence of Meditation: Advanced Practices for New and Experienced Meditators. Our purpose here is simply to highlight the fact that we must learn how to meditate properly, following the guidelines of the tradition we have embraced. Some of the better-known paths include Mindfulness meditation, Tantric Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and non-dual Shaiva Tantra. It is worth repeating that formal meditation instruction under the guidance of an experienced teacher is always advisable.
This short guide was not meant to cover every possible obstacle we might face in meditation but to provide an overview of some of the major points we need to consider. As we go along with our practice, we will discover to our pleasure that knowledge concerning how to resolve different challenges will arise naturally from within. Or we will come across the right book or person at the right time that will offer the answer we need.
It’s also important to point out that meditation is not something that is constantly burdened by heavy obstacles. Our discussion about obstacles is simply designed to allow us to meditate with greater skill. For the most part, meditation is one of the most natural and enjoyable things we can ever do. The contentment we feel the moment we sense our mind growing still is something everyone should be able to experience. “The phases of yoga are filled with wonder,” says the Shiva Sūtra.
May we all experience the joy of our own awareness!
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