February 1, 2012

Obstacles and Antidotes to Daily Meditation.

Kevin Labianco

His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche used to say, “Practicing with obstacles is supreme practice.”

Various obstacles can arise in meditation not only for the novice but for the senior practioner.

Both shamatha in Sanskrit and shine in Tibetan, mean abiding in peace and refer to the most basic practice of meditation –– mindfulness. But if one has ever tried to establish a daily practice of meditation one begins to notice that abiding in peace and maintaining mindfulness is challenged by some basic, seductive obstacles. And these obstacles can undermine the original inspiration to have meditative discipline become a part of one’s life.

The good news is that for every obstacle there is at least one antidote. Take laziness for example. Laziness is what stops one from even getting to the cushion for five minutes.  One feels heavy and doesn’t appreciate the cushion as an invitation, but instead thinks, “Ugh.” and turns joylessly away. Or it can manifest as speed and business –– being too busy to start the day with ten minutes of sitting, and then too tired to sit for ten minutes at night.

But there are four antidotes to this lack of scheduling and exertion. The first is faith –– but not blind faith.  At some point one experienced the sanity of meditation. So this faith is faith to continue, not by trying to recreate any particular experience, because mindfulness is all about nowness. It is the faith based on experience to go forward. It may mean reconnecting with that initial inspiration; and then to committing to putting meditation at the top of the list in one’s daily schedule.

But if that isn’t enough, the second antidote to laziness is respect.  One respects the cushion and the space one has set aside for daily practice ––


whether that includes a shrine or not. Like the Buddha, taking one’s seat is a sacred act. One is surrendering “me” and “mine” with each breath, and is letting go and surrounded by the space of gentleness, which encourages the release of ego with each exhalation.

The third antidote to laziness is exertion –– the exertion not to cop out back into laziness. One has gotten oneself onto the cushion and begun to apply the technique –– good posture, attention on the breath, and then the thought occurs, “Really? This is how I am going to start this morning? I’d rather go for a jog in a snowstorm…or have a second cup of coffee!” It’s exertion that labels such thoughts silently “thinking” and helps one continue to practice.

The fourth antidote is the taming result of continuing –– called shinjang in Tibetan.  Shinjang in this context is still a process; one is becoming tamed but is not yet tamed. One is making friends with the mind, seeing the favorite detours, and bringing attention back to the present moment over and over again. Body and mind are beginning to be synchronized, which brings about the discovery that the mind is workable.  This makes for considerable relaxation within the good posture, because there is less struggle.

Ah, but then a second obstacle could occur. (This is the worst case scenario –– putting all the obstacles together. Usually one is afflicted with only one at a time!) One has relaxed, experienced a bit of ease –– and then spaces out. This is the obstacle of forgetfulness. Discursive thoughts begin to breed fantasies and daydreams and one indulges, going wherever wandering mind takes one.

Obviously at some point one will realize that one is gone. Trungpa Rinpoche called the antidote to forgetfulness “developing a folksy attitude”, which means not to give one’s self a hard time, but simply to reapply attention on the breath. One can even have a sense of humor about it. In the midst of forgetting, suddenly one realizes it and automatically returns to the breath. Rinpoche also called this the “sudden jerk” of awareness. It’s like almost slipping on black ice, but recovering one’s balance before falling. And with practice, this occurs sooner rather than later. The full-length rom-coms become mere slide shows. Mindfulness is becoming natural and even post-meditation begins to permeate life.

Thai Jasmine (Smile..smile...Smile..)

The third obstacle arises in the form of drowsiness or depression. This is a more serious obstacle than forgetfulness. Perhaps one is actually overcome by doubt and begins to regret having started this path of meditation at all. One may think, “Meditation is a waste of time” but goes on sitting inertly feeling bad, unworthy, deprived, or unwilling to relate to anything. One isn’t really sleepy or tired, but lacks dignity, which manifests as sloppy posture, and this affects the mind. Whatever is easy or convenient seems more appealing and the posture collapses more. There’s no willingness to perk up and be uplifted. Soon one may nod and even fall asleep, or even topple off the cushion.

Interestingly enough, the other extreme –– wildness –– is treated with the same antidote. This fourth obstacle occurs when one’s mind is excited and schemes begin to take over. Perhaps one resents so-and-so who said something yesterday, and this turns into recreating the scene, an argument in the head, perhaps going as far as a plan of retaliation. The mind is speedy and not in sync with the body.

Trungpa Rinpoche said the antidote to both drowsiness and wildness is the “light-handed warning system”. Both seemingly extreme obstacles are curbed by natural alertness.  Recognizing is wakeful. Whenever one recognizes that one is either drowsy or wild, the very obstacle becomes the reminder to be alert and forewarned so as not to become a victim by solidifying the mood.

Again, a sense of humor helps: “Oh, I realize I’m drowsy” or “Oh, I’m still all churned up from that staff meeting and replaying dissatisfying conversations with my co-workers!”  Such insight mixed with a bit of humor really pop the solidity of the obstacle.  Recognizing an obstacle is already an aspect of wakefulness, and doing so lightly with good cheer and good posture sets one up for a fresh start. This mindful return to the present helps one to have fresh starts and fresh encounters post-meditation as well. Training in mindfulness helps one recognize when speed, or active ignoring and spacing out is happening –– whether during meditation or post-meditation. In these situations, one’s alarm system can right one on the spot.

The fifth obstacle, carelessness, is that one sees that one is indulging in thoughts and knows that mindfulness should be cultivated but can’t be bothered. Indulging in dramatic fiction is more entertaining than the simplicity of the present breath and moment. Carelessness is tricky. Perhaps one has been practicing for a while and can fake it.  Who’s to know?  One can look like one is meditating, but allow the mind to wander. One knows the technique, but a wandering fantasy seems better than boredom. Perhaps one has forgotten the process of “hot boredom” turning into “cool boredom” –– restlessness relaxing into just being.  Meditation is one of the only places left in life that is relatively stimulus free. Really, there is no demand to do—one is just being with breathing.  Yet our society is so conditioned to doing and entertaining that it seems stark and foreign.

Because one knows one is wandering –– the only antidote is to restore the discipline of mindfulness, to come back to the breath.  Ultimately one either realizes one cannot fool oneself or exhausts the fantasy.  And when one returns to the genuine practice, one can feel the freedom of liberating the mind from all the conjuring of thought-webs.


The sixth obstacle is lack of coordination.  This can happen to anyone at any time.  Perhaps one gets one’s posture together too tightly and this triggers wild mind. Or one feels bummed out over something and loses the posture altogether. Or one is trying too hard to catch each thought that there is no gap of space, no relaxation at the end of each breath, and more thoughts are provoked. Or one becomes fascinated with the breath and tries to make it deep and audible or prolong the exhalation, rather than just breathing naturally.  Any trippy variation –– like trying to bliss out –– can lead to lack of coordination.

The antidote to lack of coordination is equilibrium. Equilibrium comes from self-discipline. One empowers oneself to discipline oneself. As the Buddha taught the musician, the trick is not to be too tight or too loose, like tuning the strings of the lyre.  Tightness makes the strings break; looseness makes no music. So by putting attention on the breath and out into the environment one breathes into, there is a balance of attention and letting go.

These six obstacles are not fundamental; they are not like some kind of original sin. They are like clouds covering the brilliant true nature of everyone.  These obstacles are removable. They arise but are workable. We are not stuck with habitual patterns. And after all, meditation is called a “practice”, not a “fruition”.  Even if we are used to instant satisfaction, this is a gradual process. As Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged his student during the ’79 three month seminary:

“With any discipline of freedom…you have to expose yourself.  You have to be willing to put up with some kind of discomfort….If you don’t do that, then you are like a spoiled baby who has never experienced any inconvenience….At the same time, some sense of relaxation goes with the whole thing…You don’t have to prove anything. That removes most of the demands on the ego’s point of view.”

Beyond these six basic obstacles, there are times when emotions afflict us –– intensely sad or happy times, turbulent times –– emotions like grief over the death of a dear friend, the excitement of falling in love, upsets due to confrontations.  Although these can color a meditation session, it is possible to breathe through the emotions and to calm down. It is also possible to see the mind that clings, and to look inward into that mind. In the moment of so doing, there is nothing but empty clarity. That is the true nature of mind; the clinging is extra.

There is also times when one experiences great pain or sickness.  In intense cases perhaps the only posture possible is horizontal. But even then one can still put attention on the breath.  One can breathe with and perhaps through the pain or illness.  There’s no guarantee of physical improvement, but it does help the mind, and this in turn tends to relax the body.

And finally death itself need not be an obstacle.  The ideal way to die in fact would be to put attention on the breath to the final exhalation and completely let go. Everyone is mortal; everyone is going to experience death. It is good to acknowledge that reality sooner rather than later, so that when the time comes one does not panic but can accept it with dignity. Then that moment becomes the greatest opportunity for egolessness.

      Edited by: Lindsay Friedman

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