November 10, 2014

Six Obstacles that keep us from Being Present. ~ Frank Berliner

Frank Berliner

We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis


Chapter 17.

Obstacles to Practicing Peaceful Abiding

When you really try to make a connection with the practice of shamatha, obstacles generally do arise. In this chapter and the one that follows, you will find a traditional approach to understanding and overcoming these obstacles that is like going to a doctor, receiving an accurate diagnosis of your ailment, and then the right medicine to relieve it. But in this case, you are learning to be both patient and doctor simultaneously.

Shamatha practice helps cultivate a mind that is less distracted. An undistracted mind is a tamed mind. A tamed mind is also less conflicted, less hard on itself, more kind to itself. It is a gentle mind. You cause less harm to yourself, and therefore less harm to others.

You cultivate an intention—and a state of being—which causes less harm and chaos in the world. In this way, the practice of meditation tames your state of mind and your conduct. When you bring your strong intention to accomplish these things to your practice, things tend to open up.

Shamatha practice is not a way of creating these things in yourself, but of working through the obstacles to experiencing them that you have built up over time. As the Buddha emphasized again and again, these positive qualities are innate to the mind, and they can be dug out and cultivated like plants in a dormant garden. Through meditation, you dig into the earth of your mind and when you commit yourself to the practice, you begin to see recurrent patterns of thought, emotion, and action that get in the way of these qualities.

These patterns are the obstacles that prevent you from being fully present with yourself.

The Light of Awareness

The traditional analogy is that the sun is the basic nature of our mind, and these patterns are clouds that cover it. The sun is always there, but the clouds block our experience of its full brilliance. Because these clouds often cast a cold and dark shadow, you may mistake them for signs that you are fundamentally bad or condemned. But, in fact, they are simply the result of habitual patterns of thought, emotion, and action that have been with you a long time. They are patterns of avoidance. The good news is that, like clouds, these patterns are fleeting and temporary blockages. Even in Seattle, cloud cover is not permanent.

Meditation practice exposes these obstacles to the light of your awareness, and makes them more obvious. This is why sometimes when you practice—especially at the beginning—it feels like things are getting worse. Really they are just becoming more obvious; it has become impossible to pretend they don’t exist and they are that much harder to ignore.

These obstacles are the defense mechanisms of ego. They are a bit like the inky substance which a squid squirts out into the water behind it, to keep predators from seeing it and catching it. So these obstacles are the ink, ego is the squid and your wakefulness is the predator. This analogy recalls the environment of the cocoon. Ego has gone into hiding, and uses the obstacles as camouflage, because wakefulness threatens its dull, repetitive, yet familiar world.

Bringing Kindness to the Six Obstacles

There are six obstacles in shamatha practice. Before describing them, it’s important to emphasize that there’s no need for any sense of judgment or condemnation about the fact that you experience them. In fact there could be a lot of humor in seeing how familiar they are. All of us, without exception, experience these obstacles at some time or another. No one need pretend to be perfect; everyone has his or her own stuff to work with.

Being able to name and identify the obstacles is actually a very cheerful process, like identifying strange insects that suddenly land on you in a jungle. You look at them up close, and notice how strange they are with their little legs and their many colors.


The first obstacle is laziness, which I discussed in Chapter 15 in relation to the mindfulness of effort. Here, laziness has a very precise meaning. It’s a resistance to the entire practice of meditation altogether. Much of the challenge in meditation practice is found in just getting yourself to the cushion. Laziness is experienced as a kind of heaviness that comes up when you even think about practicing, or in the moments when you are about to go to the cushion. It’s as if your feet suddenly have lead weights on them and you can’t get there. This resistance makes it so difficult just to start because it’s a state of mind that looks for a way out of just going and doing it. The subconscious verbalization that goes with it is something like, “I just don’t feel like practicing today. Maybe tomorrow.”


The second obstacle is forgetfulness. Forgetfulness happens despite the fact that you have been instructed in the technique and the purpose of it. You can often sit for a very long time without using the technique in which you were instructed at all. As a result, your practice is like an ongoing fog of discursive thought. You forget to come back to the breath, and you have no ability to cut through your involvement with thinking to rest in nowness. Sometimes you might meditate and afterward look back and realize you didn’t come back to the breath once. Your allegiance is to forgetfulness instead of to wakefulness.


The third obstacle is drowsiness accompanied by depression. This drowsiness/depression is an actual physiological experience of fatigue, but the tiredness arises out of psychological fixation. This fixation is the tendency of your mind to dwell in the lower realm of experience which consists of feelings of extreme poverty and grasping, or intense aggression, or a stupefied state in which you don’t care.

When your mind is simmering in this thick stew of negative emotions, the body follows, and the direct connection between mind and body becomes obvious. Your posture slumps, your head bobs, your gaze films over, your hands slip off your thighs. It’s as if while you were wading through the swamp of your own mind, your body just became exhausted with the effort.

Of course you may experience drowsiness when you have not gotten enough sleep. But I’m not talking about that level. This level is the fatigue brought about by dwelling in unwholesome mental states for long periods of time without being aware of it.


The fourth obstacle is wildness, which is, energetically, the opposite of heavy qualities of drowsiness; it’s an extreme lightness, as if gravity released its hold on you and you are no longer anchored to the earth. In this experience, your mind jumps all over the place like a grasshopper. There is wildness and even craziness. Your little thoughts gather and increase in volume until they crescendo into huge cosmic schemes. Small molehills become huge, fantastical mountains, and you tend to ride that energy as long and far as you can to avoid simply being present. In the first fifteen minutes of sitting, you could build up to being master of the universe, then crash in the last fifteen minutes. It’s like the stock market on an extreme cycle of ups and downs. These grandiose fantasies of hope and fear dissipate your energy. There is tremendous mental speed.

It is also said that this obstacle arises when you have second thoughts about your connection with practice altogether, or even an extreme regret that you ever got involved with it in the first place. It’s as if meditation becomes a prison that constricts your wildest ambitions and your fondest dreams. Sitting becomes a downer and an insult to your amazing cosmic possibilities.


The fifth obstacle is carelessness. This obstacle can be summarized by the phrase, “Why bother?” You understand the practice, you understand the meaning behind it, you understand that it’s a good thing to do and why. You know that you should tame your mind, but somehow you just can’t be bothered. To some degree this resembles laziness, but its underlying motivation is more defensive; you don’t really believe in yourself. You feel you can’t do it, that you are not worthy of doing it, so carelessness is your last line of defense so that you don’t have to do it. You just can’t be bothered; it’s just too hard.

Being careless, overly casual, or having an attitude of dismissiveness—all these variations are covers for feeling unworthy and incapable of accomplishing meditation practice. So you make light of it and express disrespect for it, but truly, you feel disrespect for yourself. “Maybe other people can do this, but I can’t. Everyone else is a potential Buddha except me, so who cares?” That twist of defensiveness is at the core of this obstacle. 

Unable to Coordinate the Whole Thing

The sixth and last obstacle is called “not being able to co-ordinate the whole thing.” The basic idea here is that your intention is good but your resolve is weak. Caught in the trap of good intentions, you are easily distracted from your commitment and the whole thing is somehow a little bit too soft and a little too mushy. There’s the feeling that you could really do this and that you’ll get around to it eventually, but your schedule is insanely full; it’s very hard to find the time to fit practice in anywhere. So you lose focus and purpose. You lose your one-pointed attention. Your relationship to meditation takes on a hit-and-miss quality. You realize that you really have to do it, and that just having the intention to do it is not quite enough. But you can keep yourself company with your good intentions constantly, yet not really be practicing.

It’s even more important to have the right attitude towards these obstacles than to identify them. If you name them purely as a catalog by which you can then punish yourself, it would be very unfortunate. If you can take a light attitude toward the obstacles, full of simple curiosity, the more confidence you will have that they are not permanent or immoveable. Rather, it is clear that they are temporary obscurations covering over your fundamental strength and wakefulness within.

Regard them as accurate and useful little messages about what happens to you and to everyone else who commits to this noble discipline. Have faith that they are temporary, that they can be worked with, and that they can be transformed into wakefulness.


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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Frank Berliner

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