is essential to learn to confront the less pleasant
aspects of existence. Our job as meditators is to learn
to be patient with ourselves, to see ourselves in an
unbiased way, complete with all our sorrows and inadequacies.
We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. In the long
run, avoiding unpleasantness is a very unkind thing
to do to yourself. Paradoxically, kindness entails confronting
unpleasantness when it arises. One popular human strategy
for dealing with difficulty is autosuggestion: when
something nasty pops up, you convince yourself it is
pleasant rather than unpleasant. The Buddha's tactic
is quite the reverse. Rather than hide it or disguise
it, the Buddha's teaching urges you to examine it to
death. Buddhism advises you not to implant feelings
that you don't really have or avoid feelings that you
do have. If you are miserable you are miserable; this
is the reality, that is what is happening, so confront
that. Look it square in the eye without flinching. When
you are having a bad time, examine the badness, observe
it mindfully, study the phenomenon and learn its mechanics.
The way out of a trap is to study the trap itself, learn
how it is built. You do this by taking the thing apart
piece by piece. The trap can't trap you if it has been
taken to pieces. The result is freedom.
point is essential, but it is one of the least understood
aspects of Buddhist philosophy. Those who have studied
Buddhism superficially are quick to conclude that it
is a pessimistic set of teachings, always harping on
unpleasant things like suffering, always urging us to
confront the uncomfortable realities of pain, death
and illness. Buddhist thinkers do not regard themselves
as pessimists--quite the opposite, actually. Pain exists
in the universe; some measure of it is unavoidable.
Learning to deal with it is not pessimism, but a very
pragmatic form of optimism. How would you deal with
the death of your spouse? How would you feel if you
lost your mother tomorrow? Or your sister or your closest
friend? Suppose you lost your job, your savings, and
the use of your hands, on the same day; could you face
the prospect of spending the rest of your life in a
wheelchair? How are you going to cope with the pain
of terminal cancer if you contract it, and how will
you deal with your own death, when that approaches?
You may escape most of these misfortunes, but you won't
escape all of them. Most of us lose friends and relatives
at some time during our lives; all of us get sick now
and then; at the very least you are going to die someday.
You can suffer through things like that or you can face
them openly--the choice is yours.
is inevitable, suffering is not. Pain and suffering
are two different animals. If any of these tragedies
strike you in your present state of mind, you will suffer.
The habit patterns that presently control your mind
will lock you into that suffering and there will be
no escape. A bit of time spent in learning alternatives
to those habit patterns is time will-invested. Most
human beings spend all their energies devising ways
to increase their pleasure and decrease their pain.
Buddhism does not advise that you cease this activity
altogether. Money and security are fine. Pain should
be avoided where possible. Nobody is telling you to
give away all your possessions or seek out needless
pain, but Buddhism does advise you to invest some of
your time and energy in learning to deal with unpleasantness,
because some pain is unavoidable.
you see a truck bearing down on you, by all means jump
out of the way. But spend some time in meditation, too.
Learning to deal with discomfort is the only way you'll
be ready to handle the truck you didn't see.
arise in your practice. Some of them will be physical,
some will be emotional, and some will be attitudinal.
All of them are confrontable and each has its own specific
response. All of them are opportunities to free yourself.
likes pain, yet everybody has some sometime. It is one
of life's most common experiences and is bound to arise
in your meditation in one form or another. Handling
pain is a two-stage process. First, get rid of the pain
if possible or at least get rid of it as much as possible.
Then, if some pain lingers, use it as an object of meditation.
first step is physical handling. Maybe the pain is an
illness of one sort or another, a headache, fever, bruises
or whatever. In this case, employ standard medical treatments
before you sit down to meditate: take your medicine,
apply your liniment, do whatever you ordinarily do.
Then there are certain pains that are specific to the
seated posture. If you never spend much time sitting
cross-legged on the floor, there will be an adjustment
period. Some discomfort is nearly inevitable. According
to where the pain is, there are specific remedies. If
the pain is in the leg or knees, check you pants. If
they are tight or made of thick material, that could
be the problem. Try to change it. Check your cushion,
too. It should be about three inches in height when
compressed. If the pain is around your waist, try loosening
your belt. Loosen the waistband of your pants is that
is necessary. If you experience pain in your lower back,
your posture is probably at fault. Slouching will never
be comfortable, so straighten up. Don't be tight or
rigid, but do keep your spine erect. Pain in the neck
or upper back has several sources. The first is improper
hand position. Your hands should be resting comfortably
in your lap. Don't pull them up to your waist. Relax
your arms and your neck muscles. Don't let your head
droop forward. Keep it up and aligned with the rest
of the spine.
you have made all these various adjustments, you may
find you still have some lingering pain. If that is
the case, try step two. Make the pain your object of
meditation. Don't jump up and down and get excited.
Just observe the pain mindfully. When the pain becomes
demanding, you will find it pulling your attention off
the breath. Don't fight back. Just let your attention
slide easily over onto the simple sensation. Go into
the pain fully. Don't block the experience. Explore
the feeling. Get beyond your avoiding reaction and go
into the pure sensations that lie below that. You will
discover that there are two things present. The first
is the simple sensation--pain itself. Second is your
resistance to that sensation. Resistance reaction is
partly mental and partly physical. The physical part
consists of tensing the muscles in and around the painful
area. Relax those muscles. Take them one by one and
relax each one very thoroughly. This step alone probably
diminishes the pain significantly. Then go after the
mental side of the resistance. Just as you are tensing
physically, you are also tensing psychologically. You
are clamping down mentally on the sensation of pain,
trying to screen it off and reject it from consciousness.
The rejection is a wordless, "I don't like this feeling"
or "go away" attitude. It is very subtle. But it is
there, and you can find it if you really look. Locate
it and relax that, too.
last part is more subtle. There are really no human
words to describe this action precisely. The best way
to get a handle on it is by analogy. Examine what you
did to those tight muscles and transfer that same action
over to the mental sphere; relax the mind in the same
way that you relax the body. Buddhism recognizes that
the body and mind are tightly linked. This is so true
that many people will not see this as a two-step procedure.
For them to relax the body is to relax the mind and
vice versa. These people will experience the entire
relaxation, mental and physical, as a single process.
In any case, just let go completely till you awareness
slows down past that barrier which you yourself erected.
It was a gap, a sense of distance between self and others.
It was a borderline between 'me' and 'the pain'. Dissolve
that barrier, and separation vanishes. You slow down
into that sea of surging sensation and you merge with
the pain. You become the pain. You watch its ebb and
flow and something surprising happens. It no longer
hurts. Suffering is gone. Only the pain remains, an
experience, nothing more. The 'me' who was being hurt
has gone. The result is freedom from pain.
is an incremental process. In the beginning, you can
expect to succeed with small pains and be defeated by
big ones. Like most of our skills, it grows with practice.
The more you practice, the bigger the pain you can handle.
Please understand fully. There is no masochism being
advocated here. Self-mortification is not the point.
is an exercise in awareness, not in sadism. If the pain
becomes excruciating, go ahead and move, but move slowly
and mindfully. Observe your movements. See how it feels
to move. Watch what it does to the pain. Watch the pain
diminish. Try not to move too much though. The less
you move, the easier it is to remain fully mindful.
New meditators sometimes say they have trouble remaining
mindful when pain is present. This difficulty stems
from a misunderstanding. These students are conceiving
mindfulness as something distinct from the experience
of pain. It is not. Mindfulness never exists by itself.
It always has some object and one object is as good
as another. Pain is a mental state. You can be mindful
of pain just as you are mindful of breathing.
rules we covered in Chapter 4 apply to pain just as
they apply to any other mental state. You must be careful
not to reach beyond the sensation and not to fall short
of it. Don't add anything to it, and don't miss any
part of it. Don't muddy the pure experience with concepts
or pictures or discursive thinking. And keep your awareness
right in the present time, right with the pain, so that
you won't miss its beginning or its end. Pain not viewed
in the clear light of mindfulness gives rise to emotional
reactions like fear, anxiety, or anger. If it is properly
viewed, we have no such reaction. It will be just sensation,
just simple energy. Once you have learned this technique
with physical pain, you can then generalize it in the
rest of your life. You can use it on any unpleasant
sensation. What works on pain will work on anxiety or
chronic depression. This technique is one of life's
most useful and generalizable skills. It is patience.
Legs Going To Sleep
is very common for beginners to have their legs fall
asleep or go numb during meditation. They are simply
not accustomed to the cross-legged posture. Some people
get very anxious about this. They feel they must get
up and move around. A few are completely convinced that
they will get gangrene from lack of circulation. Numbness
in the leg is nothing to worry about. it is caused by
nerve-pinch, not by lack of circulation. You can't damage
the tissues of your legs by sitting. So relax. When
your legs fall asleep in meditation, just mindfully
observe the phenomenon. Examine what it feels like.
It may be sort of uncomfortable, but it is not painful
unless you tense up. Just stay calm and watch it. It
does not matter if your legs go numb and stay that way
for the whole period. After you have meditated for some
time, that numbness gradually will disappear. Your body
simply adjusts to daily practice. Then you can sit for
very long sessions with no numbness whatever.
experience all manner of varied phenomena in meditation.
Some people get itches. Others feel tingling, deep relaxation,
a feeling of lightness or a floating sensation. You
may feel yourself growing or shrinking or rising up
in the air. Beginners often get quite excited over such
sensations. As relaxation sets in, the nervous system
simply begins to pass sensory signals more efficiently.
Large amounts of previously blocked sensory data can
pour through, giving rise to all manner of unique sensations.
It does not signify anything in particular. It is just
sensation. So simply employ the normal technique. Watch
it come up and watch it pass away. Don't get involved.
is quite common to experience drowsiness during meditation.
You become very calm and relaxed. That is exactly what
is supposed to happen. Unfortunately, we ordinarily
experience this lovely state only when we are falling
asleep, and we associate it with that process. So naturally,
you begin to drift off. When you find this happening,
apply your mindfulness to the state of drowsiness itself.
Drowsiness has certain definite characteristics. It
does certain things to your thought process. Find out
what. It has certain body feelings associated with it.
inquisitive awareness is the direct opposite of drowsiness,
and will evaporate it. If it does not, then you should
suspect a physical cause of your sleepiness. Search
that out and handle it. If you have just eaten large
meal, that could be the cause. It is best to eat lightly
before you meditate. Or wait an hour after a big meal.
And don't overlook the obvious either. If you have been
out loading bricks all day, you are naturally going
to be tired. The same is true if you only got a few
hours sleep the night before. Take care of your body's
physical needs. Then meditate. Do not give in to sleepiness.
Stay awake and mindful, for sleep and meditative concentration
are two diametrically opposite experiences. You will
not gain any new insight from sleep, but only from meditation.
If you are very sleepy then take a deep breath and hold
it as long as you can. Then breathe out slowly. Take
another deep breath again, hold it as long as you can
and breathe out slowly. Repeat this exercise until your
body warms up and sleepiness fades away. Then return
to your breath.
Inability To Concentrate
overactive, jumping attention is something that everybody
experiences from time to time. It is generally handled
by techniques presented in the chapter on distractions.
You should also be informed, however, that there are
certain external factors which contribute to this phenomenon.
And these are best handled by simple adjustments in
your schedule. Mental images are powerful entities.
They can remain in the mind for long periods. All of
the storytelling arts are direct manipulation of such
material, and to the extent the writer has done his
job well, the characters and images presented will have
a powerful and lingering effect on the mind. If you
have been to the best movie of the year, the meditation
which follows is going to be full of those images. If
you are halfway through the scariest horror novel you
ever read, your meditation is going to be full of monsters.
So switch the order of events. Do your meditation first.
Then read or go to the movies.
influential factor is your own emotional state. If there
is some real conflict in your life, that agitation will
carry over into meditation. Try to resolve your immediate
daily conflicts before meditation when you can. Your
life will run smoother, and you won't be pondering uselessly
in your practice. But don't use this advice as a way
to avoid meditation. Sometimes you can't resolve every
issue before you sit. Just go ahead and sit anyway.
Use your meditation to let go of all the egocentric
attitudes that keep you trapped within your own limited
viewpoint. Your problems will resolve much more easily
thereafter. And then there are those days when it seems
that the mind will never rest, but your can't locate
any apparent cause. Remember the cyclic alternation
we spoke of earlier. Meditation goes in cycles. You
have good days and you have bad days.
meditation is primarily an exercise in awareness. Emptying
the mind is not as important as being mindful of what
the mind is doing. If you are frantic and you can't
do a thing to stop it, just observe. It is all you.
The result will be one more step forward in your journey
of self-exploration. Above all, don't get frustrated
over the nonstop chatter of your mind. That babble is
just one more thing to be mindful of.
is difficult to imagine anything more inherently boring
than sitting still for an hour with nothing to do but
feel the air going in and out of your nose. You are
going to run into boredom repeatedly in your meditation.
Everybody does. Boredom is a mental state and should
be treated as such. A few simple strategies will help
you to cope.
A: Re-establish true mindfulness
the breath seems an exceedingly dull thing to observe
over and over, you may rest assured of one thing: You
have ceased to observe the process with true mindfulness.
Mindfulness is never boring. Look again. Don't assume
that you know what breath is. Don't take it for granted
that you have already seen everything there is to see.
If you do, you are conceptualizing the process. You
are not observing its living reality. When you are clearly
mindful of breath or indeed anything else, it is never
boring. Mindfulness looks at everything with the eyes
of a child, with the sense of wonder. Mindfulness sees
every second as if it were the first and the only second
in the universe. So look again.
B: Observe your mental state
at your state of boredom mindfully. What is boredom?
Where is boredom? What does it feel like? What are its
mental component? Does it have any physical feeling?
What does it do to your thought process? Take a fresh
look at boredom, as if you have never experienced that
of fear sometimes arise during meditation for no discernible
reason. It is a common phenomenon, and there can be
a number of causes. You may be experiencing the effect
of something repressed long ago. Remember, thoughts
arise first in the unconscious. The emotional contents
of a thought complex often leach through into your conscious
awareness long before the thought itself surfaces. If
you sit through the fear, the memory itself may bubble
up where you can endure it. Or you may be dealing directly
with that fear which we all fear: 'fear of the unknown'.
At some point in your meditation career, you will be
struck with the seriousness of what you are actually
doing. You are tearing down the wall of illusion you
have always used to explain life to yourself and to
shield yourself from the intense flame of reality. You
are about to meet ultimate truth face to face. That
is scary. But it has to be dealt with eventually. Go
ahead and dive right in.
third possibility: the fear that your are feeling may
be self-generated. It may be arising out of unskillful
concentration. You may have set an unconscious program
to 'examine what comes up.' Thus when a frightening
fantasy arises, concentration locks onto it and the
fantasy feeds on the energy of your attention and grows.
The real problem here is that mindfulness is weak. If
mindfulness was strongly developed, it would notice
this switch of attention as soon as it occurred and
handle the situation in the usual manner. Not matter
what the source of your fear, mindfulness is the cure.
Observe the emotional reactions that come along and
know them for what they are. Stand aside from the process
and don't get involved. Treat the whole dynamic as if
you were an interested bystander. Most importantly,
don't fight the situation. Don't try to repress the
memories or the feelings or the fantasies. Just step
out of the way and let the whole mess bubble up and
flow past. It can't hurt you. It is just memory. It
is only fantasy. It is nothing but fear.
you let it run its course in the arena of conscious
attention, it won't sink back into the unconscious.
It won't come back to haunt you later. It will be gone
is often a cover-up for some deeper experience taking
place in the unconscious. We humans are great at repressing
things. Rather than confronting some unpleasant thought
we experience, we try to bury it. We won't have to deal
with the issue. Unfortunately, we usually don't succeed,
at least not fully. We hide the thought, but the mental
energy we use to cover it up sits there and boils. The
result is that sense of uneasiness which we call agitation
or restlessness. There is nothing you can put your finger
on. But you don't feel at ease. You can't relax. When
this uncomfortable state arises in mediation, just observe
it. Don't let it rule you. Don't jump up and run off.
And don't struggle with it and try to make it go away.
Just let it be there and watch it closely. Then the
repressed material will eventually surface and you will
find out what you have been worrying about.
unpleasant experience that you have been trying to avoid
could be almost anything: Guilt, greed or problems.
It could be a low-grade pain or subtle sickness or approaching
illness. Whatever it is, let it arise and look at it
mindfully. If you just sit still and observe your agitation,
it will eventually pass. Sitting through restlessness
is a little breakthrough in your meditation career.
It will teach you much. You will find that agitation
is actually a rather superficial mental state. It is
inherently ephemeral. It comes and it goes. It has no
real grip on you at all. Here again the rest of your
life will profit.
Trying Too Hard
meditators are generally found to be pretty jovial men
and women. They possess that most valuable of all human
treasures, a sense of humor. It is not the superficial
witty repartee of the talk show host. It is a real sense
of humor. They can laugh at their own human failures.
They can chuckle at personal disasters. Beginners in
meditation are often much too serious for their own
good. So laugh a little. It is important to learn to
loosen up in your session, to relax into your meditation.
You need to learn to flow with whatever happens. You
can't do that if you are tensed and striving, taking
it all so very, very seriously. New meditators are often
overly eager for results. They are full of enormous
and inflated expectations. They jump right in and expect
incredible results in no time flat. They push. They
tense. They sweat and strain, and it is all so terribly,
terribly grim and solemn. This state of tension is the
direct antithesis of mindfulness. So naturally they
achieve little. Then they decide that this meditation
is not so exciting after all. It did not give them what
they wanted. They chuck it aside. It should be pointed
out that you learn about meditation only by meditating.
You learn what meditation is all about and where it
leads only through direct experience of the thing itself.
Therefore the beginner does not know where he is headed
because he has developed little sense of where his practice
novice's expectation is inherently unrealistic and uninformed.
As a newcomer to meditation, he or she would expect
all the wrong things, and those expectations do you
no good at all. They get in the way. Trying too hard
leads to rigidity and unhappiness, to guilt and self-condemnation.
When you are trying too hard, your effort becomes mechanical
and that defeats mindfulness before it even gets started.
You are well-advised to drop all that. Drop your expectations
and straining. Simply meditate with a steady and balanced
effort. Enjoy your mediation and don't load yourself
down with sweat and struggles. Just be mindful. The
meditation itself will take care of the future.
direct upshot of pushing too hard is frustration. You
are in a state of tension. You get nowhere. You realize
you are not making the progress you expected, so you
get discouraged. You feel like a failure. It is all
a very natural cycle, but a totally avoidable one. The
source is striving after unrealistic expectations. Nevertheless,
it is a common enough syndrome and, in spite of all
the best advice, you may find it happening to you. There
is a solution. If you find yourself discouraged, just
observe your state of mind clearly. Don't add anything
to it. Just watch it. A sense of failure is only another
ephemeral emotional reaction. If you get involved, it
feeds on your energy and grows. If you simply stand
aside and watch it, it passes away.
you are discouraged over your perceived failure in meditation,
that is especially easy to deal with. You feel you have
failed in your practice. You have failed to be mindful.
Simply become mindful of that sense of failure. You
have just re-established your mindfulness with that
single step. The reason for your sense of failure is
nothing but memory. There is no such thing as failure
in meditation. There are setbacks and difficulties.
But there is no failure unless you give up entirely.
Even if you spend twenty solid years getting nowhere,
you can be mindful at any second you choose to do so.
It is your decision. Regretting is only one more way
of being unmindful. The instant that you realize that
you have been unmindful, that realization itself is
an act of mindfulness. So continue the process. Don't
get sidetracked in an emotional reaction.
Resistance To Meditation
are times when you don't feel like meditating. The very
idea seems obnoxious. Missing a single practice session
is scarcely important, but it very easily becomes a
habit. It is wiser to push on through the resistance.
Go sit anyway. Observe this feeling of aversion. In
most cases it is a passing emotion, a flash in the pan
that will evaporate right in front of your eyes. Five
minutes after you sit down it is gone. In other cases
it is due to some sour mood that day, and it lasts longer.
Still, it does pass. And it is better to get rid of
it in twenty or thirty minutes of meditation than to
carry it around with you and let it ruin the rest of
your day. Another time, resistance may be due to some
difficulty you are having with the practice itself.
You may or may not know what that difficulty is. If
the problem is known, handle it by one of the techniques
given in this book. Once the problem is gone, resistance
will be gone. If the problem is unknown, then you are
going to have to tough it out. Just sit through the
resistance and observe that mindfully. When it has finally
run its course, it will pass. Then the problem causing
it will probably bubble up in its wake, and you can
deal with that.
resistance to meditation is a common feature of your
practice, then you should suspect some subtle error
in your basic attitude. Meditation is not a ritual conducted
in a particular posture. It is not a painful exercise,
or period of enforced boredom. And it is not some grim,
solemn, obligation. Meditation is mindfulness. it is
a new way of seeing and it is a form of play. Meditation
is your friend. Come to regard it as such and resistance
will wash away like smoke on a summer breeze.
you try all these possibilities and the resistance remains,
then there may be a problem. There can be certain metaphysical
snags that a meditator runs into which go far beyond
the scope of this book. It is not common for new meditators
to hit these, but it can happen. Don't give up. Go get
help. Seek out qualified teachers of the Vipassana style
of meditation and ask them to help you resolve the situation.
Such people exist for exactly that purpose.
Stupor or Dullness
have already discussed the sinking mind phenomenon.
But there is a special route to that state you should
watch for. Mental dullness can result as an unwanted
byproduct of deepening concentration. As your relaxation
deepens, muscles loosen and nerve transmission changes.
This produces a very calm and light feeling in the body.
you feel very still and somewhat divorced from the body.
this is a very pleasant state and at first your concentration
is quite good, nicely centered on the breath. As it
continues, however, the pleasant feeling intensify and
they distract your attention from the breath. You start
to really enjoy that state and your mindfulness goes
way down. Your attention winds up scattered, drifting
listlessly through vague clouds of bliss. The result
is a very unmindful state, sort of an ecstatic stupor.
The cure, of course, is mindfulness. Mindfully observe
these phenomena and they will dissipate. When blissful
feelings arise accept them. There is no need to avoid
them. Don't get wrapped up in them. They are physical
feelings, so treat them as such. Observe feelings as
feelings. Observe dullness as dullness. Watch them rise
and watch them pass. Don't get involved.
will have problems in meditation. Everybody does. You
can treat them as terrible torments, or as challenges
to be overcome. If you regard them as burdens, you suffering
will only increase. If you regard them as opportunities
to learn and to grow, your spiritual prospects are unlimited.