Obstacles to Mindfulness


Photo by Benjamin Davies

Mindfulness meditation is a useful practice that, with consistency over time, can bring a number of benefits including more openness to experience, greater peace, and enhanced well-being. Although the practice is simple in concept, it can be challenging in execution due to a number of habits and human tendencies that can create obstacles for us.

Over the years, the wise sages of meditation have identified five main hinderances to practice. We all experience them to some degree and there are ways to work with them, so they should not be viewed as personal failings. Not only do these obstacles interfere with meditation, but they also impact how we go about our daily lives. They include:

  • Miswanting  – getting caught up in attachment by insisting happiness or contentment can only happen if things are different than the way they currently are or through seeking out or clinging to sensory pleasure (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling).
  • Aversion – getting caught up in avoidance, struggling against or rejecting what is unwanted or feeling hostility, resentment, bitterness, or hatred toward experiences, ourselves, or others.
  • Sluggishness –  an experience of drowsiness, sleepiness, dullness, dozing off or spacing out.
  • Restlessness or Worry – an experience of excitability, disquietude, anxiety, distractibility,  agitation, or remorse.
  • Doubt – a lack of conviction or trust in the experience or process – a sense of discouragement or being distracted from the present moment by endless questioning.

All of these obstacles involve getting “hooked” by phenomena. Rather than sitting on the shore of experience, observing thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and urges to action passing through awareness like leaves on a stream, we dive right in after them. While we are swimming in the stream of our thoughts, we are no longer practicing mindfulness. If we instead notice that this has happened and pull ourselves back up onto the bank to observe, we are practicing mindfulness. The more times we bring ourselves back onto the shore, the less easily we become hooked.

When we inevitably encounter these obstacles in practice, the tendency may be to despair and give up. It would be a shame to do so because these difficulties are expected and workable. Instead, we can practice noticing them as they arise, accepting them without judgment, making them the object of meditation for curious investigation, and either; 1) let them be until they inevitably change or disappear, or 2) apply an antidote.

1) Let Go & Let Be

All phenomena are impermanent – even the obstacles to meditation. In being mindful of and non-reactive to the experiences that arise during meditation, we are training our minds to meet the difficulties of everyday living with greater equanimity. To aid in this process, it may be useful to bring to mind the acronym RAIN from the insight meditation tradition:

  • R: Recognize the experience.
  • A: Accept that it is here.
  • I: Investigate it with curiosity and non-judgment.
  • N: Non-identification – View experience as impersonal and temporary.

2) Apply the Antidote

Sometimes it makes sense to take action to directly address obstacles to practice. In this case, we can apply an “antidote” to counteract the habits and conditioning that chronically interrupt meditation. Keep in mind that most of us tend to be professional doers, so practicing calm abiding (letting be) is probably the best approach to start with. If we have been using RAIN to no avail and the same hinderances keep consistently coming up, this may be the time to apply an antidote.

The antidote to sensory desire is contemplation of impermanence. This practice reminds us that all things that bring sense pleasure are temporary and eventually cause suffering when grasped at or clung to. The senses habituate or the phenomenon changes and we wind up feeling dissatisfied and disappointed.

The antidote to ill-will is lovingkindness, which teaches us to embrace ourselves, others, and the objects of meditation with caring attention. In the practice of lovingkindness, we cultivate feelings of friendliness and goodwill in stages toward ourselves, others, and the universe. The doors of our hearts open and we find ourselves feeling less bothered and irritated by all manner of things.

The antidotes to dullness and restlessness will often depend upon their root causes. In the first case we need to add energy and in the second case we need to pacify the body and/or mind. Our practice can be re-energized by taking a beginner’s mind and revisiting the intentions behind our actions. Can we see each formal practice session as new and an opportunity for learning? Can we recall our deepest heartfelt reasons for getting on the cushion in the first place? If the body is restless, we can switch to a moving form of meditation such as mindful walking or yoga.

If the mind needs pacifying we can practice finding gratitude for what is here in this moment. The mind can also be calmed by bringing attention back, again and again, from the external to the internal, no matter how many times it takes. Each time we do so, we strengthen the mental “muscles” of attention and concentration. Finally, if the mind is restless due to regret or remorse, one may choose to make amends – to “purify” the perceived misdeeds.

There might be a really good cause for you to be restless… Maybe you haven’t paid your taxes in ten years… [In this case] you don’t need meditation, you need to pay your taxes. You don’t use meditation to run away from the real issues of your life. – Gil Frondsal

The antidote to doubt is trust. It is very common to find ourselves asking, “Am I doing this right?” or “What good is this anyway?” instead of practicing meditation. This is not to say that we should never ask ourselves these questions – it is only through questioning and experimenting that we discover “truth” for ourselves. Rather, formal meditation practice may not be the best time to be asking these sorts of questions, because the spirit in which we engage in practice is also important to our development. Having a good teacher as well as a clear “road map” to guide you can be quite helpful in gaining confidence and staying the course.

A meditation practice is meant to support your well-being, not decrease it. So, if you’re having very distressing or disturbing experiences during meditation or in your daily life that you think might be related to your meditation practice, it’s a good idea to stop and consult with an expert before proceeding any further. It might be helpful to talk to your physician or a counselor about your experiences. You can also consult the following resources on meditation related “adverse experiences”:

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