It is hard for many people to "get to the cushion": to sit down and practice mindfulness meditation. As a meditation instructor, and as a therapist whose students and clients often express a strong interest in practicing mindfulness meditation, I often hear of these difficulties. In fact, I sometimes have the same trouble myself.
So what's the problem? In my own experience, I've noted that once I begin, I feel fine, even happy, to be doing the simple practice of cultivating mindfulness. The hard part is getting there.
I am an expert in postponing my practice and in finding reasons why it doesn't matter if I don't practice today. "I'll be doing a long session this weekend, I don't need to do my usual shorter session today." Or, "What I'm doing now is really important, I just don't have time." Or, worse yet, I can be caught up in some mindlessness practice (see the posting from 5/7/11 on Mindlessness Practices) and don't even consider going into my meditation room to practice.
Let's look first at some of the difficulties and then explore some ways of dealing with them.
This listing is not meant to be exhaustive. There are probably as many ways of feeling challenged by mindfulness practice as there are people who interested in cultivating mindfulness through meditation practice.
1. The first thing that can create problems is feeling confused about how to go about practicing mindfulness meditation. For example, you may have heard different instructions about how to practice. Should you have your eyes open or closed? Should you follow your breath both in and out, or just one or the other? Should your mind stop thinking? How long do you need to do it? How can you tell if you're doing it right?
2. Along with that, one can have quite unrealistic expectations about what should happen if one meditates. A common mistaken expectation is that one's mind should be quiet. Some people have even told me that they can't meditate because they can't stop thinking. As we'll see below, that's not what meditation is about. Others think that if they meditate they will turn into different people from who they are now. Again, we'll see below how that's not quite it either.
Once people know how to practice mindfulness meditation, they still may have other difficulties getting to their practice. These can include being caught up in mindless habitual activities or feeling scared to practice.
3. There are many ways of being caught up in mindless habitual activities. We explored some of those in the last posting (5/7/11). Generally, though, if this is what's going on for you, you might be very busy with work or family, or you might be spending a lot of time playing computer games, surfing the internet, or distracting yourself from the present moment in some other way. When you're used to being busy, it can feel unnatural and awkward to break the momentum and do something that feels so different.
A related obstacle is reluctance to let go of a familiar way of being or sense of identity. In Buddhist teachings, one's sense of having a fixed and solid identity is the biggest obstacle to tuning into one's natural wisdom or "brilliant sanity" (see the posting from 12/13/09).
4. In addition, some people are afraid to meditate. They are scared of what they might feel if they are not busy distracting themselves. They might be fearful of being bored or of feeling intense emotions. I often see this with therapy clients. Often when we begin our work together, they are not ready yet to experience intense fear or memories of abuse by themselves. They fear that if they meditate, or let go of their usual strategies of numbing or being mindless, they will feel overwhelmed by the intensity of those memories or emotions.
Ways to Deal with the Challenges:
1. The first step in dealing with difficulty getting to the cushion is to clarify exactly what one is trying to do. This begins with contemplating for oneself what one's inspiration is. Why do you want to practice mindfulness meditation? For many people, there is a strong desire to be more present in one's life. For others, there is the knowledge that whatever one practices lays down pathways in the brain, and they wish to do things that enhance their health and not their confusion. For still others there is the wish to cultivate the natural qualities of the mind suggested by the Buddhist teachings including: clarity, compassion, equanimity, generosity, and wisdom. All of these are good reasons to practice, and there may be others. Notice, though, that developing these things take time, and that meditation is not a quick fix approach. Generally, meditation practice is a lifetime activity. Like eating and brushing your teeth, once is not enough.
Then, once one feels clear-or clear enough-about why one wants to practice, it is important to know how one wishes to do it. That is, what technique will one use? You can read about different approaches to mindfulness meditation. For example, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Mipham Rinpoche, and many others have written about how to practice. You can also look at the posting on this blog from 1/19/10 which describes one particular method.
2. The next step is having realistic expectations about what happens when one practices mindfulness meditation, both while practicing and with respect to the results that might occur later. First, it is very important to understand that there is no "correct" experience. Mindfulness means bringing curiosity to whatever occurs in one's experience. As we practice, over time, we learn to bring curiosity and to let go of judging what happens. To begin with, though, we may see that we are quite judgmental about ourselves. We just include whatever happens. If we wait until we're already mindful and compassionate, we can never begin!
When I sit on my meditation cushion, sometimes I'm fully present and friendly toward my experience; sometimes I'm completely distracted and lost in thoughts; sometimes I am mindful of thoughts and emotions as they come and go in what Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck once wrote about as "a bigger container." Sometimes I am caught up with memory; other times, I am planning what to write in this blog. From the point of view of the practice, it doesn't matter: thinking, not thinking, it's all the same. We can bring our attention to anything at all ,and we cultivate our ability to be present and mindful. As we saw in another recent posting from 10/18/10, a very important moment in meditation practice occurs when we notice we've been distracted. If we can just notice we were gone and now we're back, we begin to cultivate kindness toward ourselves. Remember, there's no "right experience" or "perfect" meditation practice. I like to think that meditation practice helps us to make friends with ourselves as we already are (see the very first posting on this blog from 10/4/09).
3. What do we do if we keep forgetting to practice or if we're "addicted" to being mindless? Again, we start with our inspiration, and then we take some practical steps. Set a realistic goal for how much time and how often you can practice. Then, stick to it. If you set an unrealistic goal, traditional Buddhist teachings suggest that you will only discourage yourself and lose confidence. It is better to set an easy goal, like meditating for 5 minutes three times a week and then expanding from there if you are able to meet that goal. If it's too much, change the plan.
It can be very helpful to put some thought into where and when you will do your practice. I am fortunate in having a room in my home dedicated to meditation. Most people don't have that, but pick a corner of a room or some other spot. If you can, try to set aside a spot that's dedicated to your practice. Many people practice in their bedrooms. When I travel, I practice sitting on the bed. If it's practical, you can put reminders of your inspiration to practice in front of you where you sit. For example, you could put up a photo or religious symbol.
Sometimes people get derailed when they believe that they must have a perfect setting for practice. It doesn't have to be perfectly quiet. Just let the natural sounds of your environment be there. Of course, it may be easier to begin if you have a quiet space, but many of us don't have that. Even my meditation room admits the noises from outside. Today that included construction sounds from the school down the street where renovations are requiring a great many very noisy machines.
As for the question of being willing to let go of a familiar way of being, you can remind yourself that it's okay to feel different: bored, happy, sad, whatever. Careful examination of one's experience while not meditating will reveal that we are not actually any one way anyhow. If you feel awkward or uncertain while practicing, that's actually good news. I often tell my clients, when they complain of feeling awkward, that if they can stay present with feeling awkward it brings tremendous freedom. If you can tolerate feeling, and being, awkward, you can be anywhere. I remember going to a college reunion and feeling just as awkward in my 40s as I did in my teens. The difference was that now I could still be there and not judge myself as inadequate for not knowing what to do next.
4. Finally, if you are afraid to meditate because of what might arise emotionally, it may be the case that you need to do some work with the support of a counselor or therapist before trying to meditate. There can be great kindness toward yourself in recognizing that you don't have to go into the scary places alone. I would strongly encourage anyone who finds that they stay spaced out the whole time when they practice to explore with the support of a friend or professional what they might fear getting into. With practice and good counseling support, you may find that you can stay present with difficult experiences. It is a very personal choice how to proceed in such circumstances.