Problems are inevitable with mindfulness meditation discipline; they should be expected. The problems you will necessarily face on this path are precisely the means that will help you progress along the way. Facing these difficulties in mindfulness meditation will give us practice in confronting problems for the rest of our lives.
In time, you’ll see that what you thought were problems turn out to be stepping-stones to greater mindfulness. Remember that the most important aspect of any meditation practice is persistence. Never give up, and you will never fail.
(Also Read: Meditation Position: Where to Be for Meditation)
Table of Contents
I. Facing Mindfulness Meditation Difficulties with Courage
Meditation is a microcosm of the rest of our life. Just as our lives are fraught with difficulties, so too is our meditation practice. Perhaps it is even more so, for in meditating we bring the manifold problems of our lives to sit with us while we face the special challenges that come with meditation itself.
However, we should do more than just expect difficulties; we should welcome them. The real key to dealing with the problems we face in meditation is the attitude we take toward them. Often, our approach to life’s difficulties is avoidance rather than confrontation.
Only the complete acceptance of suffering leads to its end. To accept suffering, rather than flee from it, requires courage—the determination to look at difficulty straight in the eye. Courage is the fundamental attitude for facing problems.
Although we sometimes equate courage and fearlessness, courage is not the absence of fear. Fear is an essential component of courage. You cannot truly be courageous unless you can feel fearfully. If you’re able to stand your ground rather than averting your gaze or taking flight, that’s courage.
The very posture we assume as we meditate symbolizes the courage to which we aspire. When we determine to be still for 30 minutes, we’re declaring our intention to look bravely at whatever our mind churns up without implementing our usual exit strategy.
Facing difficulties is made easier by viewing them as opportunities to grow in awareness—to deepen our self-knowledge and our skills of compassion. We progress further by courageously meeting our difficulties than by not having them at all.
As you reflect on the history of your life, you can see that the things that have contributed most to your personal development have been the trials you’ve faced and passed through.
As we consider our difficulties in prospect, rather than in retrospect, the fears begin to well up in us. Perhaps we fear them because we think they’ll overwhelm us, but the vast majority of our fears never materialize.
Consider thinking of difficulties as merely things that require attention. Many times, there is nothing to do and nothing to solve— only something to watch, embrace, and learn from.
II. The Difficulties of Mindfulness Meditation
There are certain difficulties associated with the discipline of meditation that is qualitatively no different than similar issues that arise when we’re not meditating, but the specific aspects of meditation practice make them seem more prominent and more urgent.
Pain may be the most common of these problems. Almost everyone has to adjust somehow to the physical discomfort that comes with meditation: Backs begin to ache, knees start to hurt, or legs go to sleep. Some of these discomforts will subside after continued practice, but some discomforts never go away.
When you begin to experience pain, do what you can to eliminate it. If your clothes are too restrictive, change them. If you find sitting on a cushion too painful, try a chair. There is enough pain in life without adding more of it to mindfulness practice.
Certain discomforts cannot be removed by altering our circumstances. However, meditation practice shows us that many of those discomforts can be mitigated by mindfulness.
III. Pain versus Suffering in Mindfulness Meditation
The mindfulness tradition understands pain as an unpleasant sensation. Because we comprise physical bodies, pain is inevitable. Suffering, however, is not the same as pain, although most of us equate the two.
Suffering, as it’s understood in mindfulness practice, is a mental and emotional response. It may or may not be associated with the sensation of pain. It’s possible to suffer without pain, just as it’s possible to feel pain without suffering.
When the sensation of pain arises, we usually respond immediately with resistance, which is why pain and suffering are so closely associated in our minds. The slightest discomfort might cause us to wince and groan.
Our minds may begin to go through any number of conditioned reactions: We feel a sense of unfairness, lodge a protest, and then fear sets in. Sometimes, fear turns to panic.
Underlying all of these forms of resistance is the same belief: Pain shouldn’t happen to us. That belief is a great source of our suffering. It can condition anger, fear, panic, and disillusionment.
One way to reduce our suffering, then, is to align our minds with reality. Believing that pain shouldn’t happen to us is delusional; it is inconsistent with the nature of the world. Rather than resist, we can be open to pain—to respond to it with compassionate mindfulness.
It is possible, with sufficient training, to become an observer of our pain. Refining this technique can lessen one’s suffering and may lessen one’s pain.
IV. Dealing with Pain in Mindfulness Meditation
If physical discomfort appears as you meditate, allow the pain to become the object of your attention. Simply let the sensation itself provide the anchor for your awareness and become mindful of the pain as you would be of your breath. Watch the pain as you would watch your inhalation and exhalation.
Try to relax any tension or contraction of muscles surrounding the painful sensation. Observe the sensation with curiosity. Try to narrow your focus on the pain. Watch the pain change and move. If your focus is sharp enough, you can perceive the impermanent nature of pain. If you cannot stay focused on the sensation itself, direct your attention to how you’re reacting to it.
As you study your pain, you may find your resistance to it diminishing. It may continue to hurt, but you may suffer less because you are no longer struggling against it. With enough practice, you may find yourself simply watching pain as nothing more than a sensation, like any other.
In the early stages of practice, it is unrealistic to expect that this technique of observation will substantially lessen the suffering associated with severe pain, such as migraines. However, even that kind of pain can be ameliorated with mindfulness over time.
Begin your work with pain on a minor discomfort, such as an itch. With itching, as with most sorts of discomforts, we reflexively try to stop it. The next time you get an itch as you’re meditating, don’t scratch. Instead, observe. Draw your attention to the itch and investigate it. Notice its qualities and its impermanence.
After a few minutes of mindfulness, you may be able to watch the itch dissolve. If it doesn’t, it’s okay to scratch. When you scratch, however, just make sure you do so with complete awareness.
As you continue working with little sensations, you will eventually become skilled enough to use these methods with more intense expressions of pain. People who endure chronic pain, in particular, have found the mindfulness approach to help ameliorate the sorts of pain that medicines are unable to treat.
V. Dealing with Strange Sensations in Mindfulness Meditation
As you meditate, you may feel a wide variety of strange things. These weird sensations probably occur all the time, but it’s often only in meditation that we become sharply conscious of them. These sensations may be unpleasant, but they can just as well be pleasant or neutral. Such feelings are normal for meditation.
Some of the commonly reported odd sensations include tingling in the arms, hands, legs, and feet; feeling the entire body becoming lighter, even to the extent of floating; and feeling the body—or parts of it, such as the hands—becoming larger.
Unusual feelings can also involve vision and sound. So, if you meditate with your eyes closed, you may become distracted by the displays of lights on the insides of your eyelids. And if you keep your eyes open, you might see odd patterns on the floor. If it is extremely quiet, you may find the silence deafening.
If one of these strange sensations arises as you meditate, you should treat it like anything else: You should observe it and watch your reaction to it. And if it is unpleasant, view it without aversion; if it is a pleasant sensation, view it without desire or attachment.
VI. Dealing with Concentration
Difficulty concentrating is hardly a problem unique to meditation, but it can be particularly vexing in this practice because so much in meditation concerns this skill.
Focusing attention on the breath and returning to it when the mind wanders is the fundamental exercise for developing concentration and refining mindfulness. Over time, diligence with this practice can dramatically improve our ability to attain one-pointedness.
If you’re finding it hard to stay focused, first consider whether this difficulty might derive from experiences apart from meditation. For example, drowsiness is a potential threat to the concentration that can often be dealt with before meditation begins by getting more sleep or eating less.
While we can eliminate certain external circumstances that disrupt concentration, it is not always possible to do so. If it were, perhaps we wouldn’t need to meditate at all.
Just the ups and downs of a typical day can take their toll on the mind’s capacity to remain attentive. If you cannot settle those disrupting influences before sitting down to meditate, sit down anyway.
There are several exercises you may use to regain and strengthen your concentration. First, simply try to take deeper breaths, inhaling and exhaling more forcibly than usual. This will heighten the sensation of breathing, giving your attention a more prominent object of focus. You can continue this exercise until you can stay more attentive to the breath.
Another concentrative practice involves counting. There are several variations of this technique. When your attention can remain with the breath for longer periods, you can drop the counting. Counting itself can become a distraction, so use it only as a prop and then let it go.
Note: Most people have to adjust to the physical discomfort that comes with meditation, including backaches and knee pain.
VII. Dealing with Discouragement
Discouragement often comes when we meet with little success in coping with physical discomfort, weird sensations, and the inability to concentrate. Discouragement leads us to want to quit the practice altogether.
There are some good ways to face discouragement in meditation— and they happen to be good ways to deal with it for the rest of our lives. The first way is to remind ourselves that the only way to fail at meditation is not to do it. The struggles we face and the ostensible “failures” we have been part of the process.
The second thing you can do is to examine your experience of being disheartened. Look at it dispassionately. See where it comes from. Watch it come and go. Discouragement is just an emotion like any other. It will pass away.
Sometimes the greatest problem we face in meditation is just sitting down. Regardless of how you feel about meditation at a particular moment, you should just do it anyway—no argument, no excuses. If that strategy fails, try to remind yourself of the many benefits to be gained by developing your mindfulness.
Usually, any aversive feelings toward the practice evaporate after a few minutes once you sit down. Once you settle into your meditation, you can begin to explore the source of your aversion. You’ll probably discover some sort of fear lurking underneath your resistance, which you can meet with courage.
courage: The ability to accept suffering rather than flee from it; the determination to look at difficulty straight in the eye.
IX. Things to Consider:
1. How do you define courage? Why is courage important in living a full life? What aspects of your life could most benefit from the application of the virtue of courage?
2. What role does fear play in your life? What fears restrict your life the most?
(Related: How to Practice Mindfulness?)