Obstacles to Mindfulness Practice and How to Overcome Them – Part 1

by Miro Cansky on 4 May, 2011

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Learning mindfulness practice can be very exciting. Initially, we may get a sense of falling in love with our practice, feeling supported by it and nurtured in our heart and mind. By paying more attention to our everyday life, we often discover a layer of experience that is deeper and richer than we thought, only waiting for us to uncover it.

There are times, however, when we struggle with sustaining an ongoing meditation practice. We may either find it difficult to actually get ourselves to do the practice, or, when we manage to sit down on the meditation cushion or chair, we cannot engage the mind in the technique of returning to the present moment. In those times, we are facing obstacles to our mindfulness practice. In this article and the following parts, we will describe the most common obstacles to a regular meditation practice and a set of skilful ways to overcome them.

The Universality of the Obstacles

The teachings on obstacles to mindfulness practice and their antidotes come from a very long lineage of meditation practitioners who faced the same difficulties and worked through them with diligence, enthusiasm and wisdom. Even though we live in a different time and have a different lifestyle, the way human minds work remains the same, which makes the instructions as fresh and applicable as they were thousands of years ago. This article and the following parts are inspired by teachings of two Buddhist meditation masters, Chogyam Trungpa and Sakyong Mipham.

What Are the Obstacles?

Obstacles to mindfulness practice can be described as habitual ways of closing ourselves off from the experience of the present moment. Perhaps we have glimpsed the power and beauty of letting ourselves be touched by the world around us. Those moments can be exhilarating but they can also sometimes be scary. As we peek out of the hard shell of our habitual behaviours, we might get frightened by the brilliant and open space we discover, and so we retract back.

 

Obstacle No. 1 – Lethargy

Obstacles to Mindfulness - LethargyI Just Can’t Do It
One way of pulling away from the fresh air of ‘here and now’ is hiding in lethargy. This obstacle can have debilitating effects on our practice, as it can manage to prevent us from getting to the meditation cushion in the first place.

When under influence of the lethargy, we identify with our negative thoughts and our mind feels dull and sleepy. It feels as if all energy that supplied our sense of effort has been drained out of us and we feel deflated, pale and lifeless. We think to ourselves ‘I can’t do it, it just feels too much’. We seem to be missing any enthusiasm and passion for the practice, which in turn comes from not having the right view. If we don’t have enough reasons to work with our mind and body, sooner or later our connection with daily mindfulness practice will vanish.

Obstacle No. 2 – Procrastination

Obstacles to Mindfulness - BusynessSorry, I Have Too Much To Do
The other way of cutting ourselves off from our practice is through a sense of busyness. We are so speedy and have so many important things to do that we can’t manage to slow down enough to look at our mind. On our way to the cushion, we all of a sudden remember that we have to call our friend or check something on the internet.

The tasks that we were avoiding before (like washing the dishes or hoovering) become suddenly very attractive as they offer us an appealing alternative to our meditation practice. Before we know it, we realise that another day has gone by and we haven’t managed to engage our mind in meditation. Underneath this speed and constant activity often lies a slight sense of anxiety, a reluctance to rest in the fullness of our experience without having anything to do. If we are used to being very busy, what will define us in moments of stillness?

Antidotes to Lethargy and Procrastination

1. Conviction

Conviction that Mindfulness WorksNobody can truly convince us that mindfulness works. The only way we can develop enough certainty in its effectiveness and power is by engaging in the practice ourselves and discovering the benefits of returning again and again to our moment-to-moment experience. The more we do that, the more our conviction grows that sitting on a cushion and doing nothing is a worthwhile activity.

As our mind and heart begin to open, we gain certainty in the benefits of mindfulness. This in turn gives us more inspiration in those difficult moments when we lack enthusiasm or become seduced by our busyness. Eventually, there might be days when we find ourselves wanting to sit down and follow our breath. We realise that we long to taste again the fresh and restful quality of meditation, which in itself is the true sense of conviction coming from our own experience.

2. Determination and energy

Energy to PractiseWhen we discover that our engagement in practice is weakening, it is often helpful to look at our view of why we meditate (or don’t meditate for that matter). As we look closer at our reasons for starting a mindfulness practice in the first place, we might realise that we have forgotten what originally brought us onto the path of mindful living. Perhaps we read a book about mindfulness or went to an inspiring talk. Maybe we talked to a friend or colleague whose passion inflamed our own curiosity about meditation. Whatever it was, this initial spark was strong enough to propel us onto the meditation cushion in order to get a first-hand experience of mindfulness.

As the flames of desire for practice weaken, we need to supply more fuel, more energy. This is the idea of joyful exertion. Our discipline and strong determination will assist us in overcoming those challenging times when obstacles arise. There might be days when we simply need to get ourselves to do the practice, even if our habitual distracted mind tells us otherwise. In this way, our determination and energy will serve us as a bridge to cross the muddy waters of lethargy and procrastination.

3. Flexibility

Flexibility of Body and MindThe more we learn how to stay present with emotional discomfort, negative thoughts or pain in our body, the more flexible our mind becomes. Gradually we gain certainty in our ability to look beyond our immediate comfort or needs and find a place within ourselves that allows us to simply witness all our experiences, without retracting from them or hanging on to them.

Through the mindfulness training our mind becomes more open and less rigid. This flexibility enables us to step out of our stream of thoughts that pulls us away from meditation. We need flexibility to do meditation, and we need meditation to make the mind more flexible. Through this symbiosis, regular practice and an open mind support each other.

 

In the next post we will have a look at the obstacle of forgetfulness. So don’t forget to Subscribe via RSS or Subscribe via email!

Related Posts:

Obstacles to mindfulness and their antidotes
Initial Problems with Practising Mindfulness and Their Solutions

The teachings on obstacles to mindfulness practice and their antidotes come from a very long lineage of meditation practitioners who faced the same difficulties and worked through them with diligence, enthusiasm and wisdom. Even though we live in a different time and have a different lifestyle, the way human minds work remained the same, which makes those instructions as fresh and applicable as they were thousands of years ago. This article and the following parts are inspired by teachings of two Buddhist meditation masters, Chogyam Trungpa and Sakyong Mipham.

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