One of the first formal teachings I learned during my silent meditation retreat a few years ago, is that suffering is part and parcel of life, including the meditation practice. Whether you explore a religious (Buddhist) or non-secular (mindfulness) meditation practice, the teachings have the same flavor: we all suffer and there are sources of suffering in our life.
The term 'suffering' didn’t always feel like the appropriate word to describe problems or pain in my life or meditation practice. However, learning the nature of common challenges or suffering allowed me to recognize and better navigate them both on and off my meditation pillow.
The Buddha said,
“In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice”.
This is often summarized as,
When I first began practicing meditation, I often felt like I wasn’t doing it correctly, or that it wasn’t working. The challenges that arose were extremely distracting and it was easy to fall out of practice. Meditation can look deceptively easy and simple initially, but anyone that has attempted to sit and be quiet, still and focused for an extended amount of time knows that meditation is anything but easy. Often when the mindfulness practice becomes challenging, we forget it is active training of the mind to increase mindfulness, resilience, and concentration qualities. And this requires effort, consistency, and commitment. Learning to recognize and overcome these problems is part of the training.
The following are common roadblocks on the path to mindfulness:
Aversion – This arises when we have a reaction of dislike or want to make an experience go away. Aversion is the experience of not wanting or resisting something (thoughts, feelings, experiences). With new meditators it often sounds like, ‘How can I stop thinking?’ or ‘My mind keeps wandering to thoughts or memories I don’t want’. The feelings that foreshadow aversion are fear, anger, irritation, disgust or resentment.
Craving or Desire – This arises when we have a desire to have a certain experience during meditation or strong feelings of longing for experiences, people, or substances. Craving is the experience of wanting something (thoughts, feelings, experiences). It comes in the form of greed or clinging to the things that we want. This sounds like, ‘I want to have a really good meditation practice,’ or ‘I fantasize about favourable things in meditation’.
Restlessness or Agitation – This is the experience of being uncomfortable. It is like an itch that cannot be relieved; this sensation can be very displeasing and distracting. Restlessness can be the desire to move during meditation. It may also arise as mental agitation when you feel restless. This sounds like, ‘I am bored,’ or ‘I am annoyed’.
Sleepiness – This arises in the form of drowsiness or mental sluggishness. Sleepiness can be mental, physical, or both. It sounds like, ‘I keep falling asleep during meditation’.
Doubt – This arises as personal doubt, uncertainty, or skepticism. Doubt sounds like, ‘I can’t do this practice,’ ‘this practice is stupid,’ or ‘meditation is not for me’. Doubt is sneaky and very believable, but remember that challenges are part of the practice. Mindfulness is for everyone, and it requires persistence, courage, and curiosity through the challenges.