It’s surprising to see how often people who are writing about meditation practice have trouble with the discipline of said meditation practice. Before I sound like a total hypocrite, I will openly admit that I only read about Buddhism and meditation for many years before I got a grounded practice, but it’s utterly fascinating to me how universal an issue this seems to be. In the beginning, it makes sense – there’s a lot that seems “unpleasant” about meditating. But later on, after more practice, we know the benefits more clearly and yet, we still don’t want to put in the work. What’s the deal with that?
I wonder if this is a distinctly American (or Western) malady. I read in one blog post recently about a couple who keep a calendar of their sits on the refrigerator. Really? Are we 12 and being forced to take piano lessons? Is meditation such a chore?
Part of it, undoubtedly, is our over-analytic minds. In the US and much of the west we spend so much time acquiring intellectual knowledge, that it feels very comfortable to just approach what’s undoubtedly a practice as just another thing to study academically. We are equally afraid of encountering psychic pain. Mostly we just don’t want to accept whatever’s there for us to experience – we always want it to be other. Bill Morgan in, “Resistance in Meditation” in a 2002 issue of the Insight Journal explains:
There is resistance to forming a direct and intimate relationship with the first noble truth of suffering. We want to understand it intellectually, and to say, “Oh, yeah, I get that. The Buddha said that suffering is wanting something other than what is there [this is one way to understand dukkha]. No problem.” But when it’s actually happening in the mind, and we see, “This is happening, but I want something else to be there—not this. Or, I want this to stay—not go away. Yeah, that’s what he was talking about. But that’s enough now!” It’s hard to actually sit with it, isn’t it?
He says we are ambivalent about waking up. Horrors! How could that possibly be? We are even more afraid of coming face to face with the reality of anatta or no-self. Bill continues:
So there are competing tendencies both to look more closely and to turn away. There are moments when you say, “Oh, I think there is something important here.” Then the mind, a moment later, is turning and running away. The resistance takes two forms. The first is thinking—and we identify strongly with thinking—about meditation and about how the mind works. “Oh, now I understand. The self is really just constructed moment-to-moment. That’s really cool.” Rather than actually hanging out with the dissolution moment-to-moment, the mind is trying to make meaning of it to keep itself secure.
We also have the tendency to seek out only the pleasurable aspects of life. So then we can get attached to the kind of samadhi that comes from deep concentration, we don’t want to do any investigation into the Three Characteristics (impermanence, suffering/stress, no-self).
The second form resistance may take is returning to focus again only on the breath. The breath becomes a refuge. As concentration deepens, there is a pleasurable quality that starts to happen there with the breath, a sense of peace and ease. “Maybe I’ll just stay here with the breath. This is sweet.” So we get attached to this sweet feeling. It’s like a port in the storm. The attachment to concentration becomes, paradoxically, one of the last holdouts or hiding places of the separate self. We need concentration to have insight, but once we get enough concentration to have really deep insight, we’d rather stay with the concentration. This is a more subtle form of the pleasure principle at work. The sweet attachment that can happen with concentration provides a buffer from some more difficult kinds of things that are there waiting to be revealed by insight.
So, it seems we are between a rock and a hard place. If we don’t practice enough, it all seems to be painful. If we practice enough to develop concentration, then we become attached to the pleasurable aspects of meditation. In all of this, we are tripped up by fixed ideas – of what we believe meditation is or should be, of what we want and expect in terms of experience, of what we believe pleasant and unpleasant to be. Undoubtedly everyone has judged their meditation at some point as “bad” because of agitation or pain, etc., or “good” because the whole hour just whizzed by. But how do you know you weren’t just asleep? Complacency lurks behind the pleasant and peaceful and, we are likely not even meditating if we just allow the mind to settle into dullness and drowsiness and can’t arouse interest in the different mind states – in what is actually arising and passing away moment to moment.
From my own experience, I see the greed and expectation as typical of a results-orientation that so many of us have, and yet it seems almost to be built in that we associate the work itself as something almost loathsome! My Burmese teacher would describe it as a pendulum of lobha and dosa, you swing to one side of greed – wanting something to be a certain way – and then, inevitably whatever it is won’t meet your expectations, and you swing to the other extreme of anger. One of the most important (though elementary) insights I experienced during long retreat was to realize that I had the idea that I didn’t like to meditate. After three months of being in pain virtually every single time I sat, day in and day out, I realized that I was in pain because I was angry. I was angry because I didn’t want to meditate! And the only reason I could come up with for not wanting to meditate was because of this fixed idea. The anger certainly didn’t make sense given the benefits derived from practice, but it was a real blockage for a long time…And then all of the sudden, the pain was gone.
The way I kept checking on this was to just ask every time I sat, “what’s the attitude?” Usually just checking was enough; there didn’t even need to be a specific answer. Just asking the question would bring me back to a place of not wanting, not resisting. So much of this practice is about attitude and having the right attitude, which in U Tejaniya’s terms is “it’s all just nature, phenomena”, this is not me, my, mine. Just checking helps provide some spaciousness, less identification. So now we’re just sitting, now just standing up, now just walking, now just talking. And all the while we can do these activities with an awareness that these activities are happening and we are being moved along with the flow of life. There’s no need to want or to resist practice, really.
So I encourage you to check your attitude regularly, and to inquire into those fixed ideas the next time you sit. If you check and you see there’s resistance, then just observe the resistance, make it an object of your meditation. Though we should know when it is more skillful to divert our attention elsewhere (if we’re really angry, it may be better to focus on a neutral object like the breath, for example), really we can do this with any and all difficult emotions. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana says:
If you are miserable you are miserable; this is the reality, that is what is happening, so confront that. Look it square in the eye without flinching. When you are having a bad time, examine the badness, observe it mindfully, study the phenomenon and learn its mechanics. The way out of a trap is to study the trap itself, learn how it is built. You do this by taking the thing apart piece by piece. The trap can’t trap you if it has been taken to pieces. The result is freedom.
We learn, he says, “by examining it to death”. Attitude, fixed ideas, feelings, thoughts, whatever it is, being with these passing states and inquiring into their roots – this is the practice.
More Reading on Resistance to Meditation
Chapter 10, “Dealing with Problems”, Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (see “Problem 11: Resistance to Meditation”, though the whole chapter is useful)
“Working on Physical Discomfort During Meditation”, Shinzen Young (deals more specifically with resistance to physical pain)
“Dealing with Resistance to Meditation”, Wildmind Buddhist Meditation (provides some helpful tactics, i.e., using resistance as an object of meditation itself, from a choiceless awareness perspective)
Some reasons from Ben Langley at “The Top Five Most Lame Excuse NOT to Meditate”