Everyone encounters problems and difficult patches in the course of meditating, so don’t let them get you upset. Don’t view them as signs that you’re making no progress or that you’re a hopeless meditator. Problems are an excellent opportunity for figuring out where you have unskillful habits and learning how to do something about them. This is what develops your discernment. In fact, the process of learning how to deal with the two most common problems in meditation, pain and wandering thoughts, is what has brought many people in the past to awakening.
The strategies offered here in Part Two focus on what you might do to deal with these problems while you’re meditating. If you find that they don’t work for you, try improvising some solutions on your own. This is how you develop your own personal tool kit as a meditator, so that you have a wide range of strategies for dealing with problems as they occur. If you stick to only one strategy, the anti-meditation factions of your committee will quickly find ways to work around that strategy. If you can vary your strategies, you’re not such an easy mark for their ploys.
If nothing you do while meditating seems to work, the real problem may lie in the way you live your life as a whole. Suggestions for how you might adjust your life to support your meditation are given in Part Three.
Pain is something you will encounter, on and off, throughout the course of meditation, so you have to learn to view it with discernment and equanimity, as something perfectly normal. Again, don’t let yourself get upset around the pain. You might find it useful to drop the word “pain,” and replace it with “pains,” for not all pains are alike. Learning the differences among them is one of the prime ways you’ll develop discernment into the workings of the mind.
If the pains you encounter while sitting in meditation are connected to an old injury, surgery, or structural imbalance, adjust your posture so as not to aggravate your condition. For instance, if you’re trying to sit cross-legged but have an injured knee, you might place a folded blanket or small pillow under the knee to help support it. If this doesn’t help, sit in a chair.
A good rule of thumb is that if the pain disappears a few minutes after getting up from meditation, you know you aren’t harming your body.
If, as you’re just getting started in the meditation, the pain makes it impossible to keep focused on the breath, tell yourself that you’ll sit with it for a few minutes so that you don’t get into the habit of jumping every time it cracks the whip, and then you’ll mindfully shift your posture.
However, if you encounter pain in the meditation that’s not connected with a preexisting condition, and your concentration is a little more developed, you should use the pain as an opportunity to develop both your concentration and your discernment. There are three steps in doing this.
1. Don’t change your posture and don’t focus attention directly on the pain. Keep your attention focused on a part of the body you can make comfortable by the way you breathe. Ignore the emergency bulletins that some of the committee members of the mind are sending to you about the pain: that it’s going to damage you, that you can’t stand it, whatever. Just tell yourself that pain is normal, that the pain before you die may well be worse than this, so it’s good to learn how to deal with pain while you’re still alive and relatively healthy.
Also remind yourself that the pain is not your pain unless you lay claim to it, so why lay claim to it? Just let it be there in its part of the body, while you train yourself to stay firmly in another part of the body. It’s like eating an apple with a rotten spot. Eat just the good part of the apple and let the rotten spot go.
2. When the spot where your attention is focused feels really comfortable, allow comfortable breath sensations to flow from the spot of your focus through the pain, loosening up any feelings of tension or tightness that may have developed around the pain. (The mind sometimes has an unconscious habit of trying to contain the pain with a shell of tension so that it won’t spread, but that just aggravates the pain. Consciously breathing through that shell can disperse it.) Doing this may make the pain go away, or it may not. If it does, you’ve learned that the way you were breathing was aggravating the pain. Take that as a lesson for the future. If the pain doesn’t go away, remind yourself that the duty with regard to pain is not to make it go away. Your duty is to comprehend it. To that aim, if you feel ready to investigate it further, go to step three. If you don’t feel ready, you can either stay here with step two or return to step one.
You may find that pains in particular parts of your body respond best to good breath energy spread from other particular spots. For example, a pain in your stomach may be alleviated by developing pleasant breath sensations in the area of the back right behind the stomach. A pain in your right side may be alleviated by developing pleasant breath sensations in the corresponding spot on the left. Pains in the legs may be alleviated by focusing on developing pleasant breath sensations in your spine, starting with the back of the neck and going down through the tail bone and pelvis. There’s a lot to explore in this area, and it’s something that each person has to learn for him or herself, as we each have idiosyncratic ways of relating to the breath currents and the pains in the body.
3. If the pain persists, and your concentration feels solid enough to deal directly with it, focus on the sensation of the pain and ask yourself questions about it.
• For example, is the pain aimed at you, or is it just happening?
• Are you trying to push it away, or are you content just to watch it so that you can understand it?
• Is the pain a single, solid sensation, or is it composed of a series of rapid sensations, arising and passing away in quick succession?
• How do you visualize the pain to yourself? What happens when you change that visual image?
• What happens when you stop labeling it as “pain,” and simply call it “sensation”?
• On which side of the pain do you feel you’re located? For instance, if the pain is in the leg, do you feel that you’re located above the pain? What happens if you tell yourself that you’re below the pain?
• Is the pain really where you think it is? For instance, if you feel a pain in your stomach, what happens when you tell yourself that it’s actually in your back?
• Is the pain the same thing as the body, or is it something else? (This question works best when you’ve learned to analyze the way you experience the body from within in terms of four properties: energy, solidity, warmth, and coolness—see the discussion under the fourth jhana, in Part Four. When you look carefully at the sensations of pain, you’ll see that they don’t correspond to any of these properties. The tendency to conflate the pain with the solid property is what makes the pain seem so persistent.)
• Are you in the line of fire, receiving the pain, or are you simply watching it go past you and disappearing? (A useful perception to hold with regard to pain is that you’re riding in the backseat of an old station wagon, the type where the backseat faces back, and you’re simply watching the individual sensations of pain go past you and disappear.)
There are many other questions you might ask yourself about the pain. The important thing is learning to question how you perceive your relationship to the pain. On the one hand, if you keep questioning the pain, you don’t let yourself fall into the perception of being its passive victim. You’re taking a more active role, as the doer, not letting things take their old, accustomed course. This in itself gives you a measure of independence from the pain. On the other hand, you’ll learn that if you apply unskillful perceptions to the pain, they create a bridge into the mind so that the mind feels mental pain—impatience, irritation, worry—over the physical pain. But if you can learn to drop those perceptions, either by replacing them with more skillful perceptions, or by dropping—as soon as you sense them—all perceptions that develop around the pain, the bridge is cut. The mind can be perfectly fine, even when the body is in pain. This is an important stage in developing insight.
If you find that the approach of examining the pain in step three isn’t giving you any clarity around the pain, and your ability not to feel victimized by the pain is beginning to falter, it’s a sign that your concentration is not yet strong enough to deal directly with the pain. Go back to steps one and two.
One of the mind’s most basic habits is to create thought-worlds and then to inhabit them. This is what the Buddha meant by becoming. The ability to engage in becoming is often a useful skill, as it enables you to use your imagination in planning for the future and contemplating lessons from the past. But this skill can become a destructive habit, as you create thought-worlds that develop greed, aversion, delusion, and other destructive mental habits. Your ability to plan for the future can turn into worries that can destroy your peace of mind. Your ability to relive the past can make you miserable in the present.
One of the important skills in meditation is learning how to turn these thought-worlds off and on at will, so that you can think when you need to think, and stop thinking when you don’t. In this way, the mind’s ability to create thought-worlds won’t cause it harm.
In the beginning stages of meditation, you need a few quick and easy rules to help you decide whether a thought is worth following or not. Otherwise, you’ll get sucked into every thought-world that can deceive you into thinking that it deserves your attention. So while you’re learning to focus on the breath, hold to a simple rule: Any thought connected with improving your focus on the breath is okay. Any other thought has to be dropped.
If a thought concerning your work or other responsibilities comes to mind while you’re meditating, tell yourself that you’ll deal with it right after you leave meditation. Or you may decide to set aside a five or ten minute period at the end of meditation specifically to think about issues in your life that require serious consideration.
If, before you start meditating, you realize that you’re facing an important decision in life that might interfere with your meditation, tell yourself that you’ll use the meditation period to clear your mind before contemplating the decision. Before meditating, pose whatever questions you want to have answers for, and then drop them. Refuse to pay them any attention if they pop up during the meditation. Focus your attention exclusively on the breath. When you emerge from the meditation, see if an answer presents itself to your awareness. There’s no guarantee that the answer will be correct, but at least it’s coming from a quiet spot in the mind, and it gives you something to put to the test. If no answer presents itself, your mind is at any rate clearer and sharper than it was before the meditation, putting you in a better position to contemplate the issues you face. But be sure that while you’re meditating you don’t have anything to do with thoughts about those issues at all.
There are five basic strategies in dealing with wandering thoughts. Each of them helps to strengthen your concentration. But each can also give lessons in discernment.
1. Return to the breath.
As soon as you realize that you’ve lost your focus on the breath, go right back to the breath. Be prepared for the fact that this will happen countless times in the course of your meditation, so be on the lookout for the early warning signs that the mind is about to leave the breath and go somewhere else. Sometimes the mind is like an inchworm at the edge of a leaf. One end is standing on the leaf; the other end is waving around, hoping that another leaf will come its way. As soon as it touches the new leaf, it grabs on and lets go of the old leaf. In other words, part of your mind may be with the breath, but another part is looking for somewhere else to go. The more quickly you can catch sight of the mind at this stage in the process, the better. Simply remind yourself that you’re getting bored with the breath because you aren’t paying it careful attention. Give yourself a couple of really refreshing breaths, and the front end of the inchworm will get back on the original leaf. As you develop this skill, you begin to see the stages by which the mind creates thought-worlds, which means that you’re less likely to be fooled by them.
It’s like watching a play from behind the scenes. Ordinarily, when the set crew changes scenes in a play, they drop a curtain before changing the scenery. Only when the new scenery is in place do they raise the curtain, so as not to spoil the illusion that the action has actually moved to another location. The audience, of course, is happy to play along with the illusion. But if you’re behind the scenes, you sense the artificiality of it all and you’re less taken in.
In the same way, as you focus on the process of thought-creation, rather than on the content of the thoughts, you gain some important insights into how the mind creates thought-worlds for itself—important, because these thought-worlds are a central feature of the unnecessary suffering and stress you’re trying to understand and counteract. By focusing not on their content, but on the process by which they’re created, you begin to free yourself from their spell.
2. Focus on the drawbacks of letting yourself stay distracted.
If simply returning to the breath isn’t enough to keep you from continually returning to a series of thoughts, you have to look at the drawbacks of those thoughts. This involves two steps.
a. Ask yourself: If you were to follow those thoughts for the next hour or two, where would they take you? Toward a skillful life or an unskillful one? If they’re relatively skillful, are they more skillful than a mind well trained in meditation? No. So while you’re meditating they’re a waste of time. And what about their entertainment value? If they were a movie, would you pay to see them? Do you really gain anything by following them? What exactly attracts you to those thoughts? Is the pay-off worth the trouble they can cause? Try to find the question that helps you see the thoughts as clearly unworthy of your attention. When you’ve seen both the allure and the drawbacks of a particular way of thinking, you’re learning to see your thoughts as part of a causal process. This helps you to free yourself from their power.
b. Once you’re clear on the drawbacks of a particular thought, you can think of a topic that counteracts the emotion or urge lying behind it. For instance, if a thought is motivated by anger, try countering the anger with thoughts of goodwill—first for yourself, then for the person you’re angry at. If a thought is motivated by lust, think about the unattractive aspects of the human body—again, starting first with the contents of your own body, then going to the body you’re attracted to. A few of these alternative topics are discussed in the section on Disruptive Emotions, below.
Once the new topic has weakened your desire to return to the wandering thought, you can then turn your attention back to the breath.
3. Ignore the thoughts.
If the thoughts still keep chattering away, make up your mind that you’ll stay with the breath and simply let the thoughts chatter away in another part of your mind. They’re like stray dogs: If you give them any attention, they’ll keep pestering you. They’re like crazy people: Even if you try to chase them away, they’ll know that they’ve gotten to you, and that makes them try to pull you further into their crazy worlds. So you just ignore them. Remind yourself that even though there may be thoughts in the mind, they’re just other members of the committee. They haven’t destroyed the breath. The breath is still there to focus on. Eventually, from lack of attention, the distracting thoughts will go away on their own.
At the same time, you’ve learned a lesson in how the act of attention can strengthen or weaken the different potentials in your experience.
4. Relax the tension that keeps the thought going.
As you get more sensitive to the subtle breath energies in the body, you’ll come to notice that the act of holding onto a thought requires that you develop a slight pattern of tension somewhere in the body, as a kind of marker. Try to locate that pattern of tension, dissolve it with a breath, and the thought will go away from lack of support.
As your concentration gets better, you’ll be able to sense these patterns of tension forming even before they become conscious thoughts. You’ll come to see the stages by which thought-worlds form. They start as little knots of tension, and then a perception is applied to them, deciding whether to view the knots as physical or as mental phenomena. If the decision is to regard them as mental, then a further perception is applied: What is this thought about?
When you can see these steps, the mind in concentration becomes like a spider on a web: You stay at your spot, and then the sensitivity of the breath-web tells you that a knot of tension is forming at a particular section of the web. You go there, zap the knot with a shot of good breath energy that dissolves it, and then return to your spot.
This strategy gives important lessons in observing how physical and mental phenomena are related to each other.
5. Suppress the thought.
If your concentration and discernment aren’t yet good enough for these techniques to work with every distracting thought, then when they’ve all failed with a particularly persistent thought, place the tip of your tongue at the roof of your mouth, clench your teeth, and repeat to yourself over and over that you won’t think that thought. Or you might repeat a meditation word, like buddho, very quickly in the mind to jam the circuits until the temptation to follow the thought has subsided.
This fifth approach is like a sledgehammer compared to the other approaches, which are more like scalpels. But just as every handyman needs a sledgehammer in his toolkit, every meditator needs a few heavy tools to be prepared for all eventualities. That way unskillful thoughts won’t be able to bully you around.
This last approach involves less discernment than the other four, but it does teach a valuable lesson: that you shouldn’t overlook a useful strategy just because it seems elementary or crude. Be willing to use whatever works.
Particular types of wandering thoughts—such as lust and anger—have their own counteracting strategies. If you don’t have the energy to apply any of these strategies to wandering thoughts, it’s a sign that the problem is not restlessness. It’s drowsiness.
If you’re feeling sleepy, the first step is not to immediately regard it as a sign that you need to rest. Often the mind uses drowsiness as a way to avoid an issue that’s about to surface from your inner depths. As a meditator, you want to know about these deeper issues, so you can’t let yourself be fooled by this sham drowsiness. You have to test it whenever you encounter it.
The first test is to change your meditation topic. When you’re with the breath, this can mean changing the rhythm and texture of the breath, or the spot of your focus. For example:
• If short, gentle breathing is making you drowsy, you can try breathing long in and short out, or breathing more heavily.
• If staying with a single focal point is making you drowsy, try focusing on two points at once.
• Or you can move your focal point with every three or five breaths. Follow the roadmap given under step 3 in the section on Focusing on the Breath, or any other roadmap you may devise.
• Or try evaluating the breath energy in areas you tend to overlook.
Alternatively, you can change your meditation topic to one of the subsidiary topics listed in the Appendix. Contemplation of death—that death could happen at any time—is especially useful when drowsiness is coupled with laziness.
Or you can recite to yourself any poem or chanting passage that you may have memorized.
The second test is to change your posture. Get up from your meditation and rub your limbs with your hands. If it’s night and you can see the night sky, look up at the stars to freshen the mind. Wash your face. Then return to the sitting position.
The third test is to get up and do walking meditation. If that doesn’t remove the drowsiness, try walking carefully backwards to see if the fear of running into anything will keep you awake.
If the drowsiness remains, it’s a sign that the body needs to rest. Lie down and meditate until you fall asleep, first promising yourself that you’ll get up and meditate again as soon as you wake up. You won’t keep wallowing in the pleasure of lying down.
Closely related to drowsiness is a state of mind called delusion concentration. The mind is still, but you’re not clearly aware of where your attention is focused. When you come out of it, you may wonder whether you were asleep or awake. This can happen when the breath gets comfortable but you don’t spread your awareness to other parts of the body. You’re focused on a small area, and when the breath in that area gets very refined and comfortable, you lose track of it and slip into a pleasant, still, but blurry state of mind.
One way to prevent this is, as soon as the breath gets comfortable, to immediately start surveying the rest of the body. Try to notice how the breath energy is flowing in all the nooks and crannies of the body, even down to the spaces between the fingers and toes. Alternatively, you can visualize the various parts of the body—the bones, the organs—and see if the breath energy is spreading smoothly to those parts.
The important principle here is that when the mind is comfortable, it needs some work to do. Otherwise, it will drift off into drowsiness. As long as the work stays within the confines of the body, it won’t disturb your concentration. In fact, it will make the concentration even stronger and more resilient.
The phenomenon of falling into an “air pocket”—i.e., sitting very still and then suddenly being awakened by your head falling forward—comes from the same causes and can be cured in the same ways.
If you find yourself complaining about external noises while you’re meditating, remind yourself that the noise isn’t bothering you. You’re bothering the noise. Can you let the noise exist without your commenting on it? After all, the noise has no intention to bother you.
Also, think of your body as a screen on a large window. The noise is like the wind going through the screen. In other words, you offer no resistance to the noise, but you don’t let yourself be affected by it. It goes right through you without making physical or mental contact.
Troubles with the Breath Itself
1. Probably one of the most discouraging obstacles to breath meditation is an inability to feel the in-and-out breath. This often comes from an earlier physical or emotional experience that has caused you to block off your sensation of the body. You may require time to build up a sensitivity to the felt reality of the breath in the body, or to feel at ease with that sensitivity. This is an area that requires patience.
There are two possible approaches.
• One is to ask yourself where you do feel the breath. It may be only in the head or at some other isolated part of the body. Still, that gives you something to start with. Focus on that area gently but steadily, with an attitude of goodwill for it, telling yourself that you belong there. When you find that you can stay there with a sense of ease, gradually try to expand your sense of awareness right around that spot. What part of the body is right next to it? In which direction do you feel that part? (Your inner sense of the parts of your body may not be in alignment with how the body looks from the outside, but don’t let that concern you right now. Where do you feel the next part?) If a sense of fear arises, go back to the original area. Wait for a day or so, and then try expanding your awareness slightly again. Keep this up, back and forth, until you can inhabit the enlarged area with a sense of confidence. Be patient. If any specific fears or memories come up as you try to expand your awareness in this way, talk them over with someone whose judgment you trust.
• A second approach is to drop the breath for the time being and to develop the brahmaviharas (see Part One, section I, above) as your basic meditation exercise until you feel confident enough to try working with the breath again.
2. Another problem that can often be discouraging is an inability to find a comfortable breath. No matter how you adjust the breath, it doesn’t feel right. There are several ways to approach this problem.
• Ask yourself if you’re being too demanding. Does the breath feel okay? Are you trying to force it to be better than okay? If that’s what’s happening, be patient. Stick with the okay breath and give it some time. Your impatience may be putting too much strain on it. Allow it some time to relax and develop on its own.
• Ask yourself if you’re pinching the end of the out-breath to clearly mark it off from the following in-breath, or vice versa. This limits the ability of the breath to flow smoothly. If this is the case, allow the end of each out-breath to meld smoothly with the beginning of the following in-breath, and vice versa, so that the still moment between the breaths can have a chance to let a sense of ease spread through the body.
• Remind yourself that each breath will have at least one part—at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end—that feels more comfortable than not breathing. Look for that part of the breath and allow yourself to appreciate it. When this calms you down, the other parts of the breath cycle will be able to relax.
• Ask yourself if you’re focusing too hard in one spot. There’s a common tendency, when you’re focused on a particular part of the body, to put pressure on it—usually blocking or straining the way the blood flows in that part of the body. See if you can release that pressure but still maintain focus on that spot.
• Ask yourself if the way you visualize the breath to yourself is part of the problem. For example, do you visualize it as coming into the body only through one tiny spot, such as the nose? If so, that might be restricting the breath. Try visualizing the body as a sponge, with breath coming in and out easily through all the pores. Or you can ask yourself if you visualize the breath as unwilling to come into the body. If so, you’ll find yourself having to force it in. Try visualizing it as wanting to come into the body, and all you have to do is allow it in.
• Ask yourself if you’re unconsciously forcing the breath to comply with any cartoon ideas you might have of what comfortable breathing should feel like. People often assume that slow, long breathing is more comfortable than short, fast breathing, but that’s not always the case. Remind yourself that what counts as comfortable breathing is determined by what the body needs right now, so try to be more sensitive to those needs.
• Ask yourself if you’re trying to control the breath too much. You can test this by focusing attention on a part of the body where you have no sense of being able to control the movement of the breath, such as the base of the spine.
• If none of these approaches work, switch the topic of your focus to a theme that you find pleasurable and inspiring, such as goodwill, generosity (thinking of the times you were generous of your own free will), gratitude (thinking of people who went out of their way to help you), or virtue (thinking of cases where you or someone you admire behaved in ways you find noble and inspiring). Allow yourself to think about that theme for a while without paying attention to the breath. When the mind feels refreshed, try to notice how you’re breathing while you’re with that theme. The breath will have found a comfortable rhythm on its own. That will give you some ideas about how to breathe comfortably.
3. A third common problem is an inability to feel breath sensations in different parts of the body. This is often a problem of perception: The breath sensations are there, but you don’t recognize them as such. Part of your mind may think that it’s impossible for there to be breath energies flowing through the body. If that’s the case, treat this as an exercise in imagination: Allow yourself to imagine that breathing energy can flow through the nerves, and imagine it flowing in some of the patterns recommended in the basic instructions. Or imagine it flowing in the opposite directions. At some point, you will actually start to feel the movement of energy in one part of the body or another, and then this will no longer be an exercise in imagination.
In the meantime, survey the body and relax any patterns of tension you may feel in its various parts. Start with the hands and work up the arms. Then start with the feet and work up through the legs, the back, the neck, and into the head. Then do the front of the torso. The more relaxed the body, the more easily the breath energy will flow, and the more likely that you’ll be able to sense the flow.
Unusual Energies & Sensations
Pressure. As you release tension or tightness in different parts of the body, it can often give rise to unusually strong or unbalanced energies or sensations. This is normal, and these energies, if left alone, can often work themselves out. However, there are two cases where they can become a problem.
1. The first is when the release is not complete—when energy released from one area gets stuck in another, creating a strong sense of pressure. Two common areas where pressure tends to build up are in the head and around the heart. If the pressure is in the head, check to see whether the energy needs to drain down the front of the throat or down the spine. First focus on opening the energy channel down the front of your throat, and place your attention in the middle of the chest. Think of the energy draining down the channel in the throat to the area where you’re focused, both during the in-breath and during the out.
If that doesn’t work, consciously trace the energy channels down either side of the spine to see if there’s a point of blockage at any point. If you find one, think of it relaxing. Do this all the way down the spine. Focus your attention at your tailbone. Then visualize the breath going down the spine—again, both during the in-breath and during the out—and then flowing through your tailbone into the air.
If the pressure is in the middle of the chest, visualize opening the energy channels going out your arms through the palms of your hands. Focus your attention at the palms of your hands and think of breath energy radiating out from your chest—both during the in-breath and during the out—and going out through your palms.
You can also try a similar visualization with energy channels going down your legs and out through the soles of your feet.
As you open these channels, don’t think of pushing the energy into them. In particular, don’t think that you’re trying to push air into them. The breath you’re working with is energy, not air. And energy flows best when it’s not pressured. Simply think, “Allow.” And be patient. Try to distinguish between the flow of the blood—which, because it’s liquid, can build up pressure when it runs up against something solid—and the flow of the breath, which as an energy doesn’t need to build up pressure, as it can flow right through solids.
If you feel excess pressure in other parts of the body, try connecting those parts, in your imagination, with the energy channels going out the arms or legs.
2. The other main cause of excess pressure in different parts of the body is when, in an effort to speed up the movement of the breath energy in the body, you push it too much. Here again, the key word is “allow.” Allow the energy to flow. Don’t push it. A comfortable energy, when pushed, becomes uncomfortable. Be patient. Visualize a subtle breath energy that, as soon as you’re aware that you’ve started breathing in, has already spread throughout the body. After a while, you’ll sense that it really is there.
A tightness that doesn’t respond to the breath. If there are islands of tightness in the body that won’t dissolve no matter how comfortable the breath, you have to work around them. The more directly you focus on them, the worse they may get. So breathe gently around their edges and give them some space. They often represent members of your inner committee who don’t trust your good intentions, so you simply have to let them be. Be patient with them. At some point they’ll dissolve on their own.
Bands of tension running through the body. Check first to see if the bands of tension really are bands, or if the mind is playing connect-the-dots with them. In other words, there are occasions when the mind notices spots of tension in different parts of the body and connects them under a single perception of tension. This creates the sensation that the isolated spots are part of a single sensation.
To test if this is the case, imagine that your awareness is a set of buzz-saw blades, quickly and repeatedly cutting the bands of tension into isolated pieces wherever it notices them. If this lightens the sense of tension, then hold that perception in mind. The problem is not with the tension as much as it was with the perception that labeled the spots of tension as bands. Keep refusing to believe in that band-perception, replacing it with the perception of saw blades as long as necessary.
If the bands of tension are in the head and seem to surround the head, an alternative way of shifting the perception is to hold in mind the image that your head is larger than the bands of tension, and that the larger part of the head is filled with soft energy that allows the bands to dissipate.
If the sense of a band of tension remains in spite of the new perceptions, then it’s a sign the band corresponds to an area of the body that’s starved of breath energy. As you breathe in, think of the breath energy going immediately to that part of the body. Allow the in-breath to be as long as it needs to be to give that area a sense of being nourished.
If, after several minutes of trying this approach, the bands of tension don’t respond, then ignore them for a while. Try these various approaches again later when your concentration has improved.
A lack of sensation. As you survey the various parts of your body, you may find that there are some parts where you feel no sensation at all: your shoulder, for example, or part of your back. It seems as if that part of the body is missing. When this is the case, try to be conscious of the parts that you can sense on either side of the missing part. For example, with the shoulder: Try to be aware of your neck and your upper arm. Then try to see where the energy in those two parts connects. You may be surprised to see that there is a connection, but it’s not where your shoulder “should” be—and because it’s not where it should be, you’ve unconsciously been blocking it. Allow it to open up and over time your sense of those parts of the body will adjust and the missing part of the body will get more nourishment from the breath. It’ll reappear in your awareness.
A sense of fullness. This sensation often comes when the breath energy dissolves some of its inner blockages, and areas that were starved of energy suddenly fill up. This relates to one of the factors of jhana: rapture. In strong cases, it can feel as if you’re drowning in the fullness. Some people find this pleasant, but others find it threatening. If you’ve ever come close to drowning, this can easily bring up a sense of fear. The way to counteract the fear is to remind yourself that you’re surrounded by air, and the body can breathe as much as it likes. Relax your hands and feet, and keep them relaxed. Then see if you can find the aspect of the fullness that’s pleasant. Focus on that. Or simply maintain your focus on your usual point of focus in the body, and remind yourself that the fullness, if left alone, will eventually dissipate into a sense of stillness and ease.
Another group of people who find this sense of fullness threatening are those who fear that they’re losing control. The solution again is not to focus on the fullness, but to stay focused on your usual point of focus, and remember that the fullness will pass.
A feeling of density. Sometimes, as the mind settles down, the body feels so solid and dense that breathing becomes a chore. One possible reason for this is that you’re subconsciously holding onto the perception of the body as a solid object, and of the breath as something that has to be pushed through the solidity. The solution is consciously to change your perception. For instance, you can remind yourself that the breath is actually your primary sensation of the body: The energy of the breath is there first, and the sense of solidity comes later. So you don’t have to push the breath through a wall of solidity. Let it flow freely wherever it wants. Another useful perception is to think of all the space around the body and in-between the atoms in the body. Even within the atoms, there’s more space than matter. Everything is permeated by space. As you hold this perception in mind, the difficulty in breathing will go away.
Another possible reason for the sense that the body is too solid to breathe is that the mind may be so quiet that you don’t need to breathe (see the discussion under The Fourth Jhana in Part Four.) You keep on trying to push the breath through the body more out of habit than of need. So tell yourself, “If the body needs to breathe, it’ll breathe on its own. You don’t have to force it to breathe.”
Dizziness. If this problem is caused by the meditation, it can come from an imbalance in your focus or an imbalance in the breath.
An imbalance in your focus can come from focusing too heavily in the head. Move your focus lower in the body, lighten up a bit so that you’re not restricting the flow of blood in the area where you’re focused, and stay away from the head for a while.
An imbalance in the breath might come from hyperventilating: breathing heavily too fast. It can also come from suppressing the breath or spending too much time with refined breathing. Try breathing in a way that avoids these extremes. If this doesn’t take care of the dizziness, it wasn’t caused by the meditation. It may be a sign of physical illness.
Judging Your Progress
As I noted in the Introduction, the basic strategy of training the mind to put an end to suffering is to reflect on your actions and to question how skillful they are, so that you can keep refining your skill. Because meditation is an action, the same strategy applies here. To develop it as a skill, you have to learn how to evaluate how you’re doing—what’s working, what’s not working—so that your skill can grow. In fact, evaluation is such an important part of meditation that it’s a factor of jhana, which we will discuss in Part Four. This sort of evaluation is what turns into the discernment that ultimately leads to release.
So remember: There is such a thing as a good session and a not-so-good session of meditation. You want to learn how to judge the difference. However, the ability to judge your actions is, itself, a skill that takes some time to master. If you’ve ever worked toward mastering a physical skill or craft—such as woodworking, cooking, or playing a sport or musical instrument—think of how you developed your powers of judgment so that they actually helped you gain mastery. Then apply the same principles to the meditation. A few useful principles to keep in mind are these:
Useful judgments focus on actions, not on your worth as a person or a meditator.
If you find yourself getting depressed about yourself for not being able to do things right, or conceited when they do go right, remind yourself that that kind of judgment is a waste of time. Negative self-judgments sap your ability to stick with the meditation; positive self-judgments—even though they may encourage you in the short run—will ultimately get in the way of your progress, blinding you to your mistakes or setting up false expectations. If you find yourself in the downward spiral of negatively judging yourself for judging yourself, remember the image of the inner committee. Find a member who can gently but firmly remind the self-judging voice that it’s wasting your time. The more good-natured humor you can bring to the situation, the better. Then focus on your next breath, and then the next.
The one area where it is useful to evaluate yourself is in reading your tendency to be overly positive or overly negative about your abilities. If you know that you have a tendency in either of those directions, use that knowledge to temper your judgments. A friendly, “Oops. There it goes again,” can often help bring you to your senses.
Regard your meditation as a work in progress.
You’re not here to pass final judgment on yourself or your actions. You’re judging your actions so that you can perform them more skillfully the next time around. As you make a judgment, think of yourself not as a judge on a courtroom bench, passing a verdict on an accused person, but as a craftsperson on a workbench, judging how your work is going, and making changes when you see you’ve made a mistake.
Mistakes are normal.
It’s through mistakes that you learn. The people who understand meditation best aren’t the ones for whom everything goes smoothly. They’re the ones who make mistakes and then figure out how not to make them again. So view each mistake as an opportunity to figure things out. Don’t let it get you down. In fact, if you’re going to take pride in anything, take pride in your willingness to notice and learn from mistakes.
The relation between actions and results is complex, so don’t jump to quick conclusions about what caused what in your meditation.
Sometimes the results you get right now are coming from things you’re doing right now; sometimes they’re coming from things you did yesterday, or last week, or even further in the past. This is why an approach that worked yesterday might not work today. Learn how to reserve judgment until you’ve had time to watch your meditation again and again over time.
And don’t keep harping on about how much better your meditation was in the past than it is today. The extent to which it was good wasn’t caused by thinking about meditations further in the past. It was caused by looking at the breath in the present. So learn from that lesson and look at the breath in the present now. Also, the past meditation may not have been as good as you thought. The fact that things aren’t yet going well today is caused by the fact that you still have more to learn. So to learn some of that “more,” watch the breath and your mind more carefully right now.
Don’t be surprised by sudden reversals in your meditation.
These, too, are caused by the complexity of how actions give their results. When things are going so well that the mind grows still without any effort on your part, don’t get careless or overly confident. Keep up your alertness. When your mood is so bad that you can’t stay with even the first step in the meditation instructions, don’t give up. View it as an opportunity to learn more about how the principle of causality works in the mind. Something must have caused the sudden change, so look for it. At the same time, this is a good opportunity to call to mind your sense of the inner observer, to be patient in stepping back and observing bad moods. This way, whether the sudden reversal is for the better or the worse, you learn a valuable lesson: how to keep your inner observer separate from whatever else is going on so that you can watch things more carefully.
Don’t compare yourself with others.
Your mind is your mind; their mind is theirs. It’s like being in a hospital and comparing yourself to other patients in the ward. You don’t gain anything from gloating over the fact that you’re recovering from your illness faster than they are from theirs. You don’t gain anything from making yourself miserable because they’re recovering faster than you. You have to focus total attention on your own recovery.
While meditating, don’t compare your practice to what you’ve read in books, this one included.
The books are there for you to read when you’re not meditating. While you’re meditating, you want to focus on the breath. The books simply give you ideas about what might happen. You learn even more from watching what is happening and—if it’s called for—figuring out on the spot how to make what’s happening go better.
Training the mind is a long-term project. It requires a degree of maturity to keep motivated when the novelty and initial enthusiasm have worn off. Especially when progress is slow, you may find yourself overcome with boredom, discouragement, impatience, or doubt. If your motivation is flagging because of any of these emotions, see the recommendations given for dealing with them in the following section.
However, there are times when your motivation flags simply because the demands of your personal life or work become so pressing that they squeeze away whatever time or energy you need to meditate. If this is happening, you have to keep reminding yourself of the importance of meditating: that if your mind isn’t trained, it can easily respond to the demands of your daily life in unskillful ways.
The first point to remember is that “pressing” doesn’t always mean “important.” Learn how to distinguish which external demands can be put aside for a while so that you can get your mind together.
The second point to remember is that the world won’t provide you with time to meditate. You have to make the time yourself.
Third, remember that the time you take to meditate isn’t taken away from the people you love or are responsible for. It’s actually a gift to them in terms of your improved state of mind.
Fourth, remember that the improved state of your mind will also help simplify your life and make it more manageable.
So to make sure that you keep making time on a continuing basis, try adding a few new voices to your inner committee, or strengthening them if they’re already there—the voices that will give you pep talks and motivate you to stay on course. Which ones will be most effective for you, you have to observe for yourself. These will vary from person to person, and even in the same person will vary from time to time.
Here are a few voices that other meditators have found effective:
• The voice of heedfulness: the one that reminds you of the unnecessary stress and suffering an untrained mind can cause for itself and for those around you. This is the voice that also tells you, “If you don’t train your mind, who’s going to train it for you? And if you don’t do it now, don’t think that it’ll get easier as you get older.”
• The voice of compassion reminds you of the ways in which meditating is an active expression of goodwill to yourself and to those around you. You started meditating because you wanted something better than the life you had. If you really loved yourself—and your loved ones—would you let that opportunity slide? This voice is strengthened when you gain a sense of how to breathe comfortably, for then you can remind yourself, especially when you feel frazzled, of just how good it feels to spend some time with nourishing breath.
• The voice of healthy pride reminds you of the satisfaction that comes from doing something well. This is the voice that reminds you of how good you feel when you’ve managed to behave skillfully in areas where you weren’t so skillful before. Don’t you want to expand your range of skills even further?
• The voice of a healthy sense of shame grows out of healthy pride. It reminds you of some of the ways in which you’ve let the unskillful members of your inner committee take over even when you knew better. Do you want to keep being their slave? And if there really are people in the world who can read minds, what would they think if they read yours? (This sense of shame is healthy in that it’s directed not at you as a person, but at your actions.)
• The voice of inspiration reminds you of the examples set by other meditators in the past. They did something noble with their lives; don’t you want to live a noble life, too? This voice is strengthened when you read about others who have overcome difficulties in their meditation and not only achieved true peace of mind but also left behind a good example for the world. Your sense of inspiration can also be strengthened by associating with other meditators and gaining energy from the group.
• The voice of a wise inner parent promises you a little reward to get you through difficult patches in the practice: a harmless sensory pleasure you’ll grant yourself if you stick to your meditation schedule.
• The voice of good-natured humor points out how foolish some of your rationalizations for not practicing would look if you stepped back from them a bit. Not that you’re more foolish than the norm—just that the human norm is pretty foolish. Good-natured humor about yourself comes from the ability to step back from your actions, just as discernment does. That’s why famous meditation masters have such sharp senses of humor. Your foibles and rationalizations, when you can laugh at them, lose a lot of their power.
So try to gain a feel for which of these voices would stir your mind to action, and give yourself pep talks tailored to your own psychology.
At the same time, listen to recorded Dhamma talks and find things to read that will remind you of the values of the practice. This will help to keep you on course.
If your time really is at a premium, remember that you don’t have to sit with your eyes closed when training the mind. As many teachers have said, if you have time to breathe, you have time to meditate even while engaged in other activities.
Also, you might find it helpful to remind yourself that if you’re really busy, you’re not too busy to meditate. You’re too busy not to meditate. You owe it to yourself and to those around you to keep your batteries well charged.
When dealing with disruptive emotions, it’s useful to remember the three types of fabrication mentioned in the Introduction: bodily fabrication (the in-and-out breath); verbal fabrication (directed thought and evaluation); and mental fabrication (feelings and perceptions). These are the building blocks from which emotions are fashioned. To get yourself out of an unskillful emotion, you change the building blocks. Don’t allow yourself to be fooled into thinking that the emotion is telling you what you really feel. Every emotion is a bundle of fabrications, so a skillful emotion you consciously fabricate is no less really “you” than an unskillful emotion you’ve fabricated unconsciously out of force of habit.
So learn how to experiment with adjusting the various types of fabrication. Sometimes just changing the way you breathe will pull you out of an unskillful emotion; at other times you have to fiddle with the other forms of fabrication to see what works for you.
Here again the image of the committee is a useful background perception: Whatever the emotion, it’s simply one of the committee members—or a disruptive faction—claiming to speak for the whole committee and trying to overthrow the members who want to meditate.
The number one lesson in dealing with disruptive emotions is that you have to identify with the members who want to benefit from the meditation. If you don’t, none of these methods will work for long. If you do, the battle is half-won.
You will have to explore and experiment on your own to see which strategies of refabrication work for your particular emotions, but here are a few possibilities to help you get started:
Boredom. This usually comes from not paying careful attention to what you’re doing. If you feel that nothing is happening in the meditation, remind yourself that you’re right at the ideal spot to observe your mind. If you’re not seeing anything, you’re not looking. So try to look more carefully at the breath, or make an effort to see potential distractions more quickly. Remember that the boredom itself is a distraction. It comes, and then it goes. In other words, it’s not the case that nothing is happening. Boredom is happening. The fact that you’re identifying with it means that you missed the steps in its formation. Look more carefully the next time.
A useful perception to hold in mind is that you’re like a wildlife observer. You can’t make a date with the wildlife to come by a particular place at a particular time. You have to go to a place where the wildlife tends to pass by—such as a watering hole—and then sit there: very alert, so that you can hear them coming, but also very still, so that you don’t scare them away. The breath in the present moment is the mind’s watering hole—where the movements of the mind most clearly show themselves—so you’re at the right spot. Now all you have to do is learn how to master the skill of staying both still and alert.
Discouragement. This comes from comparing yourself unfavorably with your ideas about how you should be progressing. In addition to rereading the section on Judging Your Progress, read some of the stories in the Theragatha and Therigatha in the Pali Canon, which are available at Dhammatalks.org, online. These are verses of monks and nuns who tell of their troubles in meditating before finally gaining awakening. Hold in mind the perception that if they could overcome their problems—which were often severe—you can overcome yours.
Also, don’t be embarrassed or afraid to give yourself pep talks as you meditate. A “can-do” attitude is what makes all the difference, so encourage the members of your committee that can provide that. It may feel artificial at first—especially if the “can’t-do” members have long been in charge of the discussion—but after a while you’ll start seeing results, and positive attitudes won’t seem so artificial anymore.
And always remember: A bad session of meditation is always better than no meditation. With a bad session, there’s at least hope that you’ll come to understand why it’s bad. With no meditation, there’s no hope at all.
Worry & anxiety. These restless emotions feed on the perception that if you worry enough about the future, you’re better prepared for whatever dangers it holds. That perception is foolish. Remind yourself that the future is highly uncertain. You don’t know what dangers will come your way, but you do know that strengthened mindfulness, alertness, and discernment are the best preparation for any unexpected emergencies. The best way to develop those qualities is to get back to the breath. Then try to breathe in as soothing a way as possible to counteract the irritated breathing that was feeding the restlessness.
If you’re suffering from a sense of free-floating anxiety—ill-at-ease without knowing why you’re feeling ill-at-ease—you may be suffering from a vicious circle, with anxious feelings causing anxious breathing, and anxious breathing feeding anxious feelings. Try breaking the circle by very consciously and consistently breathing in a deep, soothing rhythm that engages all the muscles in your abdomen, all the way down. With the in-breath, breathe as deeply into the abdomen as you can, even to the point where the breath feels a little too full. Then let the breath out in a smooth way. Relax all the muscles in your head and shoulders, so that the abdomen is doing all the work. This rhythm may not feel comfortable at first, but it does cut the circle. After a few minutes, let the breath return to a rhythm that feels more easeful. Keep this up as long as you can, and the feelings of anxiety should grow weaker.
This deep abdominal breathing can also help relieve stress-induced headaches.
Feelings of grief. If sorrow over the loss of a loved one—or of what was a loving relationship—invades your meditation, the proper way to deal with your grief depends on whether you’ve had the opportunity elsewhere in your life to give enough expression to it. The sense of “enough” here will vary from case to case, but if you genuinely feel that you need to give more expression to your grief, find an appropriate time and place to do so. Then, when you feel ready to meditate, make a resolve to dedicate the merit of the meditation to the memory of the person you’ve lost. The conviction that this is actually helpful to the other person—wherever he or she may now be—allows you to benefit from the inner stability that meditation can provide you during times of need.
Healthy grieving is a complex process, for it requires recognizing what was special about the other person and the relationship, but also recognizing what’s not: the fact that it ended. Every relationship has to end at some time or another. That’s the story of human life. You need to build the inner strength that can allow you to maintain a sense of well-being in spite of the inevitable losses that life throws at everyone. This is one of the reasons why people meditate.
To find this inner strength doesn’t mean that you’re being disloyal to the other person or to the love you felt for that person. You’re showing that you can be a stronger person for having had that relationship. For many people, the difficult part of grief lies in knowing when to focus less on what was special about the relationship and more on what was not special, without feeling disloyal. If you never make the shift, your grief becomes self-indulgent and prevents you from being of use to yourself and those you love. If you have trouble making the shift, talk it over with someone whose judgment you trust.
Painful memories. If, while you’re meditating, your mind is overwhelmed with the memory of someone who harmed you, remind yourself that one of the best gifts you can give yourself is to forgive that person. This doesn’t mean that you have to feel love for that person, simply that you promise yourself not to seek revenge for what that person did. You’re better off not trying to settle old scores, for scores in life—as opposed to sports—never come to a final tally. The wisest course is to unburden yourself of the weight of resentment and cut the cycle of retribution that would otherwise keep you ensnarled in an ugly back and forth that could go on for years. Express a brief phrase of goodwill for the person—“May you mend your ways and follow the path to true happiness”—and then return to the breath.
If you have memories of people you’ve harmed, remember that remorse doesn’t undo the harm you did, and it can actually weaken your confidence that you can change your ways. Simply remind yourself that you never want to harm anyone ever again, and then spread goodwill to the person you’ve harmed—wherever that person may be right now—then to yourself, and then to all living beings.
Thinking of all living beings helps to remind you that you’re not the only one who has harmed others in the past. We’ve all harmed one another many times through innumerable lifetimes. However, this type of thinking also reminds you that the opportunities for harm are many, so you have to make the resolve to treat everyone with care. If you’re ever going to get out of the cycle of harm in the world, you have to start with your resolve not to engage in harm. You can’t wait for the resolve to start in other people first.
Finally, make a promise to yourself that you’ll dedicate the merit of your meditation to people you’ve harmed. Then return to the breath.
The same principle applies if you have memories of times when someone needed your help but you didn’t give it. If the memory is of a time when you couldn’t give help to someone who needed it, reread the discussion of equanimity in Part One, section I.
Lust. Lust comes from focusing on the attractive perceptions you build around a person or a relationship, and ignoring the unattractive side. It gets aggravated by the type of breathing that habitually accompanies your fantasies. So your approach has to be two-pronged.
• First, to weaken the voice that insists on some pleasure right now, breathe in a way that relaxes any tension wherever you find it in your body. A good place to start is on the back of your hands.
• Second, introduce unattractive perceptions into your fantasies. If you’re focusing on the attractiveness of the other person’s body, focus on the unattractive parts right under the skin. If you’re focusing on an attractive narrative about the relationship, visualize the other person doing or saying something that really repels you. For instance, think about the stupid or demeaning things you’ve done under the power of lust, and visualize the other person laughing contemptuously about them behind your back. If, however, contempt fires you up, think about something else that you know will turn you off. Think, for instance, of all the strings that come with a sexual relationship, and how much better off you are not getting entangled. Then get back to the breath.
These reflections, by the way, are not just for monks or nuns. Laypeople in a committed relationship need tools to keep their minds from wandering outside of the relationship. And even within the relationship, there are plenty of times when they need to keep lust under control. And if you’re not in a committed relationship, you suffer if you can’t turn off thoughts of lust at will. Society at large may extol and encourage lust, but uncontrolled lust has done untold damage. That’s why you need tools to counteract it, not only while meditating, but also as you go through the day. Only when lust can be kept within bounds do the good qualities that thrive in its absence have a chance to grow.
Romantic infatuation. This is a variant of lust in which you’re focused less on the other person’s body and more on the stories you can manufacture about how you and the other person will find happiness and understanding together. Remind yourself of how your romantic fantasies in the past led to disappointment. Do you expect your current fantasies to be any more reliable? Once you can see the danger of falling for these fantasies, inject an element of reality into them to make them less attractive. Think of the other person doing something that you find really disappointing, such as being unfaithful to you, until the act of fantasizing no longer holds any appeal.
Anger. As with lust, you deal with anger first by looking for where it has created centers of tightness in your body. The chest and the stomach are good places to start, as are the hands. Breathe in a way that releases that tightness.
Then try some perceptions that will counteract the anger. Thoughts of goodwill are often recommended as the ideal antidote, but there are times when you’re in no mood for thoughts of goodwill. So think about the stupid things you do or say under the power of anger, and visualize the person with whom you’re angry feeling satisfied to see you act stupidly. Do you want to give that person that sort of satisfaction? This line of thinking can often calm you down to the point where you can think more clearly.
Then reflect on the fact that if you want everything to go the way you like, you’re in the wrong realm. You’d have to be in heaven. But here you’re in the human realm. Human history is filled with people doing disagreeable things. So drop the perception that you or your loved ones are being especially victimized. Mistreatment is a common thing, and anger is not going to help you deal with it effectively. You’ve got to clear your head if you want your response to injustice to have a good effect. So try to develop some equanimity around the fact that injustice is universal, and then see what you can do most effectively in response to this particular instance of it.
Another strategy is to think of whatever goodness has been done by the people you’re angry at. It’s rare that people have no goodness to them at all. If you refuse to see that goodness, you can’t trust yourself to act in skillful ways around those people, and your own heart becomes dry.
A traditional image for this strategy is that you’re crossing a desert—hot, tired, and trembling with thirst—and you come across a little water in a cow’s footprint. If you were to scoop it up with your hand, you’d muddy the water. So you do what you have to do: Get down on all fours and slurp up the water directly from the footprint. Your posture while doing this may not look very dignified, but this is not a time to worry about how you look. You’ve got to give top priority to your survival. In the same way, if you feel that it’s beneath you to look for the goodness done by someone you’re angry at, you deprive yourself of the water you need to keep your own goodness alive. So try looking for that goodness, to see if it makes it easier to develop thoughts of goodwill. And remember: It’s for your own sake as much as for theirs.
If you can’t think of any goodness done by the people you’re angry at, then take pity on them: They’re digging themselves into a deep hole.
Jealousy. Jealousy is a particular type of anger that comes when other people experience good fortune at what you see is your expense—as when a colleague at work gets praise that you feel you deserve, or when a person you’re infatuated with falls in love with someone else. In addition to the anger, jealousy adds perceptions of disappointment and wounded pride. In every case it comes from pinning your hopes for happiness on something under someone else’s control.
One way of dealing with jealousy is to remind yourself that you’re going to be a slave to it as long as you keep defining your happiness and sense of self-worth by things outside your control. Isn’t it time to seriously start looking for happiness inside instead? You can also ask yourself if you want to hoard all the happiness and good fortune in the world for yourself. If so, what kind of person are you? If there have been times in the past when you’ve enjoyed making other people jealous, remind yourself that the jealousy you’re currently experiencing is the inevitable payback. Isn’t it time to get out of that vicious cycle?
Perhaps one of the most useful perceptions in dealing with jealousy is to step back and take a larger view of life and the world as a whole, to gain a sense of how petty the things you’re jealous about really are. Think of the Buddha’s vision of the human world: people floundering like fish in small puddles, fighting over water that is drying up. Is it worth your while to keep fighting over things that are petty and diminishing, or would you rather find a better source of happiness?
After thinking in these ways, take some time to develop the sublime attitude of equanimity and—if you’re feeling up for it—throw in a little empathetic joy as well.
Impatience. When the practice isn’t giving results as fast as you’d desire, remember that the problem isn’t with the desire per se. You’ve simply focused it on the wrong place: on the results rather than on the causes that will produce those results. It’s like driving a car to a mountain on the horizon. If you spend all your time looking at the mountain, you’ll drive off the road. You have to focus your attention on the road and follow it each inch along the way. That will take you to the mountain.
So when you’re feeling impatient with the meditation, remember that you have to focus your desire on staying with the breath, on being mindful and alert, and on all the other parts of the practice that count as causes. If you focus your desire on developing the causes well, the results will have to come.
If impatience comes from a desire to get past the meditation so that you can get on with the rest of your life, remember that the rest of your life has left your mind in need of some healing medicine. Meditation is just that medicine, like the cream you’d rub on a rash. You can’t just rub the cream on and then wash it off. You have to let it stay there so that it can do its healing work. In the same way, you have to give the breath and all the skillful qualities that you’re developing around it time to do their work.
And remember that meditation is not something you “get past.” Just as your body will need medicine as long as it’s exposed to the ravages of the world, your mind will need the healing medicine of meditation as long as you live.
Doubt. This emotion comes in two forms: doubt about yourself, which is covered under Discouragement, above; and doubt about the practice. This latter doubt can be overcome in two ways.
• The first is to read about the example of the Buddha and his noble disciples. They were (and are) people of wisdom and integrity. They taught for free. They had no reason to misrepresent the truth to anyone. It’s rare to find teachers like that in the world, so you should give them the benefit of the doubt.
• The second way is to remind yourself that the practice can be truly judged only by a person who is true. Are you true in sticking with the breath? Are you true in observing when your mind is acting in skillful ways and when it’s not? Could you be more true in these areas? You’ll be able to overcome your doubt only if you’re truly observant and give the teachings a truly fair and earnest try, pushing yourself beyond your normal limits. Regardless of whether the practice ultimately will pan out to be true, you can only gain by learning to be more observant and earnest, so the energy you put into developing these qualities is sure not to be a waste.
Visions & Other Uncanny Phenomena
When the mind starts to quiet down, unusual intuitions can sometimes appear: visions, voices, and other uncanny phenomena. Sometimes they convey true information; sometimes false. The true information is especially dangerous, because it leads you to trust whatever pops into your mind, so that you start falling for the things that are false. Intuitions of this sort can also lead to strong conceit, as you begin to feel that you’re somehow special. This pulls you far off the path.
For this reason, the general rule of thumb with regard to these things is to leave them be. Remember: Not everything that arises in a still mind is trustworthy. So don’t feel that you’re missing out on something important if you don’t get involved with these things. Only if you’re under the personal supervision of a teacher who is skilled in handling them should you risk getting involved. The best information a book like this can offer is on how to pull yourself out of them. For instance:
Signs. Sometimes when the mind settles down, a light may appear to the mind, or you may hear a high-pitched sound in your ears. Or there may be an unusual sensation related to any of your other senses: a smell, a taste, a tactile sensation. If this happens, don’t leave the breath. These are simply signs that you’re settling down, so regard them as you would signs on the side of a road. When you see a sign that you’re entering a city, you don’t leave the road to drive on the sign. You stay on the road, and that will get you further into the city.
Visions. As the mind begins to settle down—or if it leaves the breath in a lapse of mindfulness—you may see a vision of yourself, another person, or another place in space or time. These come to the mind when it’s quiet but not fully established in its object. To get rid of them, reestablish mindfulness by breathing deeply into the heart three or four times, and they’ll go away. If the vision is of another person, first spread goodwill to that person, and then breathe deeply into the heart to let the vision disband.
A sense of having left the body. If you sense that you’re outside your body, you may feel tempted to travel around a bit on the astral plane, but you should resist the temptation. There are dangers there, and meanwhile you’re leaving your body unprotected. You can get back into the body by calling to mind the four basic properties that make up your sense of the body as felt from within: the breath energy, warmth, coolness, and solidity (see the discussion of the Fourth Jhana, in Part Four).
External presences. If you sense an energy or unbodied presence outside your body, you don’t have to figure out who it is or what’s causing it. Simply fill your own body with awareness and breath energy. Think of both your awareness and your breath energy as being solid and impenetrable, from the top of the head to the tips of your fingers and toes. When you’ve secured your body in this way, you can spread thoughts of goodwill in the direction of the external presence and then in all directions. Keep this up until the sense of the external presence goes away.
Getting Stuck on Concentration
There are two types of attachment to concentration: healthy and unhealthy. Healthy attachment to concentration is a necessary element in developing it as a skill. With this kind of attachment you try to maintain your inner stillness in all situations as you fulfill your other responsibilities throughout the day. You take an interest in figuring out why you can’t maintain it in some situations, and try to find free time to devote to more formal practice, even if it’s only little meditation breaks throughout the day. The reason this attachment is healthy is because it helps you to recognize any unhealthy attachment as a problem to be solved, and it gives you a good home base from which to solve it.
With unhealthy attachment to concentration, you don’t want to leave formal practice at all, don’t want to engage with other people at all, and don’t want to fulfill your responsibilities in the world, for you see that the world is nothing but a disturbance to your peace of mind. You simply want to use the concentration as an excuse to run away from your responsibilities in the world.
You have to remember that your responsibilities are important opportunities for you to develop the good qualities you’ll need to train the mind in discernment: Patience. Persistence. Equanimity. Also, the turmoil you sense in dealing with the world doesn’t come from the world; it comes from within your own mind. If you simply hide out in concentration, you’ll curl up around the sources of your inner turmoil and never be able to uproot them. Eventually, they’ll destroy your concentration and you won’t have anything to hold onto at all.
If an insight suddenly pops into your head while you’re meditating, you have to decide quickly whether it’s something worth paying attention to or simply another distraction. A quick rule of thumb is this: If the insight can be applied directly to what you’re doing right then and there in your meditation, go ahead and give it a try. See how it works. If it doesn’t work, drop it. If it doesn’t apply directly to what you’re doing, drop it. Don’t be afraid that you’ll lose something valuable. If you try to hold onto it, it’ll lead you further and further away from the breath. If it’s really valuable, it’ll stick in your mind without your trying to remember it.
Think of concentration as a goose that lays golden eggs. If you spend all your time gathering and storing the eggs, the goose will die from lack of attention. And the gold of these eggs is like the gold in most fairy tales: If you don’t put it to good use right away, it’ll turn into feathers and ashes. So if the egg can’t be used right away, discard it. Put your energy into looking after the goose.
This is another area where it’s important to remember: Not everything that pops into a quiet mind is reliable. Quieting the mind gives you access to many rooms in the mind that you might have closed off in the past, but just because the rooms are now open doesn’t mean that they all contain valuables. Some of them hold nothing but old junk.
If an insight that you put aside during the meditation still comes to mind after your meditation, ask yourself how it applies to the way you conduct your life. If it seems to offer a wise perspective on how to act in a particular situation, you might give it a try to see if it really is helpful. Also, to make sure you don’t get taken in by a one-sided insight, ask yourself: To what extent is the opposite true? This is one of the most important questions to keep on hand to maintain your balance as a meditator.
If the insight is of a more abstract sort—about the meaning of the universe or whatever—let it go. Remember that the questions of discernment deal not with abstractions but with actions. Your actions. The insights you’re looking for in your meditation are those dealing with your actions as well.
Meditations5 contains many talks on ways of dealing with disruptive emotions.