Overcome These Five Common Obstacles to Meditation

Working with the wandering mind is challenging. Here’s why you’re having trouble meditating and a practice to renew your motivation.

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It is absolutely normal to experience some challenges when practicing mindfulness meditation. Your mind will wander; this happens to everyone. Since you’ve begun practicing mindfulness, there’s no doubt that you’ve already experienced this. Your mind can be just like the weather often is—changing all the time. You’ve probably noticed that you tend to get lost in memories or thoughts about the future, even in everyday life. For example, when eating breakfast you might be planning the day ahead or remembering the past, whether marveling at how wonderful last weekend was or how painful that interaction was that you had with your spouse last night. It seems that most of our waking hours are spent thinking about the past or the future, and that we seldom live in the here and now. As you look closely at the workings of your mind during mindfulness practice, you’ll start to see how often you aren’t present.

If you find it difficult to resist criticizing yourself, consider this: If you weren’t mindful, you wouldn’t even know you’d wandered off.

Your job isn’t to berate yourself for this, but to simply acknowledge the wandering and come back to the meditation. If you find it difficult to resist criticizing yourself, consider this: If you weren’t mindful, you wouldn’t even know you’d wandered off. What’s important is that you came back to the present moment. Working with the wandering mind offers three benefits:

  • You’re training the brain: Every time you bring the mind back from wandering, you’re building the muscle of concentration. It actually is like lifting weights. The mind wanders off and you bring it back again and again. Through repetition you build muscle mass—and concentration.
  • You begin to notice thought patterns: When you come back into the present moment and notice where you drifted off to, you can discover elements of doubt, desire, or anger that you were caught up in. This offers insight into hindrances and difficulties, including how the judgmental mind creates feelings of deficiency and inadequacy. You may also become aware of worry, sadness, or confusion, perhaps signaling that you need to pay closer attention to or deal with certain things in your life.
  • You find out it’s not all in your head: You gain an understanding of the mind-body connection and how the thoughts you think and emotions you feel have a physical reflection in the body. You begin to understand how a tight jaw or upset stomach, for example, is the expression of certain thoughts and emotions in your body.

Other challenges show up in the form of the five hindrances: desire, anger, restlessness, sleepiness, and doubt. These problems are so common, predictable, and prevalent in mindfulness practice that many books on meditation address how to work with them.

  • Desire or the craving mind, is an aspect of mind that’s preoccupied with things like wanting to feel good. It spends a lot of time in fantasies, daydreams, and plans. When you feel unworthy, you may be consumed with the desire to be better or different. It’s like a thirst or hunger that seldom lets up.
  • Anger reflects not being okay with the way things are. You may feel mad at yourself for being so inadequate. The angry mind becomes engrossed in aversion, resentment, or hatred.
  • Restlessness is like a pacing tiger. When your mind is filled with shame, it becomes unsettled and seethes with unharnessed energy that’s uncomfortable to sit with and stay with. It can make you feel like you want to crawl out of your skin, like you need to do something or go somewhere else.
  • With sleepiness, your concentration will be dull and you’ll feel listless or tired or have low energy. Unworthiness, shame, or inadequacy may feel so overwhelming that you just want to collapse, disappear, not be here, and go to sleep.
  • With doubt, you may wonder if meditation serves any purpose or can help you in any way. You may become filled with self-doubt and believe that it isn’t possible to heal and be okay with who you are. This makes it all the easier to fall into the other four hindrances.

All five hindrances are challenging and can get in the way of your practice. That’s why it’s so important to notice when they’re occurring and to be able to name and acknowledge them. As you learned in regard to the practice of noting, naming in and of itself helps create some distance, and this will help loosen the grip of the five hindrances. The moment you realize you’re trapped, you’ve become mindful and can begin to step out of the trap.

Sometimes the metaphor of a clear pond is helpful in understanding how to work with the hindrances, as each hindrance obscures your ability to clearly see the beautiful pebbles at the bottom of the pond. When you’re in a state of desire, the pond doesn’t appear clear; it’s colored with the red dye of passion. Your desires color everything. Try to stay still and breathe mindfully to calm your body and mind. If you’re angry, the water freezes over and becomes hardened with ice, and this too obscures your view. Maybe this is a signal to open to the warmth of compassion. With restlessness, the waters are choppy. Begin to harness that energy in a constructive way, rather than letting it bite you in the butt. If you’re sleepy, the waters are covered with algae. Perhaps it’s best to wake up and recognize that you aren’t going to be here forever. With doubt, the pond appears cloudy or muddy. This is a signal to reflect on why you’re doing this practice and what you’ve learned about yourself so far. May this give you incentive to persevere.

When you become mindful that any of the hindrances are present, notice how your body and mind feel. Sense the texture of these states and notice what happens when you become entranced by them. Are you more at ease with yourself or less?

Mindfulness Practice: Meditation on Breath

If you’re new to meditation, we’d like to offer you a few general pointers on body position and other physical aspects of practice. Sitting is generally preferable, but you can also lie down if you’re able to remain alert, and you can even stand if you like. In any position, keep your head, neck, and body somewhat aligned. If you sit, aim for a posture that’s self-supporting, rather than leaning back against a chair, and make sure your legs can rest comfortably, without requiring muscle tension to hold them in place. Find a place where you can rest your hands. Look for your middle way—not too tight and not too loose, a position where you can be comfortable and alert for the entire practice. Feel free to have your eyes closed or partially open—whichever you feel most at ease with. If you keep your eyes partially open, your gaze should be more inward, on whatever you’re focusing on, rather than outward, where you may get lost in what you’re seeing. If you find yourself getting sleepy, you might want to open your eyes or stand up.

The breath is an excellent focus for mindfulness practice. Your breath is always there, always coming and going. It’s also something that’s available to you anytime, anywhere.

Give yourself ten to fifteen minutes for this practice.

Begin by bringing your attention to the breath in either your nostrils or your belly—wherever you feel it most distinctly. As you breathe in, be aware of breathing in, and as you breathe out, be aware of breathing out. Let the breath come and go as it will, normally and naturally. Let the felt sense of the breath coming and going be your way to be present for the full duration of the in breath and the full duration of the out breath. Letting yourself be…

There’s no need to visualize anything or regulate the breath in any way. There’s no need to engage thoughts or words or phrases of any kind. Just be mindful of breathing in and breathing out, without judgment, without striving. Just watch the breath ebbing and flowing like waves in the sea.

Notice the inevitable moments when your attention wanders from the breath. When this happens, don’t criticize or berate yourself. Simply acknowledge where you went, perhaps into the future or the past, or engaging in some kind of judging. Just return to the breath, again and again, every time you leave it.

There’s nothing to accomplish, nothing to pursue, nothing to do but simply sit and be where you are, noticing your breathing. Living your life one inhalation and one exhalation at a time…

As you come to an end of this meditation, please extend some appreciation and congratulations to yourself for giving yourself this gift of mindfulness.

This article was adapted from Dr. Bob Stahl’s and Steve Flowers’ book, Living with Your Heart Wide Open.