I’m exhausted from travelling all day. I skipped my morning meditation due to getting up very early to catch a ferry. I tried meditating on the plane but the roar of engines drowned out attempts to focus on my breath or body sensations. And now meditating is the last thing I feel like doing. Instead, I collapse in a hot bath to wash the travel grime away, and stagger from bath to bed.
Such obstacles arise inevitably in the course of mindfulness practice. The challenge is to view these calmly and with acceptance.
Because I’m perfectionistic and diligent, skipping a meditation gives rise to anxious thoughts. Does it mean I lack commitment? Is it better to care for my body’s physical need for rest right now, or meditate regardless? Am I sabotaging my practice?
I watch the anxious thoughts, and try to accept these: they are simply thoughts, they will pass. And it is okay – yes, I missed a day’s practice, yes I have anxious thoughts, but it’s okay.
It’s a myth that meditating means emptying the mind of all thoughts. Believing so leads to unrealistic expectations and a sense of failure, as anyone trying to meditate and failing (inevitably) to clear their mind of thoughts, will think that they can’t meditate. But the brain always throws up thoughts – this is what it does.
When I suddenly find myself rerunning an argument from yesterday or planning the next meal, I bring myself gently back to the meditation. The trick is not to engage with the thoughts, but to observe and let them pass. I’m learning not to get frustrated or despondent when thoughts intrude. There’s no need. I accept that my brain is an active organ, that recent or intense thoughts will arise over and over again during meditation. And I continue to focus again on the breath, on the body.
Pain and discomfort
I thought I’d become skilled at meditating with a dying leg. At first I’d barely managed 30 minutes without desperate urges to move said leg. But I learned to observe the body sensations – tingling, pressure, throbbing, heat, cold – with detachment and without reacting. Sitting for half an hour became easy, the discomfort tolerable.
Then my sessions increased to 45 minutes and I encountered the same obstacle with a vengeance. The added 15 minutes were excruciating. Here I was trying to generate feelings of compassion during the loving kindness component of my meditation, with my leg screaming abuse at me for sitting on it so long.
The 45-minute session is a work in progress. But I know my leg won’t be damaged by a short spell of numbness. I try to watch the sensations and mental gymnastics with detachment. It’s intriguing to see the lengths one part of my brain will go to, to make me move that leg!
Confusion and doubt
The same principle applies to feelings of confusion about the purpose of all this sitting-on-a-dead-leg, and doubts about the purported benefits of it all. What if it’s not working? Will I ever have better control over difficult emotions? Will I be the first person in history whose brain is a complete dud? How can sitting on a dead leg make me calmer?
Back to equanimity – these too are merely thoughts. Doubts will pass. Equanimity helps me avoid spiralling downward: a doubting thought leading to annoyance leading to further doubts and annoyance, despair, despondency and giving up!
To my horror I recently missed three entire days’ meditations. My motivation plunged as I considered what a useless specimen I was. I struggled half-heartedly through several days of meditation before meeting with my mentor and trainer.
What a relief. He smiled gently at me, a twinkle in his eye, and said, the world won’t fall apart because you missed some meditations. He voiced the equanimity and acceptance I’d been unable to myself.
You can read a helpful account of common difficulties with mindfulness meditation in Dr Bruno Cayoun’s handbook Mindfulness-Integrated CBT: Principles and Practice.