Mindfulness In Plain English – Henepola Gunaratana – Problems in Meditation

Extracts from Chapter Ten:

It is essential to learn to confront the less pleasant aspects of existence. Our job as meditators is to learn to be patient with ourselves, to see ourselves in an unbiased way, complete with all our sorrows and inadequacies. We have to learn to be kind to ourselves.

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.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is not. Pain and suffering are two different animals.

Problems arise in your practice. Some of them will be physical, some will be emotional, and some will be attitudinal. All of them are confrontable and each has its own specific response. All of them are opportunities to free yourself.

Slouching will never be comfortable, so straighten up. Don’t be tight or rigid, but do keep your spine erect.

let your attention slide easily over onto the simple sensation. Go into the pain fully. Don’t block the experience. Explore the feeling. Get beyond your avoiding reaction and go into the pure sensations that lie below that. You will discover that there are two things present. The first is the simple sensation–pain itself. Second is your resistance to that sensation. Resistance reaction is partly mental and partly physical. The physical part consists of tensing the muscles in and around the painful area. Relax those muscles. Take them one by one and relax each one very thoroughly. This step alone probably diminishes the pain significantly. Then go after the mental side of the resistance. Just as you are tensing physically, you are also tensing psychologically. You are clamping down mentally on the sensation of pain, trying to screen it off and reject it from consciousness. The rejection is a wordless, “I don’t like this feeling” or “go away” attitude. It is very subtle. But it is there, and you can find it if you really look. Locate it and relax that, too.

…let go completely till your awareness slows down past that barrier which you yourself erected. It was a gap, a sense of distance between self and others. It was a borderline between ‘me’ and ‘the pain’. Dissolve that barrier, and separation vanishes. You slow down into that sea of surging sensation and you merge with the pain. You become the pain. You watch its ebb and flow and something surprising happens. It no longer hurts. Suffering is gone.

This is an exercise in awareness, not in sadism. If the pain becomes excruciating, go ahead and move, but move slowly and mindfully. Observe your movements. See how it feels to move. Watch what it does to the pain. Watch the pain diminish. Try not to move too much though. The less you move, the easier it is to remain fully mindful. New meditators sometimes say they have trouble remaining mindful when pain is present. This difficulty stems from a misunderstanding. These students are conceiving mindfulness as something distinct from the experience of pain. It is not. Mindfulness never exists by itself. It always has some object and one object is as good as another. Pain is a mental state. You can be mindful of pain just as you are mindful of breathing.

You must be careful not to reach beyond the sensation and not to fall short of it. Don’t add anything to it, and don’t miss any part of it. Don’t muddy the pure experience with concepts or pictures or discursive thinking. And keep your awareness right in the present time, right with the pain, so that you won’t miss its beginning or its end. Pain not viewed in the clear light of mindfulness gives rise to emotional reactions like fear, anxiety, or anger. If it is properly viewed, we have no such reaction. It will be just sensation, just simple energy.

You begin to drift off. When you find this happening, apply your mindfulness to the state of drowsiness itself. Drowsiness has certain definite characteristics. It does certain things to your thought process. Find out what. It has certain body feelings associated with it. Locate those.

Do not give in to sleepiness. Stay awake and mindful, for sleep and meditative concentration are two diametrically opposite experiences. You will not gain any new insight from sleep, but only from meditation. If you are very sleepy then take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can. Then breathe out slowly. Take another deep breath again, hold it as long as you can and breathe out slowly. Repeat this exercise until your body warms up and sleepiness fades away. Then return to your breath.

Use your meditation to let go of all the egocentric attitudes that keep you trapped within your own limited viewpoint. Your problems will resolve much more easily thereafter.

Emptying the mind is not as important as being mindful of what the mind is doing. If you are frantic and you can’t do a thing to stop it, just observe. It is all you.

Mindfulness is never boring. Look again.

At some point in your meditation career, you will be struck with the seriousness of what you are actually doing. You are tearing down the wall of illusion you have always used to explain life to yourself and to shield yourself from the intense flame of reality. You are about to meet ultimate truth face to face. That is scary. But it has to be dealt with eventually. Go ahead and dive right in.

If you just sit still and observe your agitation, it will eventually pass. Sitting through restlessness is a little breakthrough in your meditation career. It will teach you much. You will find that agitation is actually a rather superficial mental state. It is inherently ephemeral. It comes and it goes. It has no real grip on you at all. Here again the rest of your life will profit.

Beginners in meditation are often much too serious for their own good. So laugh a little. It is important to learn to loosen up in your session, to relax into your meditation. You need to learn to flow with whatever happens. You can’t do that if you are tensed and striving, taking it all so very, very seriously. New meditators are often overly eager for results. They are full of enormous and inflated expectations. They jump right in and expect incredible results in no time flat. They push. They tense. They sweat and strain, and it is all so terribly, terribly grim and solemn. This state of tension is the direct antithesis of mindfulness.

Trying too hard leads to rigidity and unhappiness, to guilt and self-condemnation. When you are trying too hard, your effort becomes mechanical and that defeats mindfulness before it even gets started. You are well-advised to drop all that.

Missing a single practice session is scarcely important, but it very easily becomes a habit. It is wiser to push on through the resistance. Go sit anyway. Observe this feeling of aversion. In most cases it is a passing emotion, a flash in the pan that will evaporate right in front of your eyes. Five minutes after you sid down it is gone. In other cases it is due to some sour mood that day, and it lasts longer. Still, it does pass.

Meditation is not some grim, solemn, obligation. Meditation is mindfulness. it is a new way of seeing and it is a form of play. Meditation is your friend.

You will have problems in meditation. Everybody does. You can treat them as terrible torments, or as challenges to be overcome. If you regard them as burdens, you suffering will only increase. If you regard them as opportunities to learn and to grow, your spiritual prospects are unlimited.

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