CHALLENGES IN PRACTICE
My mind is always busy, lost in thought. How do I quiet it?
This is very common to see in the meditative process; it is natural and there is nothing wrong. Understand too, there is no need to get rid of thoughts; this is not the purpose of meditation. Rather, we are learning to recognize when thinking is happening so we are not lost in a trance—believing thoughts to be reality, becoming identified with thoughts. Because we are so often lost in thought, it is helpful first to simply notice this fact. Then amidst the thoughts, here are several suggestions which can help to steady attention:
Anchor your attention in the body or breath over and over. This is like tethering the busy thinking mind to the “here and now.” Even though it pulls away, you patiently and gently bring it back again and again.
Commit to not judging the arising of thinking. Rather, respond to thoughts with acceptance and friendliness.
When you find you’re lost in a compelling thought, mentally whisper “a story but not true.” Remember that your thoughts are real—they are happening—but they are not reality, they are just a mental representation. You don’t have to believe your thoughts!
You can experiment by giving your busy, lost-in-thought mind a way to cooperate with being present by silently whispering “Breathing in 1” with the in-breath. “Breathing out 1” with the out-breath. Follow with “Breathing in 2,” “Breathing out 2” up to 8, then counting backwards to one. The words are pointers to the direct feeling of the in-breath and out-breath, connecting the mind and the body to steady and calm the mind. You can experiment with the words and pacing that work for you.
Just like a body of water stirred up by the winds, after being physically still for a while, your mind will gradually calm down.
What can I do if I get sleepy?
Sleepiness is another very common experience in meditation, which can have several causes. First, sometimes we are tired and just need more sleep. Second, sometimes we are so accustomed to lots of stimulation and a fast-paced life that when our body gets still, the mind thinks, “Oh, it must be time to sleep!” The third cause is an imbalance in energy. You can be too relaxed without sufficient alertness, so the mind begins to sink into sleepiness. To arouse energy, you can pay more attention to the in-breath, sit up straighter, open your eyes, continue practicing with standing meditation, or shift to walking meditation. A fourth cause can be unconscious avoidance of a difficult experience that is close to awareness. One simply inquiry can be, “What would I have to feel if I wasn’t feeling sleepy right now?”
Whatever the cause, mindfulness can notice what sleepiness feels like in the body and mind and notice when it abates. And most important, notice if you’re judging the sleepiness. If so, see if you can let go of the judgment. Our habit is to judge our inner states, and that just interferes with a simple mindful presence.
I can’t sit still. I feel so restless. What can I do?
Physical restlessness is also very common as we practice, and like sleepiness can be an imbalance in energy. In this case, too much energy brings agitation, so more relaxation is helpful.
First, simply notice restlessness mindfully and let it be present without judgment. Then you might scan through the body and notice where there are areas of tightness, tension, or discomfort and intentionally relax around those areas, making room for rather than fighting the restlessness. You can also experiment with focusing your attention on the out-breath, even allowing it to be longer than the in-breath; relaxing with the in-breath, relaxing with the out-breath. Patience and kindness are key in relating skillfully to restlessness in the body or mind, so you can imagine how you would help a child who is feeling restless. You might silently whisper, “May you be at ease.” With gentleness, explore accepting your experience as it is.
If sitting feels too hard, switch to walking practice and bring the attention into the sensations of walking. You could begin with a moderate pace to match the energy and gradually slow the pace down. As with the busy mind and counting, you give the restless body a way to participate in the practice.
Most important, as with sleepiness, notice the tendency to judge what is happening, and let your intention be to let go of judgment, and simply witness your experience with acceptance, friendliness, and curiosity.
What if I get bored?
At some point(s) in meditation practice, everyone gets bored! It can be an amazing practice to explore your relationship with boredom. Otherwise whenever you are bored you will unconsciously open the refrigerator or go online. Boredom doesn’t have to be feared, despised, or judged. You can embrace it as part of practice. How does boredom feel in the body? Can you breathe with it? Get interested in knowing it directly? Sometimes when the mind settles a bit and nothing big is happening, we miss the stimulation and become disinterested. Can you bring your attention to the breath as if it was your last breath? Boredom can be the outcome of disconnecting from the life that is present right now. You can even have the paradoxical experience of getting excited when you start to notice boredom arising. And the excitement will likely make the boredom disappear!
When I meditate, sometimes I feel a lot of fear … how do I deal with that?
When we turn our attention inward we all experience a vast range of emotions—some quite pleasant and others quite challenging. You can bring the two wings of mindfulness—sincere interest and kind attention—to fear; recognize and name it “fear, fear” and experiment with allowing rather than judging or pushing it away. Soon you will notice that there are thoughts about the circumstances related to the fear (i.e., storyline often from the past or the imagined future) plus the immediate presence of physical sensations related to feeling the fear in the present time. At this point you can shift attention to the sensations (e.g., tension in the belly or shoulders, heat in the face, heart pounding) including them with embodied presence. You can experiment with breathing with the sensations; relaxing around the tension; placing your hand on your heart and whispering a message of care, “This is hard and I am right here,” “May I feel at ease,” “May I remember love right now,” or whatever words or gestures are a compassionate expression of keeping yourself company. You can also bring to mind a person or pet or place that brings you comfort and/or evokes the felt-sense of loving presence—like calling on an ally to sit with you as you hold the fear together.
You will come to see that strong emotion is like a weather system that swoops in, stays for a while, and eventually dissipates. Embodied presence cultivates a wise and compassionate relationship with the emotion rather than judging, rejecting, or drowning in the experience.
There are times when the emotion can feel like drowning and you don’t feel grounded or resourced enough to be with it. Then it is very skillful and compassionate to step back and to shift the attention away from the storyline and sensations related to the fear. You might open the eyes, take several full deep breaths, and sense what is needed now to settle and calm the mind and body. It may be to reach out to a friend, to take a walk, have a cup of tea. Trust that you will find your own way to dance with fear.
When I meditate, I feel a lot of sadness—tears come. What can I do?
Like fear, sorrow and grief arise in practice as part of the human experience. As with fear, you can mindfully recognize the sadness and allow tears to flow and lovingly attend to the sensations as described above with fear. Scenes of loss may arise and you can intend to stay present, breathing with the sadness, holding yourself with loving presence, allowing the waves of grief to arise and pass through. If the waves feel too strong, remember that stepping back is a wise gesture of self-compassion.
What if I can’t feel anything in my body?
Many people are somewhat disconnected from the direct experience of their body. Mindfulness of body and breath is a training and it takes practice to recognize sensations and open to the felt sense of what’s going on inside you. Notice if you have judgment about not feeling anything in your body, and remember you are in good company. Also trust that it’s possible to awaken embodied awareness. Start simply by scanning through your body and noticing where you feel neutral or slightly pleasant sensations like the contact where your clothes meet your skin, sensations in the hands or feet, coolness or warmth. Sometimes tensing and relaxing a body part helps to make the sensations more obvious—increasing the blood flow makes it easier to feel tingling, pulsing, heat, etc.
Often we cut off from body sensations and emotions because they are intense, unfamiliar, or unpleasant. Instead, see if it’s possible to become curious about the life of the body, just as it is. Let your intention be to befriend whatever you experience with a patient, gentle, and accepting presence.
How do I deal with pain—in my legs, back, etc.?
Bringing mindfulness to physical discomfort is similar to bringing presence to emotional difficulty. Let your intention be to meet the unpleasantness with a gentle attention, noticing how it is experienced in the body and how it changes. Allow the unpleasantness to float in awareness, to be surrounded by soft presence. To establish that openness you might include in your attention sounds and/or other parts of the body that are free from pain. Breathe with the experience, offering a spacious and kind attention. Be aware of not only the physical sensations, but how you are relating to them. Is there resistance? Fear? If so, let these energies be included with a forgiving and mindful attention.
If the physical unpleasantness is intense and wearing you out, direct your attention, for a while, to something else. It is fine to mindfully shift your posture, or to use a skillful means like phrases of lovingkindness or listening to sounds as a way to discover some space and resilience. You don’t need to “tough it out.” That is just another ego posture that solidifies the sense of separate self. In a similar vein, you don’t have to “give up.” Instead, discover what allows you to find a sense of balance and spaciousness and, when you are able, again allow the immediate sensations to be received with presence.
What is RAIN?
RAIN is for a four-step process for relating skillfully with strong physical sensations, emotions, and thought patterns, and can be accessed in almost any place or situation. It directs our attention in a clear, systematic way that cuts through confusion and stress. The steps give us somewhere to turn in a painful moment, and as we call on the steps more regularly, they strengthen our capacity to come home to our deepest truth. Like the clear sky and clean air after a cooling rain, this mindfulness practice brings a new openness and calm to our daily lives.
The four steps of RAIN are:
R – Recognize what is happening
A – Allow life to be just as it is
I – Investigate inner experience with a kind, intimate attention
N – Nuture
RAIN directly deconditions the habitual ways in which you resist your moment-to-moment experience. In difficulties, instead of resisting “what is” by lashing out or getting angry, by having a cigarette, or by getting immersed in obsessive thinking, there is another way. You can learn to work with even the stickiest situations. RAIN begins to undo these unconscious patterns as soon as we take the first step.
Here is link to a detailed description of the four steps of RAIN: //www.tarabrach.com/articles-interviews/rain-workingwithdifficulties/
Sometimes I feel like giving up—that meditation will not help me. What if I give up? Can I start again?
You can always begin again! Many people feel like giving up when they begin a meditation practice. We want peace, calm, maybe even some bliss. When we find unpleasant emotions, thoughts, and sensations, we may feel impatience, disappointment, and self-doubt about our capacity to meditate. We may have many expectations about how meditation should be, and feel we are falling short or doing it wrong. This is called the challenge of doubt, but don’t let it decide what you do.
If you can breathe, you can meditate! You cannot control what experiences arise in meditation, but you can learn how to skillfully relate to your inner life with mindfulness and lovingkindness. Most people don’t learn to ride a bike on the first try, but they can have fun as they learn. See if you can cultivate a sense of curiosity, fun, persistence, and gentleness as you explore meditation. Meditation practice is really a lifelong adventure. There will be ups and downs, challenges and treasures. Remember we are all in this together!
Kornfield, J. and Brach, T., 2022. Healing Trauma Program. [online] Healing Trauma Program. Available at: <https://elearning.soundstrue.com/courses/take/the-power-of-awareness/texts/11484399-frequently-asked-questions-about-meditation-practice> [Accessed 1 February 2022].