Overcoming Obstacles in Meditation Practice

Category: Buddhist Meditation | Buddhist Path | How to Meditate

The two main obstacles in meditation are agitation and dullness

The 5 Hindrances (Five Veils) to Meditation Practice

Our meditation practice is rife with obstacles, even before we ever get to the cushion. The first obstacle we must overcome is that of laziness, also known as busy-ness. But even after having made time for daily practice, obstacles arise as soon as we attempt to focus. The following common obstacles to meditation can be overcome by awareness, and by applying the particular antidote for each.

According to Buddhist teachings, the obstacles to meditation practice can be classified into five hindrances. These are also known as the five veils since they act to obscure our clear mind.

Lifting the meditation veils requires us to first become aware of them, especially as they arise in our practice. At first, addressing the hindrances takes effort. We must remain vigilant and active to maintain balanced, steady focus. With practice, we learn to respond to the challenges of meditation with more skillfulness and ease.

Working with common barriers to meditation helps us develop greater stability of mind, which benefits us both during and between our meditation sessions.

1. Desire

Desire, or attraction of the senses, is the first of the five veils. In its negative manifestation, this is the energy of lack, neediness, or attachment. Chasing pleasant thoughts, people or things distracts us from our meditation practice and keeps us in a cycle of discontentment. On the other hand, desire can be helpful in motivating us to practice. Balanced desire keeps us alert and energized.

When desire pulls us from our point of focus in meditation, we can offset this energy by generating repulsion for that which we’re attracted to. We remember that the true source of contentment is not getting what we want, but comes from the development of a stable state of mind.

2. Aversion

Aversion, or repulsion, is the flip side of desire. It arises in meditation as annoyance, frustration, irritation or as judgment and self-criticism. We might find ourselves daydreaming about others, caught up in anger, hatred or ill-will. On the positive side, a healthy amount of repulsion can help us set boundaries, keeping us present and undisturbed.

When thrown off balance by aversion or ill-will, we can return to a balanced state of mind by placing our attention on what’s going well, or by cultivating joy, loving-kindness and compassion.

3. Too Much Energy

We all know what it feels like when we’ve had one too many cups of coffee prior to meditation, whether in the literal sense or metaphorically. Too much energy makes us restless and fidgety, as if neither the body nor mind can settle. But we do need energy, curiosity and alertness to practice.

Too much energy can be balanced by warming the body, turning down the lights, closing our eyes, focusing on our exhale breath, or by paying attention to the ways in which we’re already calm. We might try expressing gratitude for our abundant energy, as it gives us the opportunity to practice tranquility, equanimity and calm.

4. Too Little Energy

Too little energy is clearly apparent when we catch ourselves nodding off to sleep in meditation, but it reveals itself in more subtle ways too. A feeling of brain fog, dullness or disinterest can all be signs of too little energy in meditation. On the other hand, we do want to feel relaxed, at peace, and calm.

If we need to perk up a bit during our practice, we can sit up taller, open our eyes, focus on our inhale breaths, meditate in a colder place, or meditate while standing or walking. We might also remember that there is no way of knowing if this one breath will be our last. The only time that’s guaranteed to be available for practice is right now.

5. Doubt

The final but perhaps most insidious hindrance to meditation is doubt. We might have lingering doubts about the teachings, our teacher, or ourselves and our own abilities. If we truly believed, with unshakable faith, that meditation was the solution to our suffering, wouldn’t we commit to a consistent practice and devote sufficient time to it, each and every day?

Doubt can keep us from our cushion, can keep us from applying effort to strengthen our practice and can keep us from remaining present when negative experiences and obstacles arise during meditation.

The solution to doubt is to simply keep practicing. At first, we might fail to apply the antidotes or apply them too tightly, but eventually we do reach a state of practiced ease. By continuing to practice and diligently work through the common meditation problems, the more benefits we receive. The results speak for themselves, acting as an antidote to doubt.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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