The Vipassana Retreat

7. Difficulties Facing Meditators – and how to work with them

In a way it is a good thing that there is no such thing as a perfect meditator, as all the problems and difficulties that one comes across in meditation practice are ‘grist for the mill’: that is, they are ‘workable’. As in life, what we see as difficulties in meditation can be the cause of growth in the Dharma.

This is especially true of Vipassana meditation, where a lot of difficulties both physically and mentally can be encountered. It is not until the enlightenment factor of equanimity develops sufficiently that there will cease to be difficulties in the practice. That is why it is critical for the meditator to be monitoring feelings and emotions in his or her practice, as it is the ability to accept whatever feelings and subsequent emotions arise without reaction that eventually helps the practice to stabilise and mature.

There are common difficulties facing all meditators. They are called the Nirvaranas in Pali, which translates as the Five Hindrances or the obstacles that block the path of the practitioner.

  • Sensuality: yearning after sense objects or preoccupation with the sensory world\
  • All forms of ill-will: from resentment to outright hostility
  • Mental Inertia: lack of mental and/or physical energy
  • Restlessness and Worry: agitation in the mind and body as well as tracing back to the past or remorse
  • Skeptical Doubt: persistent uncertainty either about one’s own ability, the teacher or the technique.

Having mentioned the above negatives, we should then look at possible solutions. An antidote for sensuality is the reflection on the anatomical parts of the body (asubha). This is a powerful method in dealing with attachment to the body. Loving-kindness meditation will change the quality of mind from negative to positive and thereby overcoming all forms of ill-will. Arousing one’s energy and effort can help overcome mental inertia. As for restlessness and worry, calming and stabilising the mind with a concentration meditation is helpful. Skeptical doubt is more difficult to overcome until one develops sufficient confidence (saddha) in the Buddha Dharma to overcome the wavering in the mind. So, doing reflections on the qualities of the Buddha (Buddhanussati), one can inspire and arouse the necessary confidence.

Concentration meditation can be relied on to give some relief from the Five Hindrances by temporarily suppressing them. When threshold concentration (upacara samadhi) arises in Vipassana meditation it too will inhibit the hindrances to some extent as well. But ultimately the mind is purified and completely cleared of the Five Hindrances through the cleansing power of Vipassana meditation.

Handling Difficulties in the Practice

Mind Wanderings: Preoccupied with the content of the mind, being lost in thought or obsessive trains of thoughts requires skillful handling. It is not the object of the practice to repress the thinking. Rather one has to allow that, over the period of a retreat, the mind will naturally settle. There are two ways to work with the thinking – vigorously mentally noting the thinking as ‘thinking’, ‘thinking’, to cut it, as this helps to ‘break the circuit’ or, when possible, allow the train of thoughts to run and find the gaps or pauses between thoughts, and if one is sharp enough, then try to catch the beginning of the next thought as it is about to form. In this way, at least the circuitous thinking pattern is broken and the mind will then tend to quieten.

Sleepiness: This is a common problem when people come to meditation retreats. Usually, it is just mental and physical exhaustion for a lot of people. We are so over-extended, stretched and stressed, that people are often just simply exhausted. In today’s society we do not give ourselves enough rest. We are trying to function on less sleep while achieving more and more so we end up with a ‘sleep debt’ at the cost of our well-being. A meditation retreat gives us time out to recuperate and recharge ourselves. It used to take just a few days into a retreat for people to recover fully – now it can take a week or so, which indicates that the pace of everyday life is accelerating rapidly. Yet it is possible that by focusing on the ‘sleepy state’ as one mentally notes it, the sleepiness will disperse.

Inability or Disinclination to Handle Pain: Posture pain is being referred to here, not a pre-existing medical condition. Pain is inevitable in meditation, as in life – only suffering is optional. The meditator should not try to make it go away, but regard it as a friend for then its true nature will be seen. One should work with posture pain by softening into the pain sensations and relaxing into any muscular contractions. Then find the centre of the so-called pain by noticing specific characteristics in it, such as tension, heat, throbbing, stabbing, etc. When the mind is quiet and there is just the knowing of the pain i.e. the ‘consciousness of’, then the pain will change. It will probably come back but one achieves some insight into its true nature.

Fears and Feelings of Anxiety: Unpleasant feelings of apprehension or distress caused by the anticipation of imagined danger. It is the feeling of looking forward in dread to something that one supposes is going to happen that brings up the fear. The antidote for fear is to stay in the present moment. There is also ‘fear of the unknown’. As a result some people stop meditating altogether. Deep within most of our minds lie unwholesome latent tendencies – the dark side, or the shadow. Powerful material can surface during Vipassana meditation, and most meditators can handle this adequately without breaking down. Only people deeply troubled with a neurosis or with a clinical condition such as psychosis should not do intensive Vipassana meditation without guidance.

Wrong Attitude: Ambition to achieve results or wanting immediate effects, which is an acquisitive attitude. Right attitude is an open acceptance of things as they are without any expectation. Above all, patience and forbearance is needed in relating to the meditation experience. The Buddha describes it well in the Dhammapada: “Patience and forbearance is the power of those who meditate”.

Handling the Meditation Object Wrongly: Unusual experiences and sensations can arise in the meditation, such as: visions, images, voices, and lights. If you cling to them whether they are blissful or fearful you will become attached to the phenomena. It is critical that you remain neutral towards them by labeling them as ‘seeing’, ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’, ‘hearing’, etc. Never give any unusual experience, positive or negative, any significance. Report them to a qualified teacher or mentor who can assist you with an appropriate strategy or technique to handle them.

Understanding these problems will help you manage your practice and give you the ability to make the appropriate adjustments based on knowledge of methods and techniques. The path of meditation is a path of practice. Practice is a repeated performance or methodical exercises to develop skills, which include the ability to self-manage your meditation practice.
When all is said and done, the best way to work with difficulties in Vipassana meditation is to seek a Kalyanamitta. This is not a guru who claims to do the work for you, but a meditation friend or teacher who has had some travel experience and can guide and advise you on the practice path.

There was an exchange between the Buddha and his attendant, Ananda, where Ananda said that he had heard all the teachings and therefore he could practise by himself. The Buddha responded to the effect that without a guide (kalyanamitta), the Dharma could not be realised. In the final analysis, it is not a matter of this or that technique, but the need for a guide with travel experience – a mentor in the Dharma.