Accepting the Battle
In most of the emails I’ve received about the variety of problems people have when they meditate, I’ve noticed a common thread.
Whether it’s restless mind or restless body or an attention that will not focus, most people want something to stop, or go away. They want their mind to stop thinking, their body to stop feeling discomfort. They want their attention to stop flicking about. They want their sadness, anger and depression to go away.
In their non-acceptance of these aspects of their conditioned self as they arise in meditation, it’s as if they want NOT to be themselves – because in that non-acceptance, they deny the essential truth of what they have become.
After all, in the modern world we live in, anxiety is almost a way of living – our world creates anxiety as a way of binding us into the vast machine we’ve created, of work, money, competition, and so on. All these things run on anxiety and tension – even our entertainment, making us laugh and cry as it does, is designed to create anxiety and tension.
So we must accept that these same things will arise in meditation, as both mental and physical events – pain, worry, distraction, dreaming, frustration, emotions. They are habits our life has created, which are enacted every day. So how can we expect them to suddenly disappear in meditation.
As I’ve said before, meditation is not about escape, or stopping, or avoidance of the friction of life – it is about changing the way our mind and body react to them.
In this way we find stillness within the storm. And as we develop a relationship with that stillness, we see that pain and pleasure in all their forms are illusions created by a mind wholly preoccuied with playing the game it was born into. At that point, though still involved in the game, we have a healthy outside perspective on everything we experience in this game.
So when people try to meditate through a filter of profound non-acceptance – non-acceptance of things as they are, and the consequences of the life they have lead, they are essentially trying to meditate through a completely unworkable non acceptance of themselves – which makes meditation impossible.
Because the things that disturb us in meditation need our unconditional acceptance to be able to change.
After all, nothing can change unless it is first acknowledged and accepted – and that goes for life, as well as meditation.
For example – let’s look at a common problem in meditation. Sleepiness.
When I first began meditating training at Sorn Thawee, I used to fall asleep every time. But it was not a refreshing sleep. It was always a heavy death-like sleepiness introduced by a sickening sensation of falling. Sitting there with my head nodding I’d feel a sickening vertigo and jerk awake with my heart thudding in my chest. Time after time, I’d set my jaw, and, frowning with effort, try once again to meditate, only to slip into the abyss once again. After a half hour of this struggle, I’d give up, feeling exhausted, fuggy and tense.
And then I realized something.
I realized that as soon as I felt sleepy, my body would begin tensing up – my shoulders would tightening and a grimace of effort appearing on my face and my breathing would become short and tense, as I tried as hard as I could to be awake – and this reaction was only locking the sleepiness in place and enhancing it.
Because essentially, I was not accepting things as they were. I was trying to NOT be sleepy, in total denial of what I actually felt.
So I began doing the opposite.
As the sensations of sleepiness began, instead of fighting it, I accepted it. In that acceptance, I made sure not to panic in the face of the rising sleepiness – to accept it was happening and keep letting go of my physical reactions to it – letting go of the breath; keep dropping my shoulders and focusing on the sensations of the sleepiness. As I felt my body lapse into its habit of tensing against what I was feeling, I’d carefully let go of everything I’d been habitually doing in reaction to it.
And I found that the sleepiness would pass on through, and disappear.
Considering this counter intuitive method worked with sleepiness, I began doing the same thing with other mind/body habits.
For example, at that time, I had a very powerful problem with depression. The condition was very physical, in that it would usually arise for apparently no reason I could identify, and bring a very dark and ruinous mentality with it.
I hated this syndrome (because that’s what it was), and each time it began to show itself, I’d react against it in some way. I’d either deny it was happening by going out and partying – using drugs, alcohol and sex to make it disappear. Or I’d try to fight it by using compulsive activity to try keep it at bay – fidgeting, cleaning the house, going for a walk – none of which worked, because it was inevitable that I’d collapse and go catatonic.
But the one thing I had never done was accept it.
So, inspired by my success with sleepiness, I began doing just that. I did the opposite of everything I’d always done, and each time it arose, I began accepting depression as a physical event in my body and in my life – relaxing around it, breathing into it, allowing it to be within me in whatever way it chose – even daring it to become more intense.
In short, I began embracing it.
At the same time as I accepted the physicality of depression, I used the meditation methods to keep my attention away from the distorted and dark mentality that always came with it – to keep my attention focused as much as I could on the present-time physicality of what was happening.
And, as with sleepiness, change began to happen.
As time went on, and I became better at this complex counter-reaction I was practicing, I found the depression began to respond.
First it would seem to intensify, and then peak, and then, right at the point of maximum intensity it would begin to evaporate, and then disappear quite rapidly.
As time went on, I began to feel as if in some strange way, I was finally making friends with the ‘Blcak Dog’ I had always feared and hated. And in return it began to respond by calming down, to the extent that now it is gone.
And so this same principle exists with everything that bugs us in meditation, and I’ll list just a few of the problems I’ve been hearing about in recent emails:
- Attention that just won’t calm down and focus.
- Discomfort that arises in the body trying to sit still.
- Boredom and frustration.
- A peculiar anxiety that comes with stopping to meditate.
- Incessant thinking and worrying.
- Continual lapses into daydreaming and random distractedness.
In each of these so called ‘problems’ I see the same fundamental mistake of non-acceptance.
People are reacting to all these things in different ways – by trying to use the meditation method to deny what’s happening, or ignore it, or stop it, or make it go away.
But fundamentally, when each of these reactions becomes a problem, it for the same reason – because they have not been accepted.
It is all non-acceptance.
And as long as there is non-acceptance of ‘what is happening now’ in meditation, whatever it is, nothing will change. And there will be no progress. Each new ‘problem’ (if you keep calling it that) will only create anxiety, tension and restlessness, with either of two final outcomes. You’ll either give up or exhaust yourself fighting.
In this fundamental lesson, meditation is very much like life – because we see the same principle there as well – that if we don’t accept things as they are, and ourself as we are, we cannot evolve through it, and onwards from it.
So then, my advice?
Forget the word ‘problem’ in meditation. There are no problems. In meditation more than anything else, the cliché ‘every problem an opportunity’ is indeed the case.
But … opportunity for what?
Each apparent ‘problem’ becomes an opportunity to resolve a debilitating habit – to develop resilience and strength – to learn how to flow WITH the flux of life instead of against it. To learn how to expand into reality as it actually is, instead of contracting away from it.
In this way, we use meditation to train ourselves for life – such that even though the various frictions of life still happen – pain, misfortune and heartbreak – we find ourselves evolving through them instead of getting stuck in them. We find ourselves learning from them instead of being crippled, like so many other people we see around us.
So whatever happens in meditation, you must accept it, whole heartedly in the moment it is here. This does not mean you hold it in place, or expect it to happen. Nor does not mean you like it or invite it.
It simply means you simply accept what is happening now … and now … and now … until it’s not there anymore.
You accept it wholeheartedly, completely and with as much equanimity as possible.
As it rises up and evolves, you ride it like a surfer rides a wave – with as much poise and balance as possible, and you ride it until it passes away in its own time.
I hope this helps.
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Good advice even when you are not meditating.
I was sitting here becoming more and more annoyed by all the negative propaganda that surrounds a political election in the United States. I was even actively looking for a place to vent my frustrations when I saw this post.
Roger to the rescue!! It was like you walked in and whacked the back of my head with a stick.
I don’t have to resolve all these angry responses bouncing around in my head.. I just have to stop feeding them and wait for them to die.
I don’t have to find a solution I can just unmake the problem.
I just had to remember what I did in fourth grade history class.. let it all go in one ear and out the other! I knew that was a highly under rated skill!!
I wasn’t day dreaming. I was flowing with the flux!
Excellent … I know for myself, my habits of denial of what is actually happening are very well formed, such that I habitually check my internal environment now, to see when I am lapsing into resistance or denial of something I feel. And lo and behold, I often find my body tensing up against some insignificant irritation or emotion …my British genes I suppose …
By the way.. I keep meaning to ask you about the wonderful drawings that adorn your post.. are you the artist?
Yes … they are my daubs … my life goal is to go back to where I began, to painting. It gives me great happiness to go bubble headed and see what comes from the paint. Such an adventure.
I’m glad you like them … and thank you for telling me.