The Biggest Obstacle to Meditation (And How to Overcome It)

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By Dr. Rohi Shetty

“The opposite of insight is excite.”
~Ajahn Brahmavamso

A meditator went to a spiritual teacher and asked for his advice. “My mind is never free from thoughts, though I’ve been trying really hard to get rid of them since several years. Please guide me. How do I get rid of these thoughts?”

The teacher said, “Continue your practice as usual but with one change—avoid all thoughts about monkeys while meditating. Come back after one week.”

After a week, the meditator returned and reported, “Before I met you, I never had any thoughts about monkeys during meditation. But after you advised me not to think about monkeys, I can’t stop thinking about them. The more I try not to think about monkeys, the more thoughts I get about them. I’m totally stressed during meditation.

“And this stress has affected my peace of mind. I’ve lost my appetite and I can’t sleep properly. My mind has become totally disturbed. I have thoughts of monkeys all the time, doing all kinds of tricks. I can’t meditate at all, not even for a minute. I’ve become completely frustrated and depressed.”

The teacher smiled and explained, “I gave you this advice so that you would understand it through your own experience. Now you understand that the more you try to avoid anything, the more it sticks to you. You tried so hard to avoid all thoughts about monkeys. What happened? There’s nothing special about monkeys.

“Similarly, if you try to avoid any thought, you’ll get more thoughts. So don’t try to avoid thoughts. Don’t consider thoughts as an obstacle. And don’t use the number of thoughts you get during meditation as a yardstick of progress.”

This story illustrates the biggest obstacle we face in our meditation practice—our misconceptions about meditation and our expectations from meditation practice. The biggest misconception is confusing meditation practice with mysticism. We expect to gain something special from meditation—special powers, special abilities or special experiences. The ability to levitate or read the minds of others or gain superhuman strength. The least we expect, the bare minimum, is freedom from thoughts, samadhi.

And yet, we find much to our dismay and disappointment, that meditation is more of the same old, same old. Same old thoughts, same old agitation, same old drowsiness. Like Ajahn Brahm, we yo-yo between restlessness and sleepiness. Even a few minutes of meditation seems like an unbearable burden. There’s no stillness of the mind, much less bliss or any supernatural power. Damn!

The solution to this angst is to realize that meditation means to see things as they really are. Not as they appear to be or as you would like them to be. To meditate means to become a witness to the truth of the present moment, especially in our own mind and body. Witness it without labeling it as good or bad. Witness it without wanting it to stay or go away.

Can you try it right now? Just for a minute. Be a witness—cool, detached, impartial. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Then wait and observe. Whatever happens, be a witness. Be aware of the flow of your breath and the flow of your thoughts. Be aware but in a relaxed way.

Understand that meditation is to be focused and relaxed at the same time.

Ask yourself: “Am I focused? Am I relaxed?”

Bingo!

Join the conversation:

What’s your biggest meditation challenge?
Let us know in the comments below.

Related articles:
The Five Enemies of Meditation (and How to Overcome Them)
Seven Benefits of a Vipassana Meditation Course
How to Tame the Monkey in Your Mind
The Surprising Problem With Meditation
The Five Biggest Meditation Myths
Eight Advantages of Breath-Meditation
Five Benefits of Daily Mindfulness Meditation
Three Reasons Why Every Writer Should Meditate

(24 May 2017)


Rohi Shetty is a doctor, health writer, and editor for hire. Check out his Kindle books at Amazon and connect with him on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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