When Meditation Is Difficult

The times when I most resist meditation are when I need it most. For example, when I’m going through a period of high stress.

It can also be difficult to sit with physical pain, when the pain is getting the upper hand.

I few things come to mind.

Firstly, in such stressful times, there are peaks and troughs in the intensity of agitation. Mindfulness practice can help us be aware of these changes. I can choose to meditate when I need it least, so that I have more access to the practice when I need it most.

Secondly, related to the first, we should use all healthy solutions to reduce the original suffering. Let’s not get into a bravery contest and colour our meditation practice with suffering. Make it as easy as possible, then work on the rest.

Thirdly, by practicing with our attention, we can gain some awareness and control of our level of deliberate engagement. Although we might be told to approach and accept suffering, we should use our mindfulness training skilfully to control how closely we approach it. We can choose when to back off from being mindful.

Fourthly, mindfulness skills allow us to titrate our engagement. We can choose how much of the experience we will consciously accept.

This isn’t to claim we have total control over how much pain or stress we let in. Sometimes experience is stronger than our current level of mindfulness. If we are going to use mindfulness, we should measure our practice by whether it does actually reduce suffering. It must always feel like an act of kindness.

Should I Use Meditation To Fix My Problems, Or To Make A Spiritual Path?

I heard a meditation teacher give an interesting answer to a question about trauma. She said something like this:

“Don’t make a meditation project out of healing your trauma. Instead, cultivate the qualities that meditation offers, and let them do the healing.”

Some people use meditation as a collection of tips and tricks to fix specific problems. Others meditate as a path taught by the Buddha and other teachers. So which makes sense for me?

I’m struggling with multiple problems, and the one that troubles me the most changes from day to day. So there’s a regular feeling of alarm, but an irregular answer from my mind about what to do about it. The sensation of jumping from one thing to another is what anxiety and un-confidence feel like.

However, if I take the teacher’s advice above, then I have a single challenge. Meditation starts quite simply and becomes more complex as we see the options for further practice. If I take the building of a meditation path one step at a time, then I can focus. I’ll be able to think, without being scattered by shifting priorities.

Am I Aware?

This is the ultimate trick question. Not because it tricks you into a wrong answer, but because it tricks you into the best answer: which is Yes.

If you ask the mind a question, it will try to answer it. So, if you ask the mind if it’s aware, it will check. And the only way it can do this is to pay attention to where it thinks awareness is experienced.

Attending to our experience, on purpose, is almost a definition of mindfulness. When I do this, my mind instantly goes quiet – as if it’s listening.

If you have a bit of a mindfulness practice already working, then try it.

Are you aware…?

The Mindful Way Through Depression – by Mark Williams et al

This is the self-help book that I used to get started in meditation.

In 2012, I first heard of mindfulness and it sounded like exactly what I needed. I looked up a psychotherapist with mindfulness in their profile and booked an appointment. He did a couple of sessions of guided meditations and then handed me this book.

The Mindful Way Through Depression – by Mark Williams

The first sentence is “Depression hurts”. I’ve read a few books about depression and many of them start with chapters of information describing the damage depression does to society, with lots of statistics and lamentations. But, if you’re depressed, this is hard work. It’s a form of rumination written on the pages. So, when Mark Williams starts with a paragraph that describes the experience of what it’s like to be depressed, then we can start to hope that we’re finally in the right place.

Depression hurts. It is the black dog of the night that robs you of joy, the unquiet mind that keeps you awake. It’s the noonday demon that only you see, the darkness visible only to you.

Following this, there are some chapters that explain very clearly how depression works. This is already helpful because we can see that depression is an understandable process. It can creep up on anyone very stealthily and can be hard to recognise on first experience.

The 8 week program itself is fantastic. The guided meditations that accompany the book are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. These are the gold standard in my opinion and I still use them ten years into my meditation practice.