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.

Using An Anchor In Meditation

Our meditation teachers might ask us to ‘anchor’ our attention on the breath.

We do this by setting this behaviour as an intention for the meditation session. We start very deliberately, with some determination that the mind should rest on the breath. Then, each time we notice that the mind has become distracted, we gently return the attention back to the breath. We do this as many times as we forget and remember.

Every time we catch our mind drifting, and return it to our chosen anchor, our mindfulness capacity increases. We strengthen our ability to pay attention, attend for longer durations, bring the attention back more often and bring the attention back more quickly.

The mind is a virtual space, in which almost anything can happen. Since it’s not limited to what’s actually happening in the senses, it can drift in any direction and go to any place. The mind slipping off to somewhere else is very subtle. Having a pre-decided anchor is a way for us to notice that the mind has drifted.

Knowing beforehand where we will return the attention to also means that we are not distracted by having to decide where to put it each time.

Any activity that requires our attention will be supercharged by this capacity for mindfulness.

The purpose of our meditation might be simply to reduce distraction and rumination, so we can function with less mental agitation. Stability itself can be soothing, giving us the sensation of being centred rather than scattered.

If our meditation session has some additional purpose, such as the body scan, then we can spend more time benefiting from the body scan. We acquire more information, and apply any guidance more diligently.

The breath isn’t the only anchor we can choose, but it is the most commonly useful.

Definitions of Mindfulness

Job Kabat-Zinn gives us a definition of what mindfulness is.

Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.

Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness for Beginners. Sounds True. Hardback Edition.

Thich Nhat-Hanh’s is more a definition of what it feels like.

Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh. Happiness. Parallax Press. Kindle Edition.