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.
Even after years of practice, I needed to be reminded of this.
I was on a course and a teacher was doing a guided meditation. My meditation felt heavy and oppressive. I was noticing my ongoing symptoms of brain fog, and feeling quite frustrated that it was there again, changing how my practice felt. I started pushing against the experience rather than settling into the meditation.
Then the teacher reminded us that the intention is to notice what’s happening.
This non-fixing is what Mark Williams calls the being mode, as opposed to the doing mode. We can notice when we are getting caught up, trying to make things different.
Doing mode is one in which we try to close the gap between the way things are and the way we think they should be. We respond to what we hear as a call to action – and it can make us feel worse.
“Another mode of mind is required when it comes to dealing with unhappiness. Evolution has bequeathed us with an alternative to critical thinking. … It is called awareness.”
Mark Williams, The Mindful Way Through Depression. Audiobook.➹
It’s often assumed that mindfulness has kindness built-in. I don’t think this is true. A counter-example is the way that some beginner meditators criticise themselves for not being mindful enough. It’s an act of unkindness towards one’s self.
Mindfulness needs to be deliberately filled with the quality of goodwill.
As well as making a healthy static meditation practice, kindness can also be used to give a sense of direction to the practice. It’s the first signpost that we are moving along in the direction of less suffering.
Mindfulness without kindness is like standing on one leg. It won’t get us very far along the path.