Overcoming Adversaries in Meditation Practice

Tim Drugan-Eppich shares his thoughts on his meditation practice and the five adversaries that his mind frequently uses to discourage him from continuing his practice. Tim, along with his girlfriend, run a blog for anyone looking for advice on topics ranging from finances and cooking, to health and dating, or for those just curious about how others tackle adulthood. Visit their website at TriedbyTwo.com.

“Change yourself—you are in control.” —Mahatma Gandhi

The mind doesn’t take kindly to requests for silence. It prides itself, after all, on providing a ceaseless flow of thoughts and ideas, lest you enjoy a moment of peace. The subject of these thoughts does not concern the mind—though for me it does seem to hold an affinity for the anxiety-driving and depression-inducing. Rather, it is the dutiful administration of novel musings on which the mind occupies itself. All, of course, with the hope that you won’t have the time to consider where all these convoluted thoughts originate.

I began my meditation practice to rein in this zealous mind. A rather bothersome fellow, it often steers me toward dismal topics, leaving me in a brooding state entirely of my own making. Though the struggles in my practice have been numerous, there are five adversaries my mind frequently uses to discourage me from continuing. They return daily, plaguing me through my practice.

Time

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” —Gautama Buddha

My battle with Time did not begin with meditation. Our feud started so long ago it surpasses the reach of my memory. The disagreement lies in Time’s habit of speeding up when I need it to slow down. As far back as elementary school it has used this tactic to spite me. While in class, it made each minute an hour, but once recess began, it sped to make the hour less than a minute. Time has continued this same practice into my meditation sessions. No matter how I plan my day, once arrives my moment for meditation. Time excuses itself, leaving none behind.

Perhaps the only way to conquer this adversary is to have flexibility not only in time, but place. Mindfulness on the Go by Jan Chozen Bays shows that mindfulness can be activated anywhere and at anytime, including right now.

“In practicing meditation, we're not trying to live up to some kind of ideal—quite the opposite. We're just being with our experience, whatever it is.” —Pema Chödrön

Fear of Failure

“The 10,000-hours rule says that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours, which is roughly ten years, if you think about four hours a day.” —Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Upon realizing how long it will take to get good at something, the fear of never achieving expectations makes it difficult to begin the journey at all. This fear of failure then leads to excuses. One skill I have mastered, through many hours, over many years, is making elaborate and convincing excuses to myself. I couldn’t possibly meditate today, I tell myself. The humidity is a bit excessive; how could I concentrate with so much water in the air?

How do I fight this fear? Maybe a resolution to find appreciation for any moment spent quietly concentrating on the breath could act as solace. As it stands, the beginning of every session still brings into my mind a subtle, but present, terror.

Guidance is necessary to conquer this adversary. In Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chödrön deals with the fear and other painful emotions that act as suppressors for many meditation practices, allowing practitioners to move past their stunting effects.

“It's not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share.” —Pema Chödrön

Related Books

Overconfidence

“An arrogant person considers himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It interferes with a person’s main task in life—becoming a better person.” —Leo Tolstoy

A bit of cautious optimism is good. Indeed, it is a necessity for overcoming the fear of failure in a beginning meditation practice. Travel too far along this optimistic route, however, and pompous overconfidence awaits. On me, this manifests as offering unwanted suggestions to everyone on their spiritual health. Spouting advice with the tone of an expert, I instead come across as arrogant and patronizing. Unsurprisingly, I have convinced no one of the benefits of meditation through this method and may have, instead, permanently sullied several on starting a practice. I forget, more often than is flattering, about humility and its importance. The more accomplished a practitioner, the less boastful they are. So when cockiness supersedes a more moderate mindset, my inexperience is naked for all to see. But this is not the main disservice of my arrogance. In the assumption of perfection, I am unable to recognize my flaws. No longer am I meditating when I sit quietly, but rather congratulating myself on what a good job I am doing. My awareness of anything real sinks away, replaced by a chronic self-appreciation.

As overconfidence is likely a symptom of inner turmoil, The Healing Power of the Mind by Tulku Thondup can show how to inhibit this adversary from hindering meditation. Through the lessons in this book, true confidence may be found, instead of its phony counterpart.

Lack of Patience

 We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” —Aristotle

When I was fourteen, I began playing guitar. I then promptly quit because I didn’t sound like Jimi Hendrix. Though I was probably doomed to guitar mediocrity because of chubby fingers and a lack of digit dexterity, I didn’t give myself the chance to fail or succeed. My retirement from music should have come after years of flubbed shows and a dramatic parting of ways from the band that I formed. Instead, I stopped before I started just because I wasn’t amazing right away.

Guitar may be a glaring example of my instant gratification mindset, but it is not a solitary one. My lack of patience has led to the desertion of many pastimes I likely would have obtained great pleasure from had I persisted. It is grandiose expectations that lead to a rapid disappointment, followed by a passionate denunciation of the hobby of the day. And now this wonderful habit has found a home in my meditation practice. On pondering the three-month duration of my practice, I find myself in shock that I have not obtained Buddha status. Impatience forms the desire to quit, when what is required is diligent persistence.

According to Chögyam Trungpa, in his book, Meditation in Action, patience is one of the six activities necessary to a practice. The other five are generosity, discipline, energy, clarity, and wisdom. Through these activities, one can come closer to real wisdom. It just takes patience.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” —Confucius

Sleep

“Sleep is the best meditation.” —Dalai Lama

Ideally, the timer signaling the conclusion of my meditation session would bring me out of a deep trance. I’d open my eyes with a soft smile caressing my face. Instead, the buzzer causes a snort and a yawn. Both are quickly followed by a panicked attempt to figure out where I am, what is going on, and why do I have a puddle of drool creeping down my front? Only on rubbing my neck, aching from my head lolling forward to deposit the aforementioned drool onto my shirt, do I come to terms with the past twenty minutes. I can’t be certain, but I have a hunch that my unintended slumber might be caused by fatigue. I’m tired, and my body can’t miss an opportunity to catch up on lost sleep. Unfortunately, my ability to meditate is hindered by exhaustion when sleep continues to commandeer the allotted time.

The only solution to unexpected sleep is to get more sleep when scheduled. This, however, means sacrifice. And figuring out which pieces of my life can be cut back on, or eliminated altogether, has been difficult. If I didn’t think the things I spent my time on were worthwhile, I wouldn’t be spending my time on them. So finding more time to sleep, on top of adding in meditation, has taken ruthless deliberation, and I return to the struggle against Time.

The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche offers insight into making your sleep work towards your practice.

“If we cannot carry our practice into sleep," Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche writes, "If we lose ourselves every night, what chance do we have to be aware when death comes? Look to your experience in dreams to know how you will fare in death. Look to your experience of sleep to discover whether or not you are truly awake.”

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It would be unreasonable for me to offer solutions to these problems, as I still combat them daily. But where the aforementioned books provide guidance, I can provide consolation. For already, even with the brevity of my practice, I have noticed improvements in self-awareness. The problems haven’t been fixed, the adversaries haven’t been conquered, but now I know they’re there. And with this acknowledgement, I know my journey has begun.