Obstacles On The Path

I’ve been back from retreat for almost two months now and each week when I pen my to-do list I shamefully write down “blog posting.” Each week passes and no blog magically appears on my website. It’s been a good opportunity to practice some self-compassion and forgiveness. But today I realized it’s also a good opportunity to be honest with myself about why I’m not writing.

Obstacles on the path...

Obstacles on the path...

As I began to investigate my procrastination and blog-writing avoidance tactics, it was clear that I was suffering from a good old-fashioned hindrance attack. In meditation there are traditionally five hindrances that stand as obstacles or interference to our practice. In my case, I could see that these five obstacles were indeed standing between me and my goals. These obstacles may pop up during your meditation and distract you, they may prevent you from even meditating in the first place, or, like for me, they may block the path to your goals outside of meditation.

With mindfulness we can become aware of the obstacles we face without getting unwittingly mired in their traps. Instead of trying to barrel through them or obliterate them, we learn how to work with them and how to meet them with the same relaxed, kind, interest that we meet anything else in our practice.

So that they don’t stop you in your tracks, here is a quick run-down of the five obstacles and some suggestions for working with them.

1) Sleepiness – Do you ever fall asleep as soon as you start to meditate? Or when it’s time to start a big project does the couch seem to exert an irresistible magnetic pull? Sometimes sleepiness arrives because we need more sleep. Other times though, it arises out of boredom or as a way to avoid feeling what’s truly going on inside.

What you can do: If you’re sleepy because you’re not getting enough sleep, take a nap! You’re worth it! No time to nap? Try a short 3 minute breathing break with your eyes closed as a chance to unwind and decompress. Already getting enough sleep, but still feeling sluggish? Try some energizing deep breaths and see if you can cultivate some curiosity for what’s going on for you at that moment. You might be surprised at what you find!

2) Restlessness – Does it ever feel like you can’t sit still long enough to take even one breath? Or when you’re not meditating, do you find yourself buzzing like a bee, moving from one flower to the next with no end in sight? A sense of restlessness can sometimes indicate an imbalance of energy inside of us, and just like sleepiness it can sometimes be an unconscious avoidance tactic, preventing us from feeling how we’re feeling.

What you can do: When meditating, using some anchor words with each breath might help, “Breathing in I feel calm, Breathing out I relax.” You might also try walking meditation to let the energy move more easily through your body. Off of the meditation cushion, do you often find yourself mindlessly clicking through to different websites online? So that you don’t wind up in some obscure corner of the world wide web learning about the North African hedgehog’s reproductive habits, take a moment when you first sit down to the computer/tablet/phone to get clear on your intent. What are you searching for today? If you catch yourself moving mindlessly from page to page or from the fridge to Facebook to the TV, you might ask yourself “What would I be feeling if I weren’t restless?” 

3) Craving/Desire/Daydreaming – Does your mind seem to fixate on how great your life will be once you find Mr. or Mrs. Right? Or maybe it’s a piece of pizza filling your headspace. Sometimes the very act of wanting can be more enjoyable than the object of our desire, which in turn leaves us wanting more, more, more. I know I’ve had my fair share of sits disrupted by my mind’s tendency to drift off into fantasy.

What you can do: Notice it’s there! Then take some time to really feel what this particular craving feels like—Where in your body do you feel it? What stories do you have attached to it? What does it feel like to set down the fantasy or craving for just a breath? This doesn’t mean you’ll let go of all of your dreams or needs, but when you do make the move to fulfill your desire it can now be done with awareness and choice. That sort of autonomy feels a lot different than being pushed or pulled by our cravings. 

4) Aversion/Dislike/Avoidance – This pops up for me most often when I’m cold or if I have even the slightest little body ache. An aversion attack will encourage me to fight off whatever terrible, unimaginable thing is happening instead of experience it. "I can’t possibly meditate until I’m in just the right position, have just enough cushions, just the right amount of quiet, just enough blankets." Sound like you? There will always be things in our environment and surroundings that we find mildly (or majorly) unpleasant. But when we are bracing ourselves against them, instead of responding to them we’re just shutting down and tensing up, which is no fun at all.

What you can do: Recognize when you’re feeling aversive – sometimes simply noting “aversion” “dislike” “unpleasant” or “discomfort” is enough to allow us to soften (if even for just one breath) to our experience. By noticing and meeting aversion with a more relaxed and compassionate interest, it can be easier for us to skillfully respond to the object of our dislike. This might be by moving positions, spending some time feeling the physical sensations of discomfort without reacting right away, or recognizing that the object isn’t changing anytime soon and thus recalibrating our response to it. In this way we can take better care of ourselves instead of constantly reverting into fight or flight mode.

5) Doubt – The final and sometimes most insidious obstacle is doubt. It's that little voice questioning our right to do something, or constantly implying we’re doing it wrong. For me, doubt often sneaks in unnoticed, making it all the more powerful. When I don’t see it for what it is, it’s challenging to know how to respond to it.

What you can do: Get to know your doubt. The more I notice doubt and get familiar with how it feels in my body, the easier it is for me to identify those doubtful thoughts when they creep in. And once I identify doubt, I can more easily de-personalize it, taking out the hooks it had in me. When I don’t notice doubt, I believe all the judgmental, worrisome, and negative thoughts it throws at me. But when I can note, “oh doubt, there you are again,” I can send myself kind wishes and take a few breaths.

In looking back at the past couple of months, I can point to times when just about all of these obstacles have precluded me from posting a blog. The allure of Facebook or Buzzfeed was more powerful than my willingness to sit down and write about my experience. Feeling sleepy or restless, I would do just about anything to avoid this task to which I’d become so averse. And behind it all was doubt, lurking in the shadows, second-guessing any blog idea that came to mind; until today, when I realized what was happening and took responsibility for how I was feeling and behaving.

Doubt says I don’t have any grand material worthy of a blog posting. Well, I see you doubt, and I’m going to give it a go anyway.

An hour of writing later and it wasn’t so bad. In fact, I remember why I like doing this.

There will always be obstacles on the path. The key to responding to them is in getting to know them and know our relationship to them. Once we're familiar with the obstacles we face, instead of controlling us, they offer fodder for growth and development.