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How to recognize and overcome three universal obstacles to practice
Detours and obstacles are a fact of practice life. Some arise out of our own psychology and conditioning: patterns of self-judgment and perfectionism, a tendency to procrastinate or seek diversions, addiction to control, and the like. Other obstacles seem to be more universal, and these are the ones that nearly every practitioner faces at one time or another. These obstacles are at the heart of practice, yet they are seldom given the emphasis they deserve. But until we can see them clearly—see how they manifest in our lives—it will be difficult, if not impossible, for our practice to move forward.
There are three obstacles in particular that we need to address.
Misunderstanding the depth of waking sleep
The first obstacle to practice is not understanding the magnitude and power of waking sleep. “Waking sleep” refers to the state in which we live most of the time—identified with, or lost in, our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions. In the first place, we’re addicted to our thoughts: believing that our thoughts and opinions are the Truth is the veil through which we perceive reality. But we also have difficulty controlling our emotions; in fact, we love to indulge them. Furthermore, we can’t seem to stay in the present moment for more than a few seconds at a time; the present is the last place we want to be. Because we are so frequently lost in the obscuring confusion of our thoughts and emotions, we lack the clarity and presence that come when we are more awake.
Buddhism teaches that we are all born with buddhanature and that our spiritual aspiration is to allow our true nature to reveal itself, just as an acorn aspires to become an oak tree. Yet emphasizing our basic goodness, as important as it is, is only part of the picture. No matter how strong our aspiration may be, if we don’t develop deep insight into the power and magnitude of waking sleep, we will be blindsided by it again and again. It’s imperative for us to understand that spiritual practice is not just something we do when we’re sitting in meditation or when we’re on retreat. Just as there is no end to the power of life means practicing at all times, with everything we encounter, not just when we’re on the cushion or when something upsets us. Failing to see everything as an opportunity for practice is a setup for frustration and disappointment, keeping us stuck where we are and limiting our possibilities for inner growth. The more we include in our practice, the more satisfying our life can be.
The second obstacle we encounter in practice, closely related to the first, is underestimating the degree to which resistance is a predictable and inevitable part of a practice life. Resistance comes in many forms: not wanting to sit in meditation, not wanting to stay with our experience for more than a few seconds, spinning off into thinking about the past or the future, suppressing or avoiding emotional pain, finding fault with ourselves, finding fault with others. We can see resistance in our commitment to believing such thoughts as “This is too hard,” “I can’t do it,” or “I’m unworthy.”
Yet another, more subtle form of resistance is thinking and talking about practice rather than actually experiencing our life. Thinking and talking about practice are easy substitutes for the real effort that a practice life requires. We resist facing life as it is because that would mean abandoning our views of how we think it should be. The most basic form of resistance is wanting life to be other than it is.
For the most part, we don’t really want to wake up. We have to be honest about this. We want to hold on to our beliefs and even to our suffering. Afraid of the unknown, we cling to the familiar. We don’t want to give up our illusions even when they make us miserable. Resistance is the ego’s effort to maintain control. Yet no matter what form it takes, it brings us no peace. Pema Chödrön tells a story about a friend who as a child had recurring nightmares in which ferocious monsters were chasing her through a house. Whenever she closed a door behind her, the monsters would burst through the door and frighten her. Pema once asked what the monsters looked like, but her friend couldn’t tell her, because in the dream she had never turned around to see.
At some point, however, she decided not to turn away from what she feared. The next time she had the nightmare, just as she was about to open a door to avoid being caught by the monsters, she stopped running, turned around, and looked the monsters in the eye. They were huge, with horrible features, but they didn’t attack her; they just jumped up and down. As she looked closer, the three-dimensional multicolored monsters began to shrink into two-dimensional black-and-white shapes. At that moment, the girl awoke, and she never had that nightmare again.
It is in running away from our “monsters” that we make them seem so solid. Whatever we resist exerts a strong hold on us: in solidifying it, we empower it to stay in our mind and our life. But when we cultivate the willingness to be with life just as it is, our relationship to what we’ve avoided starts to change. Once we see through the solidity of our resistance, our lives become more fluid and workable. We’re able to move beyond where we were once stuck. Even if we don’t like our life as it is, we don’t need to wage war against it. We can start meeting our resistance squarely by noticing all of the ways in which we avoid the present moment, the ways in which we avoid practice, the ways in which we resist what is. Understanding the depth of our resistance is of major importance in furthering our practice.
Another form of resistance arises when we hit the “dry spot.” The dry spot is the moment when we lose our connection with the aspiration that originally brought us to practice. Often we hit the dry spot when our expectations of practice are unfulfilled—when it isn’t bringing us the immediate peace, calm, or freedom from fear that we had hoped for. Disappointment leads to anger, and anger to resistance.
It’s important to understand, however, that vacillating between aspiration and resistance is the natural rhythm of practice and that the dry spot is a natural manifestation of this cycle. But the first few times we hit the dry spot, it doesn’t seem natural at all. We may even feel as if we’re failing at practice, since the thoughts that arise in these moments seem like fixed truths. It’s hard to see them for what they are—simply automatic reactions to the inevitable ups and downs of practice life.
Hitting the dry spot is the point at which students often leave practice. But if we can wait it out, we begin to understand the natural cycle of resistance. We even come to expect the doubting mind to arise. Doubt in itself is not the problem. The problem comes from identifying with the doubting “me” and believing that this is who we really are. But if seen for what it is, doubt can even be a positive force in practice. Provided we don’t get lost in the negative beliefs that arise with it, it can lead to a deepening of our quest. As practice takes hold, we can learn to use doubt as an opportunity to experience the grief of our unfulfilled expectations about practice. We can learn to surrender to, and reside in, the physical experience of what doubt feels like in the body, instead of following the story line of negative thoughts. Not following the story line can be difficult, because the thoughts seem so true, so solid, so compelling. But if we can stay with the visceral experience of doubt, even as the anguish of not knowing remains, the dryness is transfused with a deeper sense of aspiration.
Thomas Merton expressed this clearly: “True love and prayer are learned in the moment when prayer has become impossible and the heart has turned to stone.” When we understand the cycles of resistance and can wait out a dry period by resting in the direct physical experience of doubt, we will gradually come to feel a renewed sense of direction and hope.
Wanting to feel a particular way
The third major obstacle we encounter in practice is a deep-seated desire to feel a particular way, whether calm or clear or spacious or simply free of anxiety. Probably all of us share the illusion that if we practice long enough and hard enough, we’ll get what we want: enlightenment, good health, a satisfying relationship, or whatever else we’re seeking. We can tell that we’re still harboring this illusion if we believe that experiencing difficulties or distress means that something is wrong—specifically, that something is wrong with us. This persistent belief drives us to do whatever we can to alleviate our discomfort. We believe deeply that if we just practice harder, we’re sure to feel better.
We should never underestimate the extent to which we equate feeling better with being awake. But a key point about spiritual practice is that we don’t have to feel any particular way. Nor do we have to be any particular way. All we can do is experience, and work with, whatever is arising in our life right now. No matter what is going on or how we feel about it, the essence of practice is to honestly acknowledge whatever is happening in the moment and stay present with our experience of it. In this way we can come to feel a true appreciation for life just as it is.
There’s a famous Buddhist story about a man who was shot in the chest with an arrow. The pain was great, but the Buddha pointed out to the man how much greater the pain would be if he had been shot with a second arrow in the exact same spot. What this teaching suggests is that however painful or disappointing our experience may be, adding the second arrow of our judgmental thoughts about it will only deepen the pain and lead to greater suffering.
If, for example, I wake up not feeling well, adding the judgment “This shouldn’t be happening to me” will only make me feel much worse. The countermeasure to judging is to move out of the mental world and our thoughts about what’s happening, and into the physical realm and what we’re actually feeling in the moment. Judgments are based on ideals or expectations, and these thought-based pictures are at least one step removed from what is real. Coming back to what is, minus our thought-based pictures, is a step toward freedom.
When we can see through our deep-seated desire to feel a particular way and realize that we don’t have to feel different in order to be free, we can experience the equanimity that comes with staying truly present with what is.
Fully grasping the three obstacles that we’re sure to encounter on the spiritual path—misunderstanding the depth of waking sleep, underestimating resistance, and wanting to feel a particular way—is the essential foundation for learning how to work with them effectively. And working with them, in turn, will take us to the heart of what it means to be free.
Ezra Bayda has been practicing meditation since 1970, and currently teaches at Zen Center San Diego. He is the author of five books, including Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment.
Artwork by Bill Jacobson