The mind itself presents the biggest obstacles in meditation. Outer things such as the proper posture, place, time and seat can be easily rectified to facilitate your practice. But once you sit down and try to meditate, you realise that your own mind poses the greatest challenge in meditation.
Here are three obstacles in meditation and some techniques on how to overcome them.
Obstacle #1: Sleepiness
The first obstacle in meditation is sleepiness. When you sit for meditation you may find that when your mind is relaxed, it wants to shut down and go to sleep. This may be because there is a lack of rest and sleep.
The solution is simple—try to get more sleep! Priorities may also have to be shifted and daily routines reworked and simplified to allow for a suitable time and mental space for meditation.
To get the mind to stay awake, another technique involves holding the breath. Take a deep breath in and hold it. Hold it until you absolutely can’t hold it anymore. Breathe out. Take a few normal breaths in and out until your heartbeat normalizes. Then breathe in and hold your breath again for as long as you can.
Repeat this a few times and you will find that your mind will become alert. A mind that is deprived of oxygen cannot feel sleepy.
Obstacle #2: Wandering of the mind
The second obstacle in meditation is a wandering mind. It’s the nature of the mind to think, and so it’s only natural that it will continue to do so when we sit down to meditate.
The problem is not that the mind thinks but rather that we can’t control what it thinks about.
In meditation, everyday concerns have to be set aside and the mind is to be streamlined into thoughts of being a detached inner witness. For example, you can affirm, “I am the witness of the thoughts. Thoughts cannot affect me. I am detached and free.”
As you hold these thoughts, your mind will become quieter and you will hold only one thought of being the witness. Finally, even that thought will fall away, and you remain in a state of pure being.
This is the goal.
But it’s a hard one to achieve as our minds are commonly full and fickle, lacking the ability to concentrate on any one thing for long.
How do we control the wandering of the mind?
Since the mind is made up of thoughts about what we experience, we will have to impose some self-discipline and re-organise our lives for meditation.
My guru, Swami Chinmayananda used to say that to have a successful thirty minutes of meditation, the rest of the twenty-three and a half hours have to be disciplined.
We must be very selective of the company we keep, what we watch, hear and engage in. The smallest, most inconsequential things can stubbornly stay in the mind and come up to disturb our meditation practice.
Remaining in spiritual company is an important way of keeping the mind positive and uplifted.
Practising these disciplines will help to reduce the wandering of the mind.
In addition, here are four ways to train the mind to concentrate:
- Practise Visualization: Place an inspirational image in your sacred meditation space. It could be a religious symbol, image of a natural scene or even simply a candle. Look at this object and then close your eyes and try to visualise it as clearly as you can. When the image becomes less clear or disappears, open your eyes and repeat the process. This exercise will give your mind something positive to focus on and helps it to concentrate on one thing.
- Chant: You can chant a mantra or affirmation making sure to bring your entire attention on the chanting. Whenever unwanted thoughts interfere, bring your attention back to the chanting.
- Focus on your breath: The mind and the breath are interconnected. And so you can use your breath to calm your mind. Remain still and bring your attention to the tip of your nose and observe your breath. Then gradually slow down your breathing. When you do so, the thoughts will slow down making it easier for you to concentrate in meditation.
- Read and reflect: Read something uplifting or inspirational. Then close your eyes and reflect on what you have just read. This will help to take your mind off worrisome everyday thoughts and replace them with high, loving thoughts. The mind will become uplifted and you will find it easier to concentrate with such a mind.
Obstacle #3: Dry, dull silence
The third thing that takes away from a fruitful meditation is the experience of a dry and dull silence. This comes in spite of the mind being alert, quiet and focused.
Both the head and the heart have to be developed for a fruitful and happy meditation. Swami Aparajitananda explains that if there is no feeling of enjoyment, it may be that the heart needs some nurturing with positive qualities.
Five qualities that open up and cultivate the heart are:
- Humility: When we practice being humble, we slowly erode the ego. With ego comes a sense of self-importance, an inability to see our own faults and always wanting to be better and right. These qualities close down the heart and are a barrier in meditation and our spiritual growth.
- Gratitude: Expressing sincere gratitude for our blessings opens up the heart in joy. We can be grateful for every moment because every breath that we take in is blessing us with the gift of life. There are so many things and people to be grateful for right from the moment we get up and when we go to sleep—the bed that gives us a good rest at night, the food and water that we eat and drink, the car, bus or train we ride on, electricity that powers our homes, the support and love of people around us, and so much more. Gratitude cultivates a positive, happy heart and helps you feel joy in meditation.
- Compassion: Seeing the suffering of others and not feeling or doing anything for them shows a lack of sensitivity and a closed heart. When we feel compassion for those who are suffering and be kind to them without any expectations, we open our hearts.
- Forgiveness: We forgive to free ourselves and lighten our hearts. Holding on to unforgiveness perpetuates the pain of anger and resentment. These feelings are an impediment to a happy meditation.
- Confession: A serious spiritual seeker never allows any wrong to remain in her conscience as she knows this will agitate her mind and be an obstacle in meditation. When we justify our mistakes, we strengthen the ego and close the heart. Confess sincerely, forgive yourself, ask others to forgive you and move on with an open heart and a clear conscience.
A holistic practice
As you can see, meditation is a spiritual practice that goes beyond the time you actually sit and meditate. Unresolved concerns and suppressed emotions come to the surface and disturb you at the seat of meditation.
Your inner life and outer life are interconnected, and both must be carefully nurtured to overcome obstacles in your meditation practice.
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