Feeling stuck in your Buddhist practice—or in your life generally—is a valuable opportunity, says Ajahn Sucitto. When handled with awareness, it challenges your sense of self—and everything else you hold dear.
From time to time we come to a stuck place in our dhamma practice, sometimes for quite a while. This happens to everybody because it is a stuck place in our life process, a place of holding on that is based on false assumptions of how the mind is supported and how it is released. That is, we tend to operate in the mode of self orientation, in which I determine, I struggle, I learn, and I get results. This is natural enough—we want results, right? And to an extent, a necessary extent, this strategy works.
Meditation, service, renunciation, faith, commitment, and energy establish a vital context, and the foundations of that can stay with us beneath the personality level when our efforts break down and we feel we’re not getting anywhere. After a while, the doing, fixing mind gets to the end of what it can accomplish and becomes the problem rather than the solution.
Then we get stuck. And that sense of stuckness spins out into blaming our apparent self, our system of practice, or the people we live with. It triggers a compulsive activity— a sankhara accompanied by ignorance—that diffuses and disperses its distress outwardly onto the manifold rights and wrongs of people and things: from the Buddha (“Why did he have to make all this so difficult?”) on down. Or inwardly: we assess our character, our heart, our history, our past, our flaws, and our virtues. We fidget, become distracted, and jump to conclusions that will cement the stuckness into a situation: “I can’t practice here with these people,” or “I must have a lot of bad kamma that’s an insurmountable obstacle,” or some other piece of Buddhist jargon.
There’s a vital opening for anyone who gets to their edge and manages to feel their way past it.
The very activity of judging, comparing, and speculating about oneself creates suffering and shows that something more compulsive is going. Compulsion is not a process that supports awakening. However, reviewing that experience just as an experience is helpful. We can note that the stuckness, having eluded our attempts to get rid of it or gloss over it, takes us to an “edge.” We want to hold on to some identity, or to a conviction in our practice tradition, but we can’t quite do it. We are taken to a place of uncertainty, a place where there is a feeling of not being anything solid but where there is still a hankering to be something. This is the edge.
It’s not a comfortable place, but it is a piece of the journey. It is supposed to happen; the edge is a place where the self-vehicle gets overhauled. Because of that, the wheels have to come off. But there’s a vital opening for anyone who gets to their edge and manages to feel their way past it. It’s there that holding on to one’s “self” at the level of personality unravels.
Generally, to get off that edge of uncertainty we grasp on to all that’s left: the uncertainty itself, and whatever feeling brings up. Often the mind moves away from the edge so quickly that we either shift into doing something, or otherwise displace the uncomfortable feeling. The mind starts scurrying around: “Why am I like this? What can I do about this?” Restlessness builds up until we have to do something to make ourselves feel capable and comfortable again. All this activity intensifies the real obstacle, which is self-orientation: I do, I can’t do, I am, I’m not, I have, I don’t have. Therefore, if it’s not handled wisely, the stuckness keeps propelling us into activities that justify it as true and finally as “my self.” So notice that: suddenly all this dhamma practice is making you more neurotic and self- obsessed than you were before!
Notice what takes you to the edge of feeling you’re on solid ground. It may be part of your daily routine. Routine acts of service can be testing grounds, places where we no longer feel spontaneous, or on top, or seem to develop much. “Surely all this humdrum stuff isn’t going to take me to the bright gates of the Deathless!” So the wobble begins. Then again, taking responsibility may lead us to an edge of uncertainty about our own worth: Am I good enough? Do people approve of me? We get stuck in that self-consciousness, and keep recycling reviews and progress reports in terms of “being” (bbava): I am or I ought to be, or, Oh no, look what I’ve become, or haven’t yet become! More wobble.
This sense of being something always relies upon an achievement, a future, or other people’s approval. Or it causes us to imagine the worst: “I haven’t become a success; my future has no potential; I’m not getting acclaim, so I must be a failure.” This sense of being is so compulsive that if it can’t lean on a positive sense of self, it adopts a negative one. Because of this, the stuckness is more difficult than any particular flaw, because the doubt that it stimulates corrodes our faith in the path and the practice.
At this place, all the teachings sound like platitudes that we’ve heard a thousand times (and “we still haven’t become enlightened”), and although we should have gotten rid of our defilements by now, we haven’t—and sometimes they even seem more authentic than our virtues. Our unconscious attachment—to the teachings, the highs of meditation, the presence of teachers—presents its down side, and the romance looks like it’s heading for divorce. It’s all highly emotive, and emotion creates credibility, because whatever is emotive has vitality to it.
The stuck stuff captures and convinces by its power to stimulate the mind, and it gets very creative. So much so that we might be too dazzled to go beneath the convictions and stories, where the hard core of self-orientation is revealed in its self-importance and self-pity: “I’ve tried so hard, and Buddhism has let me down.” We start to believe in our minds and in the pathos of it all, and we solidify our sense of self around that. We may become destabilized, irrational, and moody.
The journey out of the stuck place involves cultivating a holistic awareness that encompasses the cognitive, decisive head sense, the empathic heart sense, and the sense of grounded bodily presence.
This loss of conviction in “becoming something” can get really difficult, even dangerous—people crack up. Hence it’s a crucial edge: we’re asked to find a sense of continuity and coherence that is valid but not based on the view of personality. This comes about through two interconnected processes: developing the relational sense and developing the sense of presence. Whereas the personality view is structured around what I can do, and what I’m going to do about this situation (a “head” sense), the relational sense tells me how I am in the presence of something “other.” This is a “heart” sense. Developing the “sense of presence” refers to the bodily, somatic sense that tells me where I am.
The journey out of the stuck place involves cultivating a holistic awareness that encompasses the cognitive, decisive head sense, the empathic heart sense, and the sense of grounded bodily presence. When these three come together there’s an intelligent instrument for practice.
In many cases, cultivating the sense of how I am and where I am have to be prioritized, as these normally receive less attention than the doing sense. Let’s take the relational sense first. As we all know, relationships can challenge who we think we are. So in that aspect of our lives, it’s important to maintain a sense of commitment to others (within, of course, ethical boundaries), or to a place, a routine, or a practice, even though these are often the targets that the stuck sense is throwing the dirt at. How good, enlightened, and state of the art do these have to be for you? After all, what’s a little dukkha between friends?
It’s rare that we feel completely comfortable with each other. Most times there’s some awkwardness, anxiety, dissonance, hurt—something. But it’s important to aim for mutual trust and faith. The commitment is not about attachment or giving 100 percent approval ratings to people or a system. It’s about contemplating how things are, and using the commitment to effect a leverage against our need to have things go “my way.” It takes us to the edge, the place to realize the limitations of conditions internally and externally—and relax out of our tightness. And it asks us to find new resources: to grow bigger than ourselves, bigger than our comfort, happiness, effectiveness, and know-it-all mind. Part of that growth is going to come through a more complete relational sense.
So investigate: What is the voice behind the emotional charge of the stuck place? Who is standing on the edge? This can give us a good insight into what the mind is affected by. That subject, that person, becomes one’s meditation theme. Here the standard meditation for relaxing the energy that engenders self is one of empathy, goodwill, and compassion— holding this self in the sphere of wishing it well and recognizing its suffering. There’s a change of intention and energy there.
All we want to do is offer kindness and compassion very purely.
In this way, we’re changing the way we relate. We are not trying to change our apparent self, or even understand it, but rather use it purely as a way to establish the sphere of lovingkindness and compassion and relate to our helplessness or meanness. All we want to do is offer kindness and compassion very purely. And as we begin to discern the self as a succession of mind-objects rather than as a single true and solid thing, our center starts to shift. We feel less oppressed, and no longer on the edge.
Another resource is holding this stuckness in its bodily sense. With stuckness, we may feel tension in the body, or a more visceral or energetic disturbance. One approach is to sit and scan the body with awareness, and particularly to open up, as stuckness tightens places in the body. We may feel gripped in the head, tense in the belly—or bits of the body disappear out of consciousness as other places get intense. Try sweeping the body with attention, or breathing through the whole body with the intention to make this whole bodily sphere into a good place in which the sticking energy can sit. Rather than trying to get rid of it, find a place to hold that conundrum—make the sensed bodily space big enough.
The feeling of sticking and holding on tightens and narrows us. Sensory impact, isolation, and the afflictive relationship experiences that people have tend to drive them behind the skin wall, giving rise to the view that we are inside this body. On retreat we may want to go even further inside it; but mindfulness of body is to be practiced internally and externally— that is, in terms of how it feels both as a subjective entity and as something that exists sensitive to and dependent on an external context.
As a thorough day-to-day practice then, the bodily experience one should be mindful of is not a particular place in the body, but rather the nervous and energetic sense of embodiment. Our conscious process is embodied, and the body has an intelligence. This embodied intelligence is not within physical form; physical form manifests within it. It has an energy and a sensitivity that moves out around this physical form. And it interacts with the emotions: The bodily sense and the emotional sense work together.
For example, when we enter a room we find a place to sit that feels comfortable in an intuitive way. We sit at a distance from other people that feels right. Otherwise we feel awkward. Furthermore, when we have powerful emotions, we sense their effect in a bodily way—the nerves start firing, the face flushes, the guts tighten or relax. This is somatic intelligence. It means that this physical form can attune to its environment without touching things.
When we feel afflicted and hurt we contract. We withdraw that sensitivity, switch off our context, and go up in our heads. The effect is a retraction of awareness, replaced by a numb, fixated state. Many people live like this most of the time. The body grows clumsy, losing its grace; mental attitudes and emotions seize up. People become rigid, unable to see things without a simple this-or-that mentality; the lateral thinking, the ability to play, to look around, or to be spacious—all the flexibility and agility— goes out of awareness. So bringing that full sensitivity back to the body through meditation is very helpful, because the more mental aspect of awareness takes its cues from the somatic experience of the body.
In general, the instruction is to widen and soften as one experiences the way the body senses its own presence. This makes it possible to recognize where stress is manifesting physically, and to release it. In mindfulness of body, it’s important to attend to the joints, where space can get lost. The space element in the body is primarily the small spaces in between joints and tissues. When one gets rigid, the tendency is for all of that to contract. So practice opening the hands, relaxing the arms, opening the shoulders, relaxing the jaw where it will tend to clamp, and opening up the place between the skull and the neck, all of which tend to shut down. Deliberately widen and soften the sense of the body. This is not so much a matter of physical movement or stretching, but of adjusting the nervous energy. Then energy can move around and find a new balance.
This itself can be unsettling, because when stuck stuff starts to shift it can feel like glaciers calving, or an airplane hitting turbulence—with emotional stuff thrown in. Therefore it’s important to keep in touch with the whole body and to go slowly and breathe through whatever arises. My checklist of points to stay in touch with to maintain that grounded sense would be: the palms of the hands, the under-arches of the feet, the temples, and the eye sockets. If you get used to referring to these soft “open” places from time to time throughout the day, you’ll establish them as a natural frame of reference, and also get a periodic check-in with your embodied sense.
Still, it must be emphasized that this practice isn’t about throwing a bucket of loving-kindness, or metta, down your nerve-endings, or pushing for catharsis. It’s about maintaining a holistic awareness and letting that have its effects. Awareness is normally something that is directed by volition (cetana), the conscious or semiconscious will to do, to be, or to have. We don’t necessarily recognize that it has an innate vitality and energy that can be brought to bear with a more empathic kind of intention. To put it more simply, we don’t have to do a whole lot—doing is already happening in a subtler way. When we attend to something and listen to it, awareness naturally brings the intention or dominant tone of that energy, or sankhara, to the object.
We realize that the stuck state is just a pattern of sankhara energies that we weren’t fully aware of; and when that fullness of awareness is brought to bear, the self is taken out of it and it becomes unstuck.
In this stuck state, the sankhara that we encourage are those of trust and empathy, applied persistently and patiently. We locate the stuck energy in the body and listen to it empathically while bearing the overall bodily state in mind. Relating the localized stuckness to the wholeness is what generates the healing pattern. We’re not trying to change the stuckness, or even understand it, but rather to attend to it, feel it out, and listen to it. We’re no longer absorbed in the hostility or hopelessness or frustration of trying to do something to make it change. There at the edge of our ability to make and do, a purer intention—to listen and resonate fully—has to take the lead. Emotional and cognitive states will follow: a new balance or some understanding arises after, not before, we unlock.
As we attend to our experience in a holistic way, we see features that our narrow “this thing is a pain” focus misses. When we feel it holistically, for example, we can sense that the state of uncertainty is being held with agitation or fear, or that it has all kinds of stories associated with it. If we widen our awareness we notice the emotional charge (distaste, guilt, rage, or grief) or the somatic symptoms (tightening in the face, throat, or chest, flurrying in the guts), as well as the thought processes (the rights and wrongs and shoulds) that occur at and around stuck places.
If we can see them for what they are, keeping the whole picture in mind, these energies won’t stick. We realize that the stuck state is just a pattern of sankhara energies that we weren’t fully aware of; and when that fullness of awareness is brought to bear, the self is taken out of it and it becomes unstuck. This is quite a learning. And it takes us to a purer awareness, a quiet knowing that has no opinion, and doesn’t involve any activity. It is a place of opening that is dispassionate and spacious, and more intimate and comfortable than our personalities.