Ezra Bayda, Judith Simmer-Brown, and Kamala Masters discuss how to identify obstacles in your practice, apply antidotes that work, and deepen your meditation in the process.
The teachings on the obstacles to meditation practice, and the antidotes to those obstacles, remind me of the Dalai Lama’s comment that it is more useful to think of the Buddha as a doctor and the dharma as medicine than to think of the buddhadharma in religious or even philosophical terms. Studying obstacles and antidotes is a very pragmatic approach, like going to the doctor, getting an accurate diagnosis of your ailment, and taking the right medicine to relieve it.
A basic purpose of meditation practice is to strengthen an intention and state of being that causes less harm, both for oneself and for others. We train in mindfulness and awareness so that this is actually possible. The goal of practice is to cultivate a mind that is less distracted and less harsh. An undistracted mind is a tamed mind, and a mind that is less harsh is a gentle mind.
But it isn’t a matter of producing these positive qualities. According to Buddha, these qualities are innate to the mind, and we can each rediscover them. First we must work through the obstacles we have built up, which block our full access to them.
The obstacles are patterns of avoidance that keep us from being fully present with our experience. The traditional analogy is that they are like clouds covering the sun. They are only temporary blockages, not signs that we are fundamentally bad or unworkable people. In fact, these obstacles are the defense mechanisms of ego, the ways in which we try to keep the habitual world of our mental fixations intact, not unlike the inky substance that a squid emits to keep predators from seeing it.
Traditionally, the principal obstacles in meditation are laziness, forgetting the instruction, wildness, drowsiness, carelessness, and an inability to coordinate the whole thing. The first and most formidable obstacle is laziness. It is given this preeminent position because it keeps us from practicing altogether. If we cannot get to the cushion, we have no starting point for our path. We have no way to even engage with the challenges that all of the other obstacles will present once we’re sitting. Laziness stands right at the gate of the field of engagement.
There are several antidotes to this formidable dragon at the gate of practice. What they all have in common is their ability to help us take greater delight in our existence and appreciate the unique and refreshing experience of wakefulness; this generates a sense of longing that fuels our effort to go to the cushion, again and again, and work with our minds.
In the long run, we cannot conquer laziness or any of the other obstacles we face in meditation through will, ambition, or a sense of duty. All of these turn out merely to be further strategies for being hard on ourselves, reinforcing the very condition that our practice is meant to transform and dissolve. We must taste our buddhanature, or basic goodness, directly and realize that nothing less will do.
Buddhadharma: What do you see as the biggest obstacle to meditation practice?
Judith Simmer-Brown: Two obstacles immediately come to mind: one is the obstacle of getting to the cushion regularly in the first place, and the other, faced by more mature practitioners, is becoming addicted to meditation experiences that masquerade as the fruition of the path but cause a dead end in one’s practice. But perhaps the most haunting obstacle to practice is the way we try to use meditation to fix ourselves rather than to connect with our fundamental humanity and goodness.
Ezra Bayda: I think the most obvious obstacle is our basic resistance. Resistance is an inevitable part of practice life. It comes in many forms, such as not wanting to sit, choosing to spin off into our thoughts rather than being present when we do sit, and not wanting to stay with our experience for more than a few moments at a time. A more subtle form of resistance is talking and thinking about practice rather than actually practicing.
The root of all resistance is wanting life to be other than it is. I believe all of us (not just in the West) have a strong sense of entitlement to safety and comfort and also to control, and this sense of entitlement keeps us from going deeper into our practice. It’s something we have to be honest about. We have to see that there’s a really big part of ourselves that doesn’t want to wake up, that doesn’t want to be present, that would rather hold on to all of our habits and illusions and beliefs rather than do what’s necessary to make us happy. Until we recognize the extent of our resistance, it’s very hard to get beyond it.
Kamala Masters: Meditators often think that practice is all about achieving states of calm and tranquility. And if that’s what they’re looking for, when the opposite comes up, they find themselves wanting something that isn’t happening. Many people also think practice is about sitting still or just getting to the cushion, which is a very low expectation. So one of the obstacles is low expectations and not understanding what the practice is really all about, and the other is having too high expectations about practice. Students can feel inadequate and disappointed in their practice and think they’re doing it wrong.
Although in my teaching I repeatedly give the same instructions to stay calm and open to whatever is happening in the present moment, sometimes it takes years for students to say, “I just only now heard you say to open to whatever I’m experiencing in my practice.” That basic lack of understanding about practice and how to open to whatever is happening is a real obstacle on the path.
Buddhadharma: We tend to think of obstacles as problems rather than as a normal part of our meditation experience. We see them as something bad or wrong. Is that part of the problem, perhaps?
Judith Simmer-Brown: Yes, because such a big part of our human nature is rejecting who we are and feeling that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us—that’s what’s called dukkha in the buddhadharma. The core of the Buddha’s genius was seeing that our struggle to live life as we think it should be, as opposed to how it actually is, is our fundamental dilemma. And of course we can use practice this same way, as a means of rejecting who we are and trying to create an ideal world instead. I’m sure that one of the reasons people want tranquility or peace is because they’re so unhappy, and it’s very difficult to see that all of the turbulence that occurs happens within nonturbulence and goodness. It takes a while for us to understand the totality of our experience. That’s why practice is so subtle and a lifelong journey. It’s not just a challenge for the beginners; it’s a challenge for all of us, however many years we’ve been practicing.
Kamala Masters: Yes, as we go deeper, we learn to become more present with subtleties in our practice. We also tend to develop an awareness that’s like a magnifying glass, so obstacles may feel even bigger than what we’ve experienced before. So as our practice matures, we still need people to remind us that this is a natural part of the unfolding of our practice.
Ezra Bayda: One of the major obstacles in practice is our universal deep-seated desire to feel a particular way. I think all of us begin with the illusion that if we practice hard, we’ll feel better. So when obstacles arise, we automatically see them as impediments and don’t understand the really pivotal point that practice is not about feeling any particular way. As long as we view obstacles as obstacles, as something to oppose, we’re going to stay stuck.
One of the most crucial things for students to learn, not just at the beginning of the practice but at any point along the path, is that obstacles are the path. Whenever an obstacle arises, we need to ask ourselves, Can I see this is as my path? Can I see it not as an obstacle on the path, but as the path itself? Can I welcome this as the way to become free? But we have such an instinctual aversion to discomfort that when an obstacle arises, we forget to ask the simple question, Can I see this as my path? Whatever comes up is our exact path to freedom, no matter how much of an impediment it may seem to be.
Buddhadharma: Let’s talk more about some of the subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles—for lack of a better word—that practitioners encounter, whether they are just beginning to meditate or have been practicing for decades. What are some of the other obstacles that come up?
Judith Simmer-Brown: The six classical obstacles outlined in the ninth-century Indian texts are exactly the obstacles I face in my own practice, so that really is testament to the universal experience of meditators. I find it very enriching to read some of these classical sources and realize that meditators from the beginning of time have struggled with falling asleep, with wild, intense, angry, and lustful thoughts, and with dullness of the mind.
Kamala Masters: In the Theravada tradition there are the five basic hindrances—attachment, aversion, restlessness, doubt, and sloth and torpor. My grandfather teacher, Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma, taught that there are over a thousand defilements. Of course, I can’t remember them all, but they include arrogance, pride, ingratitude, extoling oneself, disparaging others, and indulging in pleasant experiences in our practice. In the progress of insight, there is a stage where you have all these pleasant experiences, and a yogi can get stuck in a kind of a parking lot there. Even with very subtle experiences of calm and tranquility in the body, you’ll see practitioners hang out there for a long time. I have seen those things happen in my own practice as well, but there’s more vigilance around it now and a kind of acknowledgement that this is just what’s happening in this moment; this is what the mind is experiencing now.
Once when I was cooking for one of my teachers, Munindraji, I noticed he got a bit annoyed at me because I wasn’t putting the right herbs in. I said, “Munindraji, are you annoyed? Are you upset?” He looked back at me and said, “My path is not yet finished.” I was so relieved when he said that; he was honest about the fact that he was still working to free his mind of greed, hatred, and delusion, and for me that was very reassuring.
Ezra Bayda: During my initial training in the Gurdjieff tradition, I encountered another viewpoint on obstacles to practice that I have not come across in Zen or elsewhere in Buddhism. The major teaching was that in order to wake up, the very first thing we have to do is understand the power and magnitude of what’s called “waking sleep.” Human beings spend the vast majority of their time in a state of waking sleep, lost in their thoughts, activities, and emotions. Waking sleep is our default position. We walk around asleep, but through conscious efforts we can become more awake.
No matter how strong our aspiration or understanding of practice may be, if we don’t become familiar with the power and magnitude of waking sleep, it’ll blindside us again and again. So we must learn to see waking sleep in all its forms, in all the ways it manifests within us. The more we see it, over a long period of practice, the less it blindsides us and dictates our behavior. We’re born with our buddhanature intact, but the paradoxical truth is that we live a life of complete sleep unless we’re able to see the nature of that sleep and begin working with it in an intelligent way.
Kamala Masters: What Ezra is saying dovetails with what I understand from the Theravada tradition. Delusion is a kind of baseline; it’s what lies underneath, holding up all other hindrances, fueling our misunderstanding. We have the potential to be awakened—that is always within us—but in order to awaken fully to our potential we must be conscious and mindful of all the ways delusion manifests.
Buddhadharma: Doubt can also be a serious obstacle, even for longtime practitioners. People who’ve been meditating for decades sometimes confide that they don’t know if it’s doing them any good.
Judith Simmer-Brown: I think doubt is such an important obstacle to look at. In the Shambhala teachings doubt is considered the greatest obstacle, more so than ignorance, because it makes us fundamentally doubt our own buddhanature, or basic goodness. According to the Shambhala tradition, we live in an age where people have lost track of that fundamental goodness at the core of who they are. Because of this, when people take up practice, they often use it as some kind of self-improvement campaign, as a way to further reject themselves. If meditation becomes a way to express harshness and negativity toward oneself, a sense of hopelessness can creep in. It’s striking to me that after forty-three years of practice, I still recognize a subtle rejection that creeps in when I notice my thinking and return to the breath. That kind of rejection can erode my belief in my capacity for goodness.
In our Western culture, we have been so shaped by a belief in original sin or in a “fundamental lack,” as David Loy would say. People can practice for a long time and feel they’re not benefitting from it because that fundamental obstacle has never been addressed.
Ezra Bayda: I think self-doubt is a natural part of the path; you can’t enter a practice life without doubting yourself on occasion. But there’s another kind of doubt that I want to mention. In Zen it’s called “the dry spot,” which is not just the normal doubt of having a bad day or thinking we’re the worst meditator and so forth, but the place where we lose all connection with the aspiration that originally brought us to practice. Usually people hit this after a number of years of practice, when they realize that all the expectations they brought with them, like wanting to become calm or enlightened, haven’t been fulfilled. Discouragement creeps in, and we lose connection with our genuine wish to wake up.
The dry spot is probably the deepest form of doubt because we’re doubting not only ourselves, we’re doubting practice, we’re doubting everything—it’s as if none of it makes sense anymore. But the most interesting part is, just as we discussed earlier with obstacles, it’s the doubt itself that is the solution. When we are able to see doubt as the path rather than as something to get away from, when we’re able to enter the physical experience of doubt and stay present with it (which is something we rarely do), it’s possible for a much deeper renewal to take place.
There’s a quote I love from Thomas Merton that relates to the dry spot and I’ve used it many, many times. He says, “True love and prayer are learned in the moment when prayer has become impossible and the heart has turned to stone.” This is something I experienced myself after about twelve years of practice, when I went through a period of several months where nothing made sense anymore. By just staying with the experience and not buying into the story that everything was wrong—that I was wrong, the practice was wrong, the teacher was wrong—I pulled out of it and entered into practice much more deeply than I ever had before. So I think it’s really important for all of us to understand that dry spots are a very natural part of practice and that they don’t mean we’re a failure on the path.
Kamala Masters: I have experienced doubt not so much as a dry spot but as a place where things have broken apart. It feels physically, viscerally, like something whole has shattered, like a glass dropped on the ground. Through my practice and through feedback from guides, I have come to realize that this signals a new stage in my practice, a place of crossing a threshold into the unknown. The ability to be with the unknown is such an important part of practice. When we don’t know what’s going on, it’s so important to open to it and just be with it—be with the mind and heart and body coming together in different ways.
Buddhadharma:What is the experience of doubt for someone who’s new to practice compared to that of a longtime practitioner? Do you find the experience varies much? Are seasoned practitioners harder on themselves?
Judith Simmer-Brown: I do find that my newer students deal with doubt as if it’s doubt about something in particular—they doubt whether they have found the right teacher or the right practice, or they may doubt some aspects of themselves or the teachings. The doubt that causes us to get stuck on the path is definitely an obstacle, but in Sanskrit there’s a term for a different kind of doubt, one that is fruitful, that allows you to go deeper in your practice. I think that the kind of dry spot Ezra mentioned isn’t about anything in particular—it doesn’t seem to have an object to contemplate, which in my own experience has been very scary because in the Tibetan tradition devotion is such an important part of the path, and doubt is generally seen as the opposite of devotion. But I’ve come to understand that doubt is devotion, that the only way forward on the path is to embrace doubt, to really feel it on a subtle level and stay with it in a very immediate way.
I don’t think that longtime practitioners are necessarily harder on themselves; I think we’re all hard on ourselves whether we’re new or longtime practitioners. But longtime practitioners may be harder on themselves in different ways, in more subtle or intractable ways that don’t show up as the obvious harshness we have at the beginning of the path, but instead as a kind of frozenness or stuckness. As my own practice has matured, I have found that working with doubt has required real gentleness. It’s taught me loving-kindness and tenderness more than anything else in my life.
Ezra Bayda: I think the doubt that new practitioners experience is quite different from the kind that long-term practitioners get caught by. What’s really unfortunate is when new practitioners get so caught up in doubting the practice or the teacher or themselves—thinking, I’ll never be good at this or Everyone else can do this but I can’t—that they leave practice because they completely believe those thoughts. They don’t understand that having periods of insecurity and doubt and believing the things that go through your mind is just part of what practice is.
When longer-term practitioners experience doubt, it’s usually a deeper form. If practitioners have practiced long enough, hopefully they won’t believe the thoughts that go through their minds as truth but will question them and see that they’re just thoughts. I do think that when people have practiced long enough, and have gone through a few periods of dry spots, that doubt doesn’t impact them in the same way. At some point along the path, we can actually welcome the experiences of doubt when they arise because we understand them as an opportunity to go deeper. So even if we’re experiencing what would traditionally be called doubt in the body, mind, and emotions, we’re not really doubting in the same way. We’re asking ourselves, What is this? And we experience what it is rather than let it dictate our feelings and behaviors. This is what it means to be a practitioner on the path.
Kamala Masters: I’ve also found that seasoned practitioners are more spacious around what happens in the terrain of their bodies and minds. There’s more flexibility usually, and more ability to see doubt as passing thoughts and not believe them. I remember going to my own teacher when I was younger and expressing doubt. I was asked, “What kind of doubt? Doubt in the teacher? Doubt in the teaching? Or doubt in yourself?” Sometimes it was doubt in what the teacher was saying or doubt in the teaching, and things needed to be explained.
So identifying that in the beginning was helpful. But later on, I was given more direction and was able to investigate how doubt arises—to ask, What are the conditions that come together when doubt is present? Is there pain in the body? What habitual thoughts go through the mind? I got to learn the terrain a little bit more and learned not to believe the thoughts, to see that they come and go, sometimes causing doubt to arise, sometimes not.
Seasoned practitioners have that ability to see everything more as impermanent and impersonal. You see that nothing is going to give you lasting happiness, or unhappiness, so why hang on or why push away?
Buddhadharma: A lot of the obstacles we’ve been discussing are more universal ones taught in the traditional teachings. Sometimes people’s experience of obstacles feels very personal, as though arising from karma and life experience. How do we look at those experiences that are the result of personal trauma or don’t seem to fit as neatly into categories such as doubt, laziness, and forgetfulness?
Judith Simmer-Brown: When we’re new practitioners, we often think of ourselves as completely special cases and that it’s all about us. One of the most wonderful things about encountering teachers, guides, and traditional texts is the discovery that so many people have been through experiences similar to our own. When I was a new practitioner in the seventies, I did a monthlong retreat that focused on the Tibetan Abhidharma and noting thoughts and emotions. I was going through a very tough time back then, and I had this incredible realization that every single personal drama in my life was nothing other than a mental event, a long-recognized category of thoughts or emotions. On one level, I was completely humiliated to find my personal drama categorized in these centuries-old texts. But on another level, it was such an incredible relief that I could see personal issues as part of a larger pattern and let them go.
Ezra Bayda: I don’t know what percentage of people come to practice because they want to get away from distressing personal experiences. But practice is about dealing with whateverarises in the present moment, which means that if we’re angry, afraid, or hurt, that’s what the practice is about at that point. I don’t mean indulging a story or wallowing in it; I’m talking about working with it in a skillful way. We’ve meditators—if not all—are dealing with personal dis-all heard stories—and maybe we’ve done this ourselves—of tress and are wounded in some way. I have found that gently practitioners who are calm on the cushion, then as soon as attending to whatever students are struggling with can help they go out in the world they holler at someone who crosses them engender compassion for themselves. them. When practice goes out the window that quickly, it Being open to and gentle with whatever is happening is means we’re not getting in touch with the essence of what such an important part of the practice. When we bring metta, practice is, so I think it’s absolutely necessary to understand or loving-kindness, to our experience, opening to it with a soft that practice is about learning to respond to life’s blows, to see and spacious heart, we can turn our suffering into compaseach and every one of them as our path. Because it’s usually sion. I’m so grateful that in the beginning of my practice, I had teachers who opened their compassionate hearts so I could take refuge in their compassion until I learned it for myself. Compassion is one of the great salves, one of the great medicines of the practice.
I think one of our challenges is that we live in a culture of instant gratification, with such blind attachment to seeking pleasure. One of the teachers I’ve been working with lately in Burma, U Tejaniya, has said many times that the practice of meditation is not a hundred-yard dash, it’s more like a marathon. We really have to look at it that way. Many years ago I heard an interviewer ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Have you made any progress in your practice?” His Holiness replied, “Oh! After a year, not much progress. Five years, maybe a little bit. Ten years, some progress. Twenty years, yes, I can see some progress with practice.” I’ve been very grateful for those kinds of reality checks along the way.
Buddhadharma: Let’s look more specifically at how to work with obstacles that arise. We haven’t talked much about dullness, so let’s start there. If we feel there’s not much life energy in our practice, that we’re just going through the motions, what should we do?
Judith Simmer-Brown: I think dullness is one of the hardest obstacles to work with because it tends to defeat any momentum to do anything about anything. The classical texts say that people who have this kind of dullness need to be around death, to feel that their hair is on fire or a snake is coiled in their lap—that is, to lean into the urgency of life and death as a way to wake themselves up.
My teacher, the Vidyadhara Trungpa Rinpoche, said that getting heavy-handed with our dullness will make us retreat into dullness even more. So he advised using a light-handed approach—for instance, if you keep falling asleep on the cushion, just let yourself fall asleep; you’ll jerk awake, and that kind of natural return to wakefulness works best. I’ve always loved that because I began in Zen practice, where it was the stick that woke me up, and when I became a student of the Vidyadhara, it was my almost falling off the cushion that woke me up.
Ezra Bayda: Yes, in Zen practice there is an actual physical wake-up stick, a kyosaku, which is used in retreats. But when you hit someone who’s sleeping, they usually wake up for a minute and then fall right back to sleep. So it doesn’t really help. We haven’t used the kyosaku here in San Diego for many years. The practice we recommend now is very similar to what Judith was just mentioning.
However, if someone is experiencing dullness, I don’t think they’re going to want to go out to a cemetery and contemplate death because they’re not motivated at that point—there’s dullness in their motivation as well. So what we recommend for students, and what I’ve done for myself many times over the years when I hit what I call a “minor dry spot,” when everything is dull (which could last anywhere from one sitting to many weeks or months), is to have the curiosity to study dullness itself. We tell people to just let themselves fall asleep and to study as best they can what it feels like to be dull or tired.
Judith Simmer-Brown: That’s great.
Ezra Bayda: How often do we spend time honestly studying what dullness or sleepiness or boredom is? I don’t mean studying analytically, but really feeling the experience of dullness or laziness. When you’re sleepy on the cushion, it’s fun to investigate the experience of sleepiness. Feel what it’s like in those last few moments before you close your eyes. When you wake up, maybe just a few seconds later, feel what it’s like to wake up from sleep. In doing so, even though there may still be residual dullness, you’re actually being present. I think that’s the best solution, rather than trying to push yourself into a “better experience.”
Kamala Masters: I want to echo what Ezra was saying about curiosity as the antidote to dullness. According to the Theravada tradition, what causes dullness to arise is a lack of investigation. One thing that’s helpful is to ask yourself what other conditions are present. Is there heaviness, lightness, or confusion? Just be aware of whatever the experience is. Also dullness often has a physical component. Standing up helps because we tend to be more alert in that position.
Judith Simmer-Brown: In the Mahamudra tradition, the approach to practice is to sit for very short sessions, as short as five minutes, to keep the mind engaged and fresh. Mahamudra is taught to meditators who have practiced for a very long time and are used to experiencing cycles of dullness. There’s something wonderful about introducing really short sessions as a way to reinspire the mind. Making sure that you never sit long enough to get dull begins to ignite a new kind of freshness in the practice, so even if you go back to longer sessions, the quality of freshness remains. It’s a very interesting way of relating to dullness in practice.
Ezra Bayda: When I’ve experienced periods of dullness, the first question I always ask is, Can I see this as my path? If we can actually understand what it means to reframe our experience in this way, to see an opportunity instead of thinking something’s wrong, dullness is not the same thing anymore. Dullness actually offers a way of seeing what we might be attached to—beliefs and attachments that are usually way below the conscious level, which we wouldn’t normally catch if we were seeing dullness as an obstacle.
The most important thing for working with our challenges, dullness in particular, is the quality of perseverance. It’s important to learn what it is to persevere regardless of how we may be feeling in the moment. We need to understand that it’s necessary to continue, not with the frame of mind that says “just do it,” which has a more militant flavor to it, but with a softer quality of understanding for our all-too-human struggles. Feeling dull or lazy or sleepy on the cushion, even for months at a time, is not a sign of failure on our part. These are just stages of practice that we go through. To understand them in that way is the essence of practicing loving-kindness toward ourselves.
Buddhadharma: What would you say to practitioners reading this who may feel like their meditation practice has stalled or gone off the rails in some way? What is the most important thing for them to remember?
Ezra Bayda: Life itself is our best teacher, much more so than any living person. Life has a way of constantly putting us up against ourselves, and if we’re fortunate enough to have the desire to keep learning, this adversity is where our deepest awakening takes place. There are certain qualities that we learn on the cushion, like the ability to persevere, to be curious, and to be present, but my deepest learning has taken place off the cushion, in learning how to deal with life itself and understanding that adverse circumstances are my path.
Judith Simmer-Brown: We need to remember that meditation practice is not a self-improvement project that is going to proceed according to our plan. When we really step inside our practice, we begin to tune in to who we are underneath it all. The most powerful thing I’ve learned in practice is to tune in to how I actually feel. Our tendency is to either bury or act on feeling but not to actually feel feeling—and I don’t mean a particular feeling but the felt sense that is underneath all feeling: our beating heart, our humanity, our buddhanature, or basic goodness. The most important thing is to connect with that, and then everything else is just our life. As Ezra was saying, our path is not a project, it’s life. It’s so powerful to realize that practice is fundamentally choiceless. It’s just about being a human being, about being able to connect with our humanity on a more complete level.
Kamala Masters: It’s important to remember to be patient with the unfolding and unfurling of our practice. When we practice mindful attention, along with honoring the precepts of nonharming and developing the wholesome qualities of the mind, the seeds of liberation are being nourished. In their own time, these seeds will sprout, break ground, and bear fruit. We really can’t rush the process.
Sometimes patience can sound like a command, so it’s helpful to gently remind ourselves to relax around whatever is arising. If that can happen, then clarity, compassion, and liberating wisdom come naturally.
Judith Simmer-Brown is an Acharya in Shambhala international and a professor of Buddhist studies at Naropa University. She is the author of Dakini’s Warm Breath.
Ezra Bayda is a Zen teacher and cofounder of the Zen Center of San Diego. His most recent book is Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment.
Kamala Masters is cofounder of the Vipassana Metta Foundation, located on Maui. She is also a core teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.