Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Obstacles aren’t to be avoided. When we apply the right antidotes, they are the path itself. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche diagnoses the different types of obstacles we face and prescribes the proper remedies.
Whatever our level of meditation practice, there will always be obstacles. The Tibetan word for obstacle, parche, means “what cuts our progress.” In fact, sometimes the more we are engaged in practice, the greater the obstacles become, but if we understand that obstacles are part of the spiritual path, we can learn from them. Obstacles can be messages, signals that we need to wake up and look at what is going on. On a deeper, more profound level, we can include obstacles in our journey.
There are outer, inner, and secret obstacles. An outer obstacle is anything in the external world that distracts us from our development as a practitioner. For example, being busy becomes an obstacle to practice. Being overly involved with our family can keep us from practicing. Entertainment can be an obstacle: a hobby takes over our life, and suddenly we are not practicing. On a more subtle level, if our mind is continuously looking for a quality of entertainment, that is definitely an obstacle.
Obstacles on the inner level have to do with our practice. The most common inner obstacle is concept. Conceptuality might manifest as fixation on one particular idea, which begins to sway us from the path. Another way it manifests is as a heavy level of discursiveness that keeps us from focusing on the object of our meditation—our mind is constantly wandering off, and so our energy is scattered. Another inner obstacle is heavy emotion. If we become possessed by anger, vindictiveness, jealousy, ambition, or desire, our progress will be hindered.
Obstacles on the secret level have to do with view. We have doubts about the path, lacking trust in the dharma. Obviously, if our mind is seized by doubt it is difficult to practice, and even when we do meditate we are not going to make any progress. We regard practice as secondary to our daily activities, and our spiritual development becomes less and less relevant. Then the dharmic path is gone, and our way becomes worldly. We lose our discipline, sense of humor, and delight. Clearing obstacles to the proper view and developing certainty is the secret aspect of working with ourselves.
Generally speaking, obstacles are connected with karma and conditions. Obstacles are particularly associated with the kind of environmental conditions we establish. These are related to habitual tendencies of body, speech, and mind, which are karmic. As far as actions of body goes, the worst-case scenario is killing or causing others harm. In terms of speech, being verbally abusive creates negative conditions. Obstacles to mind occur when we create an unhealthy mental environment, such as being overly desirous or unappreciative of others. From these nonvirtuous actions, obstacles tend to blossom. What we say or do creates an energy, a frequency, that attracts them.
What is the antidote to creating the conditions for obstacles to occur? On every level, the basic antidote is mindfulness. A practitioner who had been hit by a car once asked my father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, why it had happened. He imagined there was something karmic in his past that had caused the accident. To his surprise, my father told him that he had simply failed to be mindful.
It’s easy to be mindful on the practical level, such as looking both ways before crossing the street, but mindfulness extends beyond that to being appreciative and observant of our life. Speed is the enemy of mindfulness; we forget to look at what is happening. When we’re arrogant and cavalier, taking for granted the details of our body, speech, or mind, an obstacle arises. Then we wonder what happened. At whatever level we are practicing, we need to pay attention to our life and appreciate it.
The antidote to inner obstacles is practice. In peaceful abiding (shamatha) practice, we use the present moment as a reference point for relating to our mind and overcoming its discursiveness. Returning our mind to the breath is how we learn to be mindful and aware. If we’re feeling obstructed by strong emotions, there are two approaches we can take: If we’ve developed our practice to the point where we can just breathe and let a strong emotion go, that’s what we should do. The second technique is to dismantle the emotion by contemplating it. We begin investigating the feeling. We ask ourselves, “Why am I jealous? What has made me feel this way?” In contemplating the reasons that our negative emotions have come together—and how they create pain, suffering, and anxiety—we can begin to take them apart. This technique creates more mindfulness and awareness.
Laziness is such a big obstacle that it deserves special attention. Laziness can keep us from ever getting to our meditation seat. It can also manifest as busyness or—at the other end of the spectrum—feeling disheartened. Once we do sit down to meditate, it can keep us from relating properly to the practice technique. Although it occurs on every level, the obstacle of laziness is always connected with our view. The antidote to this obstacle is inspiration. We need to start over.
In order to have a fresh start, we can’t just think forward; we also have to think backward. What inspired us to practice in the first place? What does it mean to be a practitioner? Rekindling our inspiration might also mean reconnecting with our loving-kindness, with our bodhichitta, the mind of enlightenment. As we touch in with loving-kindness and compassion, we ground our sense of trust in meditation practice. As a result, we clarify our objective and commitment, which overcomes laziness. Then we can take the antidote to a deeper level by simply resting our mind in its ultimate nature.
Working with obstacles on an outer, inner, and secret level provides a way to learn from them. Applying the antidotes, we use them to deepen our practice and progress toward realization. With mindfulness, awareness, and certainty in the view, we are able to have purpose in our practice and deep confidence in the path. These qualities bring a sense of happiness and satisfaction to whatever we are doing. That allows us to include everything in our practice, even our family and our work. If we are able to hold our mind to practice, the more worldly aspects of our life are no longer obstacles.
There have been renowned practitioners who have claimed that obstacles are their path. That is one aspect of the crazy wisdom teaching—delighting in the challenges and obstacles. Most of us must work on stabilizing our mind before we can say, “Bring on the obstacles!” We need to develop appreciation of our experiences and emotions before we can transcend them in this way.
Practicing regularly, cultivating peace and loving-kindness, and renewing our inspiration are the key elements in working with obstacles. This step-by-step approach gradually builds equanimity. What are the signs we’re making progress? Our body, speech, and mind become more gentle. At times we are able to bear difficulty without complaint. We might even begin to welcome obstacles as an opportunity to engage in virtuous activity: patience, generosity, discipline, meditation, exertion, and their binding factor, prajna—wisdom rooted in seeing things as they are. With practice and a change in attitude, whatever comes our way—good or bad—has less power to obstruct our journey.