BEFORE WE MEDITATE for the first time, we have ideas about what meditation is, what it does, and where it should lead. Then when we get our introductory instructions—either out of a book or magazine, or from a teacher leading a class or a retreat—we’re hopeful that the instructions will fulfill our purpose for meditating and that meditation will do for us what it has reportedly done for others. We look forward to becoming calmer, to our physical pain diminishing, and to our emotional stress and turmoil being eased; we anticipate meditation granting us the peace of mind we so earnestly seek.

We often do not even consider that we could have problems following the meditation instructions, or that the meditation instructions may not be the “right” ones for us. We assume that meditation practices are proven to work for most anyone, so when we experience frustration with the task of meditating, we often lay the blame on ourselves. We don’t see that the meditation practice itself has something to do with it.

Contemporary Buddhist teachers often instruct that the real obstacles, or hindrances, in meditation are negative emotional states or unskillful types of thinking. Unfortunately, this view only deflects our attention from what actually keeps us stuck in our practice: the way we do our meditation practice. In fact, it is not what we experience in meditation that creates the hindrance, it is how we apply the instructions. Having negative emotions and discursive thoughts are common meditation experiences, but they do not control our practice in the same way the meditation instructions do.

Over the last two decades in which I have been teaching meditation, I have observed that much of our frustration, struggle, feelings of failure and low self-esteem as meditators is linked to the way we have been applying meditation instructions. This is in part due to the way that we hold on to the correctness of the instructions and how we adopt rules that prohibit certain experiences, both of which can create impasses in our meditation practice. These are two of the most common causes for the experience of being stuck.

Many of us encounter an impasse when we are trying to figure out how to do the instructions correctly. The notion that there is a definitive right way of doing a particular meditation practice keeps the impasse alive. We assume that if we can figure out the right way to sit, and just do it, our sittings will be harmonious.

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