Excessive doubt

The final of the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition is excessive doubt, sometimes also called paralysing doubt. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a healthy dose of skepticism and questioning. Without a certain amount of skepticism, we can be like leaves blown about by whatever the latest fad or miracle cure is. On the other hand, if we spend most of our meditation time double-guessing ourselves (’is this working, what’s it doing now, how come I’m feeling like this and not like that?’), then we’re really missing the point of meditation, which actually has no point except to be in non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Yes, there are thousands of high-quality studies which demonstrate that meditation is good for us, and it can be informative and encouraging to keep up to date with the latest research. Yet if we’re constantly chasing more proof, needing more validation, then we’re holding ourselves back from ‘going with the flow’ of the meditation process itself.

A long-term meditation practice is usually deep and slow-burning rather than exciting. It’s easy to read a Zen story about a monk who became enlightened when he heard the sound of a stone hitting the ground while sweeping, and to wonder ‘why does this never happen to me’? After the initial honeymoon phase, where we might observe all kinds of positive changes in our lives as we meditate every day, our meditation practice can actually become quite ordinary. Yes, over the years we may be feeling a little more calm, and perhaps we have more energy than we used to have, but that could also be because we’re taking Vitamin D supplements. Meditation is sometimes described as resting in ‘being’ mode rather than ‘doing’ mode. This goes counter to much of what often drives us in everyday life – constant busyness, striving after achievement. The reason why many of us are interested in meditation is precisely because this constant need for success feels unbalanced to us. And yet, even as we try to balance our doing mode with being mode, we might be secretly hoping for achievement and success in our meditation practice!

To meditate, we need to bring a certain amount of trust to the practice, to trust that this is a process we might benefit from. That doesn’t mean blind trust in every person who sets themselves up as a meditation teacher, or not examining what works for us and what doesn’t. But if constant doubt is at the forefront of our mind while we meditate, then, ironically, we’re unlikely to find much benefit in it.

Weekly practice idea:

Take five minutes to sit in a quiet spot, and observe the coming and going of experiences, making a conscious effort to remain as much as possible in the ‘being’ rather than the ‘doing’ mode. Notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Stilling the mind

‘Breathing in, I calm my body,

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week we looked at restlessness, which in Buddhism is considered the fourth of the five hindrances to meditation. While we don’t want to become stiff and rigid, it’s also true that an endlessly restless mind and body can exacerbate our tendency to be anxious and worried. The sitting meditation seems to be particularly beneficial for becoming more centered and grounded, and a certain amount of restless is to be expected when we practise it. If, however, our restlessness becomes a serious obstacle to our meditation practice, there are a number of different ways we can work with this.

The first approach is to accept that restlessness is occurring, and to stay with it, even when the restlessness transforms into impatience, irritation, agitation, perhaps all the way to anger. We can learn a lot about the emotions underlying our restlessness through doing this. The inability to sit calm and still may be a signal of strong emotional undercurrents we are trying to get away from. These could be anger, grief, worry and anxiety, trauma, or shame or jealousy. Of course it’s not easy to sit through the restlessness to begin with, let alone the more challenging emotions we may encounter along the way. Yet over the years, I’ve found I’ve gained many valuable insights into ‘what is really going on in my life’ through the simple practice of sitting still, and noticing what emerges.

Next week we will look at some other strategies for working with a restless mind, but for now let’s return to Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote at the beginning of this reflection, and allow ourselves the time and space to rest in the present moment as it is.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a peaceful place to sit, and silently recite Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha. You may like to focus on the first two lines, or the poem as a whole. Allow yourself to feel the peace, and the smile.

Anja Tanhane

Restlessness

A few years ago I offered a workshop in mindfulness for a group of people with a disability. We first went out into the courtyard and did some gentle Tai Chi together, which was enjoyed by the participants. Afterwards, we gathered in a room, where we sat in a circle for some guided meditation. One of the carers had to leave the room for a few minutes, and when he returned during the meditation he thought at first that everyone had died, because the whole room was sitting completely still. I wasn’t sure how the participants would find the sitting meditation, but they all responded really well, and communicated later that they felt relaxed after the workshop.

The ability to sit still for extended periods of time is one of the hallmarks of sitting meditation, and, over time, can help to settle our restless and anxious mind. However, ‘over time’ is really the key phrase here, as initially, sitting still and not moving might make us more aware of just how much restlessness and anxiety is finding its way into our minds.

Restlessness and worry are the forth of the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition, and it’s one that probably most of us can relate to quite well! One of the most basic meditation instructions is to avoid fidgeting and adjusting the posture. Some traditions take this to an extreme, where people are asked to sit in agony rather than move a muscle. To me, taking it to that extent is not only pointless but also potentially dangerous, as there are cases where people have permanently injured their knees because of rigid meditation postures. On the other hand, there is commonly some discomfort and even a little bit of pain involved in learning to sit very still. It is difficult to settle a restless mind when our bodies are constantly in motion.

We can imagine holding a glass of muddy water in our hand. If we constantly shake it about, it will remain muddy water. However, if we put it down on a table and come back half an hour later, the mud will have sunk to the bottom of the glass, leaving the water clear. In a similar way, sitting still for twenty to thirty minutes each day can allow some of the stressors on our mind to settle, so that we can approach our day with greater clarity and presence.

Weekly practice idea:

During the day, take the opportunity to notice the difference between restless fidgeting, and adjusting your posture as needed. If your body is quite restless, how does it feel to consciously reduce some of the fidgeting movements?

Anja Tanhane

Wanting what we have

‘Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.’

Anonymous saying

When we look at our lives, most of the time we have fairly clear ideas about what we’d like more of, and what we’d love to do without. All cultures and religions have guidelines about which desires are considered acceptable, and which are strictly forbidden. There are usually also some grey areas, where the rules are less clear. And of course, in a rapidly changing world, within even one Church congregation there can be a wide range of views on subjects like same-sex marriage, corporal punishment, women as priests and so on.

Many of our desires are survival-based – the desire to have enough to eat, adequate shelter, to be safe from harm and so on. Usually we also have a desire to be free from pain and suffering, though this desire might be subjugated to a higher purpose, as in the case of a marathon runner who chooses to endure quite a lot of pain and suffering in order to reach her goal.

Desires motivate us to not only survive, but also to prosper and flourish. The downside of our desires can be that they tend to be addictive. If we meditate regularly, we can be quite surprised at the constant array of various desires parading through our mind. Some of these might be lofty – ‘I want to reach enlightenment so that I can liberate all other sentient beings’. Some are a little more prosaic – ‘I’ve really got to have some chocolate, NOW!’ Other desires might feel shameful, or at least somewhat embarrassing. One of the reasons why sensual desire is seen as a hindrance to meditation in traditional Buddhism is the way in which desires pull us away from simply being present in the moment. Sometimes this can be very intense – when we fall in love, for example, and can’t think of anything other than our beloved. Yet even if we are meditating with great concentration, really being mindful of the moment, we can still be engaged in what Zen teacher Barry Magid calls our ‘secret practice’ – our deep, often well-hidden wish for life to be somehow other than it is. And while our more obvious sensual desires can make it more difficult to remain present during a meditation, our ‘secret’ desires about what meditation should be can be a significant hindrance in keeping our practice going long-term.

Next week we look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can be used to work more skillfully with our desires – not through denying them, but by being more clear about their place in our life, and the various directions they want to pull us in.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit for ten minutes in a quiet place, and watch the range of desires emerging in your mind. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Our mindset – Part 2

Last week we looked at the growth mindset, and how it fosters an inner motivation to learn and improve. There is the old saying about achievement being 1 % inspiration and 99 % perspiration, and the stories quoted by Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset – how you can fulfill your potential’ seem to bear this out. Some children certainly learn more easily than others, but when so-called ‘poor’ students were motivated by teachers who instilled a love of learning, their grades improved markedly. Teachers would give feedback like ‘I can see how hard you’ve worked at this’, rather than, ‘clever girl’. They praised the effort rather than ascribing some inherent fixed ability to the student, and the students felt empowered to learn, and thrived.

I often hear people say ‘oh, you wouldn’t want to hear me sing’, or ‘I tried meditation ten years ago but I couldn’t stop my thoughts, it’s obviously not for me’. Having taught both music and meditation for many years, I know both statements aren’t true. Singing is first about learning how to listen, but people who’ve been told they can’t sing are far too nervous to relax and really listen to the tune they would like to sing. And as for thoughts during meditation – these are a given, everyone has them. In our culture, there is sometimes a mystique about both music and meditation, as if they’re rarefied endevours best left to a few select performers or gurus. This is a good example of a fixed mindset, which doesn’t allow much room for growth. Unfortunately, this means that adults who want to learn music or meditation may be easily discouraged, as they feel their slow progress reflects on their ability rather than being part and parcel of the learning experience.

In Buddhism, the five hindrances to meditation are 1) greed or sensual desire 2) ill-will or aversion 3) sloth or torpor 4) restlessness, including anxiety or worry, and 5) paralysing doubt. There are a number of different ‘remedies’ which are suggested, and over the coming weeks we will explore these five hindrances and some possible ways of working with them. However, while it is helpful to draw on the wisdom of 2500 years of investigation and knowledge, in the end the learning needs to come from within us. What does it mean for me to feel sleepy, restless, or paralysed by doubt? Does my attitude towards meditation limit me, or does it allow room for growth? Sometimes our limiting beliefs are quite subtle, yet very powerful. We all struggle with limiting thoughts, but, according to the theory of mindset, whether we see our hindrances as challenges to work with, or obstacles which block our path, can make quite a difference to our lives in the long term.

Weekly practice idea:

If you look at the list of five hindrances, do one or two stand out for you? Take ten minutes to reflect on what role the hindrance might play in your life.

Anja Tanhane