Science, medicine, and the wisdom traditions are all in agreement—meditation is good for the body, the mind, and the spirit. But, for many people, their experience of sitting down, crossing legs, closing eyes, and trying to meditate is one of constant struggle—ultimately leaving them with a feeling of utter frustration.
However, it does not have to be this way. By understanding the causes of distraction and lethargy and what to do when these arise, not only you will be in a better place to know how to overcome the obstacles of meditation but you will know how to meditate correctly..
Indeed, understanding well this feeling that something is not quite right with your meditation is a good sign as it shows that you’re becoming more aware of your inner world. Giving up your practice, however, only meters from the finishing line by thinking this is all too hard would be a shame.
So, if you have ever tried to start a meditation practice that led to the thought, why can’t I meditate? Then this article is for you. And in this article, I will show you the reasons why we all struggle when first starting a meditation practice and go into the solutions to that struggle.
I will then answer the common questions about meditation to help you develop a sound and reliable practice before giving you practical tips and next steps.
To fully understand what an obstacle to meditation is, we must first understand what meditation is and is not—and to that, we shall now turn.
What is Meditation
First off, meditation is not a wishy-washy spaced-out state of mind. Nor is it merely a state of relaxation. Nor is it about stopping yourself from thinking or creating a blank state where conceptuality cannot and must not operate.
Instead, meditation is best understood as an analytic, diagnostic, and therapeutic tool used for the process of becoming mentally and physiologically healthy.
In this way, sessions of meditation are more like sessions of training the mind rather than zoning out into la-la land. And while the calmness and relaxation that comes from meditation is a real property of meditation, it is not it’s function.
Broadly speaking, there are two different types or styles of meditation.
- One style is attentional.
- The second is analytic.
The first, that of attentional training, is about developing the ability to focus your attention on a single object for a sustained period. And over time, the effect of this is a more profound sense of well-being, whereby bliss will begin to arise throughout your body and mind.
Moreover, in the deeper states of concentration, it is even possible to develop greater levels of well-being and deeper levels of knowledge into reality beyond what science has currently discovered but are beginning to see with research projects into brain states of Buddhist monks.
The second type of meditation is analytic—analytic in the sense that we analyze a phenomenon to understand it more deeply. This type of meditation is not merely thinking about a topic. Rather it is a particular type of refined analysis that, once developed fully, can be utilized to penetrate the nature of any object of knowledge.
You can think of this as metaphysical analysis. Not thinking about topics of metaphysics, but a type of consciousness that penetrates metaphysical reality.
More often than not, these two styles or types of meditation are leveraged as a unit to help one become free from negative, destructive, or dysfunctional states of mind such as stress, fear, anxiety, depression, and so on. And then we use meditation to replace these negative states of mind with positive states of mind of centered calmness, joy, confidence, compassion, knowledge, wisdom, and so on.
We alternate between attentional and analytical meditation—first focusing on an object to analyze it, and then focusing once again on what we discovered about that topic or object without becoming distracted or falling into dullness.
By doing so, we can transform our lived experience from one of dysfunction to that of a healthy, happy, and productive life that is deeply meaningful.
What is an Obstacle to Meditation?
Now that we understand what meditation is, we are now in a better position to understand what an obstacle to meditation might be.
There are two kinds of obstacles to practicing meditation—internal and external obstacles. And these internal and external obstacles will arise either between sessions or in the session itself. And we must become adept at recognizing these obstacles to meditation as they arise to develop in our meditation practice.
2.1 Obstacles to starting a session
Outside of a meditation session, you can have both internal and external obstacles that will prevent you from sitting down to practice. The external obstacles outside of practice, such as construction or loud music from a neighbor, are an example of these. And as there is little we can do about these kinds of obstacles other than waiting them out, these are not actual obstacles to meditation but, if you do live in such a place, you may consider moving to an environment that is supportive of your practice of samatha meditation.
Internal obstacles to meditation is a kind of resistance to practice. It is a lack of delight in the practice of meditation, and this resistance is the cause of internal dialogue such as “I’m too busy today; maybe tomorrow!” This resistance is what creates an internal dialogue that increases resistance to practice—setting up a closed-loop system, and this is the biggest obstacle to developing a practice of meditation, and one that must be broken if you are to create and long term and sustainable practice.
The trick to breaking this closed-loop system of resistance to meditation is to have a daily practice at a specific time of the day, say each morning, where you sit, even if only for five minutes regardless of how you feel. By merely turning up each day, and at the same time each day, the resistance will weaken over time, thus breaking the loop.
This points to discussions of free will that, while outside of the scope of this article, are nevertheless significant as meditation is the key to increasing your autonomy.
2.2 Obstacles during the session
Obstacles during a session are also two-fold—external and internal.
External obstacles might be too much light in your room or noise as above but can also be pain in your body, health issues, and so on. Anything that pulls you away from focusing on a given object of meditation.
As it is challenging to deepen one’s meditation when sick or in pain, it is best to be gentle with your mind and body at such times. This does not mean you do not practice, as this may create the habit to find reasons not to meditate, and thus reinforce the closed-loop system first mentioned above. It does mean you need to modulate your practice, however, learning when to be gentle and when to express dominion over oneself.
Indeed, this idea of modulating your state at any given moment through time becomes an essential skill as you deepen your practice of meditation. It is probably the most important of all skills to learn to find a balance between wakefulness and one that directly combats the two main obstacles to practice—distraction and lethargy.
The degree to which you can identify and overcome these two obstacles is the degree to which you will benefit from the practice of meditation, and so it is to this that we shall now turn our attention.
2.3 The two most significant obstacles to meditation
In order to really progress in meditation and deepen one’s practice in order to take of the many benefits, you will need to overcome both distraction and lethargy. These two have a course and subtle form. For this article, I will focus on an explanation of only the course form of both as these are the most important to overcome for most people.
Distraction, at its most basic, is simply the fact that while focusing on one thing, our mind is hijacked by something else. It could be a thought, memory, emotion, or sensation.
You could be trying to focus on something as simple as your breathing only to find that you are now thinking about what to cook for dinner. Often this happens without one even being aware of becoming distracted.
A distraction is always internal. A noise outside your window, for instance, is not a distraction in this case. But it may cause thoughts of how to eliminate the noise, and this thinking is the actual distraction we are talking about here.
With distraction, your mind becomes “flighty” and “bubbly” and fragile in the sense of not stable.
Course lethargy, on the other hand, is a dullness of the mind such that one begins to feel heaviness, which, if left unchecked, will turn into sleepiness. This is a problem because as the mind becomes heavy and dull, it becomes hard to move from this state.
Some teachers of meditation even warn against sitting in this semi-conscious awareness and place emphasis on moving it up, making it lighter and brighter rather than letting it slip further into sleep, as remaining here can decrease your intelligence, and this is not the point of meditation. Meditation is about increasing intelligence about conventional and ultimate reality, not slipping off into la-la land.
Core-skills for overcoming obstacles of meditation
In order to overcome the obstacles to meditation, such as distraction and lethargy, you must first understand clearly, and then develop the two core skills of mindfulness and introspection.
But mindfulness here is not what some call a non-judgmental-bare-awareness. Instead, mindfulness here is an ongoing remembering of the object of meditation in an ongoing flow of cognition. It is an active, not passive, cognition of the object of observation.
The second is a type of meta-awareness called introspection. Not simply general introspection but rather an instance of looking inward and monitoring the quality of your meditation without, itself, becoming a distraction to the meditation.
That is to say, meta-awareness or introspection is monitoring your mind for an imbalance in the mind whereby either distraction or lethargy has arisen.
The Antidotes to the obstacles of meditation
As you can imagine, there are two antidotes to the obstacles of meditation—one for each of the obstacles—distraction and lethargy.
The first combats distraction and is simple to apply once you’ve recognized that you are distracted. And that is, relax. A simple way to think about this is to relax, release, and return to your object of meditation.
The second antidote is the antidote to lethargy, and that is to refresh the mind—to uplift and give it more energy. Again, it sounds simple enough. If you find the mind heavy and dark, you can, for a time, open your eyes to let more light in, slightly tilt the head up, move your body to sit up straight, or if the lethargy is extreme you can go and splash your face with cold water.
Bringing it all together with an example
Let me now explain all of the above by way of an example, so you get a greater appreciation for how meditation is a vital tool used in the ongoing project that is your life.
Let’s say someone suffers from anxiety and depression, which is a fair amount of people in the world these days, and this person—let’s call them Ashley as this covers both genders—has been recommended meditation or mindfulness practice as a means of decreasing these afflictions.
Ashley is interested in living a life free from trauma caused by anxiety and depression, goes out, and finds a 6-week introduction class on meditation to learn everything one needs to know to begin the practice of meditation properly. Now, something Ashley will quickly come to find is that meditation, despite all the marketing, is not as easy as one might first think. But the reason for this is not meditation. It is not that meditation is difficult, but rather it is Ashley’s anxiety and depression that is causing the struggle to meditate.
That is to say, meditation highlights to us, in unequivocal terms, our most significant issues, and that is an extremely uncomfortable thing to see. And because it is so up close and personal, it can seem as if the problem has become larger than it was. Meditation works like a mirror, reflecting back on what is going on in your mind. And it is only through seeing what is there that one can do anything about it.
So this is, in fact, a significant moment in Ashley’s evolution as a human being. Because by seeing the actual cause of life’s problems and not falling to the default response of externalizing problems, Ashley can begin the work needed to remove the anxiety and depression.
Ashley sits and focuses on the breath. Watching the natural rising and falling of the breath without pushing the breath out, nor sucking the breath in but merely watching the natural rise and fall of the breath.
After meditating like this for some time, Ashley comes to recognize that she/he is no longer mindful of the breath but rather is sitting in a car as it winds its way through a mountain range that looks out over a vast and beautiful valley. Ashley has become distracted and is now daydreaming about a road trip from years ago.
Recognizing this, and remembering what to do when this happens, Ashley relaxes, and releases the allure of the daydream, and returns to the object of meditation.
Noting the need for introspection to monitor meditation without letting this interfering with the ongoing flow of mindfulness of the breath, Ashley now meditates with the mind a little more relax in order to not become distracted, knowing that it was tightness that caused the distraction, and also adding introspection from time to time in order to maintain this ongoing flow and catch it when distractions arises.
This goes on for some time before Ashley begins to see that while the flow on mindfulness remains, the mind has become dark, heavy, and taking a nap looks so inviting. The practice of meditation goes like this—an ongoing endeavor to balance the mind, on a chosen object, riding between distraction and lethargy. And as you gain skill in finding this balance, the mind will begin to settle into its natural state, and a deeper knowledge will dawn, giving the meditator profound insight into the human condition, and their own lived experience. This wisdom can then be taken back into their everyday life.
Such is the power of the analytic, diagnostic, and therapeutic power of meditation.
Summary of how to overcome the obstacles to meditation
For those that skipped or glossed over the articles, here are the cliff notes. The two main obstacles to meditation are distraction and lethargy.
The best way to overcome these obstacles is to first understand what they are, to then see them clearly, for yourself, as they arise in your meditation practice.
You then need to know what the antidotes to these obstacles are and how to apply them without losing the power and momentum of meditation.
Relaxing the mind is the antidote to distraction; uplifting the mind is the antidote to lethargy.
In order to know when to apply either antidote, you must develop the core skills of mindfulness and introspection.
To develop these skills, you will need to create a habit of daily meditation.
This is so because overcoming obstacles and creating habits come as a pair. That is to say, by attempting to practice despite the continued appearance of ongoing obstacles, the habit of meditation will be created through the process of showing up each day.
And it is showing up each day that will give you the chance to practice applying the antidotes to the obstacles, such that developing the skill of fine-grained introspection will then give you the ability to see deeply into the human condition.
You also need to be deliberate in your practice. Not deliberate in the sense of focusing on a specific outcome of meditation such as peace and bliss, but rather on the momentum of meditating each day.
By showing up each day, you will have plenty of time to learn how to recognize obstacles as obstacles, know when and how to apply the antidotes, and when to leave your meditation alone.
And the point of all this is simple: by knowing intimately the contents of your mind, and by becoming aware of the effects of the contents of your lived experience you will be in a better position to extricate yourself from whatever ails you.
What to do next
If you’d like to read more about starting a meditation practice, you might find this helpful The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Morning Meditation Practise.
If you’d like to read something about my days as a Buddhist monk, you might like to read this, How to bend like a piece of wood.