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Dealing with Difficulty

August 18, 2013

Q: Sometimes my practice seems to hit a wall, and it seems impossible to make progress. It seems like nothing but my bad qualities come up in meditation and overwhelm me. It’s depressing; what should I do?

The Arahant: Do you think this happens only to you? Relax, it is a part of life for everyone. Sometimes the weather is good, and sometimes there are storms. The best thing to do is wait it out, and not hurt yourself by trying to make progress at a time when it is impossible. Like a tree in the wind, bend but do not break. In meditation we are cleansing the mind of all its impurities. We are looking in every corner for the dirt that is hiding there. So is it any wonder that it comes up?

“Come you, monk, dwell intent on vigilance; during the day while pacing up and down, while sitting down, cleanse the mind of obstructive mental states; during the middle watch of the night, lie down on the right side in the lion posture, foot resting on foot, mindful, clearly conscious, reflecting on the thought of getting up again; during the last watch of the night, when you have arisen, while pacing up and down, while sitting down, cleanse the mind of obstructive mental states.” — Ganakamoggallana Sutta (MN 107)

The best strategy for dealing with impure impulses is to wait them out. Even deeply conditioned wrong thinking is impermanent; if you simply remain patient, it will cease. Trust the Buddha’s method, continue your practice, but do not judge yourself or complain, either to yourself or others. Tolerance is a great virtue.

“Come you, monk, choose a remote lodging in a forest, at the root of a tree, on a mountain slope, in a glen, a hill cave, a cemetery, a woodland grove, in the open, or on a heap of straw. On returning from alms-gathering after the meal, the monk sits down crosslegged, holding the back erect, having made mindfulness rise up in front of him. He, getting rid of covetousness for the world, dwells with a mind devoid of covetousness, he cleanses the mind of covetousness. Getting rid of the taint of ill-will, he dwells benevolent in mind; compassionate and merciful towards all creatures and beings, he cleanses the mind of ill-will. Getting rid of sloth and torpor, he dwells without sloth or torpor; perceiving the light, mindful and clearly conscious he cleanses the mind of sloth and torpor. Getting rid of restlessness and worry, he dwells calmly; the mind inward tranquil, he cleanses the mind of restlessness and worry. Getting rid of doubt, he dwells doubt-crossed; unperplexed as to the states that are skilled, he cleanses his mind of doubt.” — Ganakamoggallana Sutta (MN 107)

If you become depressed at such times, it is a sign that you are holding on to the false idea that your progress should be smooth and continuous. The Path is not like a freeway; it is more like a mountain trail. Many times we have to climb down before we can ascend further.

Deal gently with yourself and others. Be quiet and wait; soon your opportunity will come. Show the example of how to deal with adversity by maintaining your principles. Keep your balance, and do not be tempted to force yourself to meet unrealistic expectations of performance or advancement. Instead be cautious, and maintain your aim of attaining tranquillity and detachment despite the upset.

Ultimate success comes from dealing properly with setbacks like this. Think of it as a test of character. Remain alert, and treat yourself and others gently and fairly, without blame. Don’t panic and seek help from external sources; keep your own counsel, be your own island and take refuge in yourself. If you need to retreat to a previous stage of practice, that’s alright. You will know when the time is right to advance again.

As long as you keep your equanimity amidst pleasant and unpleasant, favorable and unfavorable experiences, the ultimate success of your practice is assured. You are not in a race to attain enlightenment; this is not a competitive sport. Do the process one step at a time under the expert guidance of the Buddha-dhamma, and patiently persist until you get the result.

From → Q&A

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