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Common Problems

In meditation, there will usually be problems associated with the mind, the body or both.  Insight into the most troublesome of these should be sought from an experienced meditation teacher, however solutions for the more common ones are below.

Drowsiness

There are a number of reasons for feeling sleepy when meditating, foremost may be a genuine tiredness.  In such a case, rather than fighting against it, you are encouraged to take a nap and come back to meditation later. Sleepiness results when energy in the body has settled too low and there is not enough oxygen in the blood.   This can happen after you have eaten when oxygenated blood will gather around the stomach for digestion

Another cause may be that you are sitting too far back on your cushion and are thus too comfortable.  Sitting far back will also mean that your spine is not straight and you are more likely to be slumped which encourages drowsiness.  Make sure you are sitting at the front of your cushion so that your sitting bone is lifted, enabling your spine to be straight naturally. 

Provided you ar sitting correctly and well-rested, then in order to bring the energy back up, there are the following methods:

  • Rotate the neck side-to-side, forward-and-back and in a circle one way and then the other
  • Shrug the shoulders several times
  • Open the eyes wide and gaze forward at eye-level for a time

Wandering thoughts

When sitting down to meditate, it is important to make a separate space between your activities and your meditation, to make a vow before your cushion or to recite the bodhisattva vows or the Heart sutra.  All these practices are to calm the mind, to lay aside the cares of the world and to bring the focus of the mind inward.  If this isn’t done, the busyness of your life will persist when you sit down. 

When the mind will not settle, physical causes may be tension in the body due to the wrong sitting position.  If there is tension in the upper body, then the breath will not be natural and so the mind will remain active.  In such a case, check your posture again and then go back through your relaxation method several times until you are relaxed properly.

A scattered mind, the linking of one thought upon another randomly, is usually remedied by observing the mind as each thoughts arise.  By observing rather than engaging the thought, it will gradually fade.  When another arises, simply observe it.  Doing this consistently, thoughts will arise less frequently and the mild will gradually calm down.

Discomfort / Pain / Numbness

The body may be uncomfortable with sitting for a length of time, but this can be improved with practice.  Tension in joints and muscles may spread in time while sitting and when you become aware of this, then falling back on your relaxation routine will help to alleviate this.  If there is numbness in your legs, make sure you are sitting at the front of your meditation cushion.  If you are sitting too far back, blood flow to the muscles will be impeded. 

Training the body will not solve the whole problem.  Meditation, like all other acquired skills, is both physical and mental.  It is through practice that mind and body become more accustomed to new ways and levels of thinking and doing.  Developing a new skill involves establishing new standards that surpass ones previously held that in fact have held you back.  The connection between mind and body is quite intimate.  In every instance of pain or discomfort, there are two components at work, the first being the bodily sensation itself. The second is the mental sensation of discomfort, pain or numbness.  This has the effect of magnifying the problem as the mind perceives its understood physical barriers and anxiety arises as these are reached.  Much of the discomfort we feel is generated by the mind and realising this will enable you to separate the two and deal with the physical sensation.  Meditation is about exploring old boundaries and setting new standards.

Illusions

Sitting still will usually bring about the sensation of the arms, had or whole body disappearing since we rely on the movement of our muscles and the sensation of the skin for an appreciation of our physical presence.  This is of course an illusion, one of many that may occur when the mind, starved of stimulation from the external world, will create its own sensations.  Images that play when the eyes are closed or open, sounds that are heard suddenly, particular smell that arise, sensations of the skin and muscles that seem to travel or locate in one part of the body or another. 

The effect is to divert the mind from the object of meditation.  Understanding that these are all generated by the mind will enable you to recognise and ignore them as you continue to meditate. 

Sitting in meditation is when the mind is alone with itself.  For some who find it difficult to cope with their feelings and so do not face them, meditation can evoke memories that cause a release of emotion that can be cathartic that would otherwise for a karmic impediment to meditation.  Meditation, however, is not a substitute for therapy.  Instead it is a means of gaining clarity and perspective on your life and of the world so that you can make better decisions. 

Keeping Focus on the Mediation Object

When meditating, we take an object as a focus of meditation so that the mind can calm down and we can then experience a deeper level of awareness.  Too easily, our minds are distracted by discomfort or by an external stimulus, such as a ticking clock or voices outside.  This has the effect of shifting the meditation object from what it should be, such as the breath, to the source of the disturbance, a painful knee, the hum of a radiator or a thought that, once engaged, links to another and another.  Often this shift is subtle and you are unaware that the focus has changed.  If left uncorrected, it will prevent a stable meditative state from manifesting.  You should regularly bring the focus back to the meditation object to ensure that you do not stray.  If there is a physical discomfort, then an adjustment of your seated position may be called for. 

Perseverance and Single-mindedness

In order to meditate one must be clear about the reasons for doing so.  This is the underlying motivation to meditate that will help you to persevere in your efforts.  The mind, however, is very tricky and easily manufactures reasons why you should not be sitting in meditation.  Be aware of your mind’s capacity and examine objectively all such impulses as sthey arise.  Sitting with a relaxed body, with an open mind but firm in your resolution to sit without expectation is the goal to successful meditation.  Continuing to sit open-mindedly from day to day in face of variable results will enable you to make progress.  Judging your sitting will lead to disappointment and an aversion to sitting again. 

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