Meditation Blockages & Antidotes

Notes From: Rinpoche, K. T. (2018). The Practice of Tranquillity & Insight: A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Mediation [Kindle Android version].

Considering that meditation is a profound tool to access the true nature of reality, it’s important to also recognize the complete failures or blockers to meditating correctly.  Buddhist teachers like to break things into numbered sets, as such Thrungpa Rinpoche has a lecture on the 5 Faults of Meditation.  These five “faults” are the obstructions or blockers to meditating well.

Buddhism not only teaches the problems, but also offers some advice on how to counter the problem when it manifests in our meditation practice.  Each of the five faults is listed below, along with its antidote.

Laziness

Obviously this is a problem.  If you start off meditating and then one day feel you can’t be bothered to meditate, it’s not going to happen.  This is also a very difficult problem to fix.

In the Kagyu lineage, there are three forms of Laziness (notice the numeric list break down again):

  • Lethargy (just wanting to sleep)
  • Preferring to devote to worldly activities
  • Despondency (giving up on your practice)

Antidotes to Laziness

  • Aspiration
  • Zeal
  • Faith
  • Training

Aspiration

Aspiration is the interest to meditate.  This seems self-explanatory however, as if one had the interest, they wouldn’t be lazy.  Cultivating interest in meditation isn’t discussed in Thrangpu Rinpoche’s work here.

I would imagine that the aspiration to meditate is rooted in one’s need to overcome suffering.  The more one experiences or realizes the world of suffering, the more they will want to remedy it, and therefore be motivated to meditate.

This is perhaps very difficult to cultivate.  Either you will naturally have this aspiration, or you will gain it as you begin to suffer, and look once again for a solution to the problems at hand (meditation.)

Some meditative schools focus on an entertainment to the meditation (visions for example) and this motivates the student to aspire each day to meditate.  That can also be a tool for aspiration, but the path of visions is not the goal of Shamata.

Zeal

Similar to aspiration, one has the interest to push through any laziness and sit in meditation.  But where does the zeal come from?  How can it be cultivated?  There must be, in my opinion (as Rinpoche doesn’t discuss it here in his work), a crisis of motivation.

Perhaps one is struggling with bills, or a meditator is very frustrated with the suffering in the world.

From another vantage point, we could also say that a person has zeal if they really desired the effect of the meditation.  Perhaps the bliss and peace of Shamata is very nice, and they have the zeal to desire a repeat of the meditative experience.

A sangha can also help produce a result with zeal – encouraging each other to grow spiritually (via meditation.)

Faith

Not often heard in Buddhism, faith is an interesting point here.   Instead of aspiring towards a goal in meditation, one has the faith of a result.  This is perhaps a result of a guru or teacher who explains a result not yet realized (such as enlightenment), and the student has the faith they can obtain this goal via meditation.

This will work as long as there is something to have faith in.  If we are talking about a solo meditator (who has no sangha) the faith has to be self generated and this might become very challenging to accomplish.

Training

We’re talking about the Shambala Warrior now – this is someone who’s mind is ready to meditate at any given moment.  They are well trained and know what to do.  This state is where the mind rests one-pointedly without any effort… in other words:

The meditator doesn’t require force or coercion to meditate upon the Object of Meditation.  Instead it just rests upon the object.  It simply is there.

These remedies are all well and good, but the underlying remedy has to have a motivation.  Aspiration isn’t something easy to cultivate, nor is Zeal or Faith or Training.  Work must be done, either by the meditator, or by their teacher.

What if the meditator has no teacher?  All the more challenging.  One must really dig deep and look within to get an idea of how to resolve issues of laziness.  When I was attending a sangha, our lama used to say that it’s very hard for someone to be motivated if their life appears to “go well,” its when our lives fall apart that we begin to really get motivated for spiritual practice.

Forgetting How to Meditate

Some people feel they have the instructions down on how to meditate.  They start out, and part way through they realize they’re not sure what to do next.  The path of their meditation process is lost, and they either drift or simply end it early.

Antidote

The antidote here is Mindfulness.   If you’re unsure the meaning of mindfulness, it is a reference to a very aware state of mind.  Authors such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen teachers are very keen on Mindfulness.

Being mindful, you are aware of your present moment as it occurs.  It is the direct experience of the present moment.  This is obviously the solution to forgetfulness, as one is experiencing the present moment, there is nothing to forget.

What isn’t stated in Thrangpu Rinpoche’s book (at this point) is how to cultivate mindfulness. He perhaps mentions this further on… or in other material.  Monitoring one’s breath is an example of mindfulness. With daily practice, one’s day to day moments are more well spotted and remembered.

Dullness & Agitation of Mind

Although two issues here, Buddhism counts it as one problem.  Dullness is when a meditator simply lacks clarity, like someone staggering out of bed in the morning unsure of where they are or what they’re up to.

Dullness can range from the slightest state where one lacks a bit of awareness of what’s going on, to more extreme cases where one just sits without any awareness at all – almost asleep.

Agitation is any thought that distracts from meditation.  This could be anger, jealousy, hate, fear, lust, desire, craving, worries….  This two is categorized into two subgroups.  In the subtle form, one barely recognizes the slight agitations appearing in the meditators mind.  At the extreme form, agitation is a fixation on thoughts that keep the mind from reaching stability.

Antidotes

For dullness (or stupor as Thrungpa Rinpoche calls it) & agitation there are several antidotes…

Visualization for Dullness

Thrangpu Rinpoche offers an interesting visualization to help with stupor or dullness:

…one can visualize in one’s heart a four-petaled white lotus with a white sphere in its center. Then imagine this going up to the crown of the head to the level of the hair and then to a distance of four finger-widths above the head.

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. The Practice of Tranquillity & Insight: A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Mediation (p. 45). Kindle Edition.

Overcoming Dullness with Tension

Another trick is to tense the body while keeping one’s eyes open, and looking up.  I haven’t tried this, but it’s an antidote offered in the material.

Light to Overcome Dullness

A third trick with dullness is to go to a bright place… either outside, or open the windows to let light and air in.  Thrangpu also suggests wearing light colored clothing.

Visualization for Agitation

When there is agitation or too many thoughts, visualize an upside-down four-petaled black lotus in the heart with a little black sphere in its center. Imagine it going down to the level of one’s seat and four finger-widths below that into the ground.

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. The Practice of Tranquillity & Insight: A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Mediation (p. 45). Kindle Edition.

Agitation and Tension

Thrangpu reverses the antidote for dullness here – for an agitated mind the mediator is recommended to look downward, eyes half-closed, and just relax your body.

Agitation and Darkness

Finally, the third advice / antidote for overcoming agitation is to go to a warm and dark place.

Inactivity to Blockers

Thrangpu Rinpoche refers to this as “Underapplication,” it’s a reference to the previous blockers to meditation appearing and being recognized by the meditator – yet the meditator does not take any action to resolve them.

In Buddhism, ever problem has an antidote.  The meditator is choosing to not apply an antidote to the manifested meditation problem.

Over-Application to Blockers

I’m not sure how often this occurs, but Thrangpu Rinpoche mentions an opposite state to the last: the over application to the problems of meditation.  In this case, the meditator has recognized the problem and has applied the antidote to the issue.  The blocker to meditation has now passed, but the meditator continues to reapply the antidote, even though it is no longer needed.

By continuing to apply an antidote (when there is no longer a problem), the meditator is taking off course into the realm of over analysis of something that no longer an issue.