I have been practicing meditation, reading Dharma books and listening to teachings for about a year. However, I am currently experiencing confusion and discouragement in my practice, I suddenly lost interest in doing all of these and felt that everything that I’ve learned and practiced has disappeared. I am still trying to practice every day but in the meantime feel very confused and discourage about it. So as I understand your teaching, does it mean that I just have to continue putting effort to practice without expecting any progress? How do I motivate myself to practice? I hope you can give me some directions.
Response by Phillip Moffitt
I often hear meditation students report that they have suddenly become disinterested in practicing or have completely lost the motivation to practice. Naturally, this is discouraging to the student, but it is also an opportunity for growth. We can lose interest in practice for a number of reasons. Oftentimes it’s because we don’t feel sufficiently or immediately rewarded. That is, we want some change to happen “right now” but it doesn’t. A second reason is that we have hit a psychological or emotional resistance, because in order to continue with practice we will have to feel and investigate some aspect of ourselves that feels highly charged. A third reason for discouragement is that practice is often hard and progress is sometimes slow. Our minds want more entertainment, more excitement.
I am a relatively new student and I’ve enjoyed listening to many talks given by Spirit Rock teachers that I get from Dharma Seed Tape Library. I notice that teachers often mention teachers they have studied with who represent other lineages such as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. Do they offer different understandings, or different ways of practicing?
Response by Sylvia Boorstein
I think that we are fortunate at this point in history to be able to study with teachers who have trained and mastered other Buddhist lineages. In the time of the Buddha, his students heard the Dharma from him as we read it now in the Pali canon, the collection of the Buddha’s teaching as he expressed it in the culture and the idiom of his time. As these teaching spread throughout Asia, necessarily slowly because it needed to be carried by word of mouth for centuries, the core teachings remained true to the essence of what the Buddha had taught while the framework of its expression changed as these ideas took hold in different cultures with different religious sensibilities. One recent historian suggested that Buddhism has changed every culture that it moved into and has been changed by every culture.
In the last fifty years, as Dharma has moved into the Western world, its emphasis has changed while its main teaching—the cause and the end of suffering as presented in the Four Noble Truths—has stayed the same. Many contemporary teachers, in my experience, connect personal liberation with social activism more now than decades ago when I began to practice. And many teachers, as you have noticed, find it helpful to hear Dharma presented through different lineage forms. The fundamental understanding of all Buddhist lineages is the same and just as different teachers with a single lineage sometimes spark a new level of wisdom, modern teachers—perhaps because most of us are not natal Buddhists—are open to learning in new idioms as a way to broaden our understanding.
I have a question about the role of teacher and the importance of having one root teacher, or not. I have many teachers, but sometimes feel that I would do well to have one main teacher who could serve as a guide for my practice–someone I could check in with periodically. How do I choose or be chosen?
Response by Donald Rothberg
It can be very helpful to have one teacher with whom one checks in fairly regularly, who knows one’s practice pretty well. Generally, in my experience, one has to ask the teacher whether that teacher is willing to be a teacher/mentor. I suggest asking a teacher with whom you feel a resonance.
When we’re doing loving-kindness meditation and say, “May your suffering cease,” isn’t that wanting things to be other than they are? I thought we were supposed to accept the way things are.
Response by Phillip Moffitt
On the surface, it seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. When we do loving-kindness “practice” (metta), we’re practicing letting loose of demanding that this moment be other than it is, but we are still in relationship to this moment.
Let’s say you have a friend who is hurting. Naturally you want your friend’s pain to go away. If you could, you would do something to help your friend, not because you reject the way things are, but because it is an appropriate response of the heart to how things are. You’re not making a demand that your friend’s life be anything other than it is, but rather responding to their pain from your heart. Accepting how things are is one practice. Having a wholesome response to how things are is another practice, and the two go together.
In vipassana, our intention is to have insight about the cause of suffering and the end of suffering. For example you might have the insight, “These criticizing thoughts I’m having are causing suffering.” If you adopt the logic that you are to accept what is, then you might think, “I’m causing suffering and I’m supposed to accept what is. Therefore, I’ll just continue to cause suffering.” Instead, if you take the loving-kindness approach, you have the insight, “This is suffering,” and then you respond in a way that puts an end to the suffering. You “accept” what is, and then do what is appropriate.
I am new to practicing meditation, and I am dealing with all the usual struggles. One thing that always happens is that my feet begin to hurt slightly and the circulation seems to get cut off. I keep sliding around to get more comfortable, changing the position of my legs around, etc., yet the pain and numbness is still there… Is this something that improves in time as I continue to practice with the right posture? Does the body adjust itself, or is there something to do to be more comfortable during meditation practice. In other words, is it better to allow the pain and work through it, or to get comfortable so it is not a distraction…. or a little of both? Also, is there any real risk of hurting my feet/legs with less blood flow in the meditation posture?
Response by Guy Armstrong
The question of how to relate to physical pain in the sitting posture is a big one for every meditator because we will all meet pain sooner or later. I think the best approach is, as you suggest, a combination of sitting with the pain and sometimes shifting the posture to lessen it. In sitting with pain, we try to be open to it, we acknowledge that we can learn from it. When the pain arises, let it become the focus of your mindful attention. Try to soften into the pain and let yourself experience it directly and as fully as possible. It can be interesting to ask if it’s actually bearable. It may not be pleasant, but if we find we can bear it, we can settle down and relax with it. Then at least we’re not creating more tension in the body. Over time most postural pains in sitting do change a lot and become much lighter. You won’t hurt yourself by sitting through the experience of your feet or legs falling asleep. If you have a prior ankle or knee injury, you may at times experience that as a sharper pain, and it’s not wise to push through old injuries. The way to tell if it’s safe to sit through a pain is to see what happens when you stand up. If the pain goes away within two or three minutes, then it hasn’t been harmful to the body. If it lingers longer, then you should be more gentle with it next time. In general it’s good to work with a small pain for several minutes to learn how to be present and relaxed with it. But if at any time you feel it’s been enough, it’s also fine to adjust your posture, slowly and with mindfulness, so you maintain the continuity of the meditation. At other times you may like to try sitting in a chair to see if that helps you to be more present.
My understanding of Buddhist meditation is that you follow the breath and let it do what it wants to do naturally without controlling it. However, my breath is shallow, plus I tend to hold my breath. Is it okay if I mindfully choose to change my breath?
Response by Phillip Moffitt
When you find that you’re holding your breath, it’s fine to remind yourself to start breathing again. However, I recommend that you occasionally make “holding the breath” the object of your meditation when it arises during a sit. You may well discover that certain mental activities create the condition that causes you to hold your breath. I encourage you to experiment with shifting between the exhalation and the inhalation as the primary object of meditation. Start by paying close attention to the exhalation as it’s happening and maintain awareness of the inhalation, but not as close. When you’re following the exhalation, cultivate relaxed attention in your mindfulness so that you are encouraging an easeful breath. You would do the same process while emphasizing the inhalation. You might also experiment with following the breath at different places in the body — abdomen, chest, throat, the nostrils — and see if that makes a difference in your breathing pattern. Finally, there’s nothing wrong with learning pranayama (yogic breathing practices) to help you develop a wider range of breath. Just know that when you’re doing pranayama, you’re doing pranayama, not vipassana.