Global Buddhist Community

{Dharma Talk} How to Overcome Difficulties in Meditation

by Žarko Andričević

Žarko Andričević is a martial arts and yoga teacher since the 1970s, Zarko first encountered Buddhism
in 1975. Ten years later he started the first Buddhist study and meditation group
in Croatia. He met Chan Master Sheng Yen in 1996 and received Dharma transmission in June 2001, becoming one of five western Dharma heirs. Each year he travels to the U. S. to lead an intensive retreat at DDRC. The following talk is taken from a Silent Illumination retreat held in May 2012.

Observing Versus Reacting

Good morning to everyone. How do you feel this morning? Better? Did you sleep well last night? Not everybody? Okay. So we can bring up again this question of difficulties in practice. The retreat is not very different from life in general. We all pass through this upside down feeling as the retreat goes on and that is a very natural thing. It's normal that we meet favorable and not so favorable conditions in our practice. There is nothing strange or wrong about it. I don't think it is a matter of what it is that we are experiencing; it is much more a matter of how we are experiencing it, don't you agree? I think that's a very important distinction. Because it's natural for us to wish for only nice, pleasant experiences, and also it's natural for us to dislike the so-called bad experiences. This is a very basic pattern in our minds. When we have a nice experience we would like to maintain it somehow. As soon as an unpleasant experience arises we want to escape from it. This is a very basic function of our everyday mind. We grasp at what we like and we reject what we don't like.
What we experience in our daily life is not very much different from what we experience on retreat. What is different is the fact that on retreat we try to be fully aware of all the changes which are happening in our body and in our minds. In normal life we don't do that; our minds are usually occupied with what's going on around us and also occupied with creating pleasurable situations and escaping unpleasurable ones. But on retreat we don't have that possibility. You know, if you are fed up with sitting you can't just go out for coffee, or call your friends on the phone and chat with them. Here, when you are sitting, you sit until you hear the bell, and the bell sometimes seems very far away. So these are retreat conditions, on retreat we are facing ourselves. We don't escape. We don't run for pleasurable things and we don't run away from unpleasurable things. We are just where we are and we are facing these experiences, trying to understand them.
It is extremely important to understand all the experiences which arise in ourselves. If we just react to them whenever they appear, in a very predictable, habitual way, then nothing will change. We shall stay the same. We shall have the same kind of reactions to similar experiences forever.
But instead of blindly, unconsciously reacting to what arises in ourselves, we can turn our minds towards those experiences and look at them very, very closely without reacting. Just observe them, just allow them to come and go in the field of our awareness. In practice this is precisely what we do. Whether it is pleasant or not so pleasant, even when pain arises, we just allow it to appear inthe field of our awareness. Whatever appears we clearly know what it is, and we don't run in panic or we don't grasp at it. Instead of moving towards it or away from it, we just stay and observe. We try to be clearly aware of what it is.

Appreciate Difficulties

This is what is definitely different from our daily life, and this is what practice really means. This is a way in which we can discover things about ourselves, by stopping and deeply looking into ourselves. If we just run here and there escaping from this and grasping at something else, there is no way we can discover who we are, there is no way we can change ourselves.
Of course our life seems to be changing all the time. We're constantly having new experiences and we are tricked by that, thinking that life will change for the better, and of course we are very active in the sense that we are not just allowing experiences to come to us but we are looking for them. But actually nothing is changing on the level of this basic pattern, whatever experiences come we always react in the very same habitual way. This is what imprisons us and precisely because of that we can't get outside of ourselves; we can't become different. If we want real change to happen we have to look at this basic pattern of ours. Whenever good experiences come, let them come, wonderful! When good experiences are gone, wonderful, they are gone. Whatever bad experiences are coming, wonderful! Bad experiences are coming! When they leave us, wonderful! They are leaving us.
This is how we learn about ourselves. This is how we learn what is underneath the surface of ourselves. This is how we go deeper and deeper into what we are, who we really are, by clearly observing and not following our usual reactive behavior. So instead of being reactive, we try to be creative. And in what way are we creative? Precisely in this looking closely, wanting to find out, wanting to see, wanting to discover.
So don't be discouraged with the difficulties you might experience. You should appreciate those difficulties in the same way you appreciate the pleasant things when they appear. And why? Because we should appreciate the practice first of all, and practice contains both of those things. Practice is not just about nice spiritual experiences. Practice is about looking deeply into ourselves and realizing who we are. But we can't look deeply if we are just reacting to whatever appears in our mind; running away or chasing after something.


Body, Mind, Drowsiness

 Going back to difficulties in practice, we could say there are three groups of difficulties which usually appear in meditation. The first one would be everything which could bother us with the body. Then there is the mind group of difficulties which are wandering thoughts, not being able to concentrate, and not being able to apply ourselves fully to the method. Then there is drowsiness; I'm sure you have experienced that already? So these are the three main problems which trouble our practice and it is extremely important that we learn how to deal with them when they appear.
There is one general principle in meditation: whatever is not the method, don't treat it seriously. Everything except your method in practice, you treat as illusions. Whether they are bad experiences or nice experiences, you just look through them, you're looking for the method. Where is the method? You just stay on the method. But I have to say that there are four things which ARE serious and which you have to pay attention to. What are they? First, if you are shaking because of a cold feeling in your body. The second one is if you feel very warm, if you have a temperature. These two things you shouldn't ignore, you should take care of them. The third thing is a very strong headache. If you have a really heavy headache then it's not right to continue with the practice, you have to take care of your headache somehow. The fourth thing is if there is pain going through your left arm upwards towards your heart; that is also something you definitely have to take care of. Everything else you should just treat it as illusory appearances which come and go. You don't pay any special attention to them, you just return to the method and stay with the method.

Dealing with Pain

Most people experience problems with the body. The biggest problem with the body is of course tension and pain. Pain is usually the result of the body being very tense. So how do we deal with that? Well I said it already, it's very simple, treat it as illusions. But that's sometimes very difficult to do, do because pain seems very real, when it's there. How can we say it's an illusion? We can feel it, it's there! But despite that, whenever pain arises it's usually because of tension in the body, or because we are just not used to such long sittings. As we sit for such a long time the muscles start to stretch, and as they stretch they bring this sensation of pain. Whenever that happens, first of all you should ignore it; just go back to the method. But if you can't ignore it, if it becomes overwhelming, then you can turn towards the pain and just observe it for a while. Don't stay with your method any more, instead turn your mind towards the pain and don't run away from it, look at it and come closer to it, try to see what is it. What kind of pain is it? Is it sharp? Is it concentrated? Do you know what color is it? How does it look? Where does it arise? Is it constant or is it pulsating?
Don't give up immediately. If the pain does not subside, if it is still very strong and you can't go back to the method and you can't look at it anymore, then just relax your posture, stretch your legs and allow the pain to go away. Then come back into the sitting posture and continue.
There is not much point in enduring pain. We are not here doing ascetic practices, torturing ourselves. If you are thinking continuously "Oh I have to move, I shouldn't move, I have to move, I shouldn't move..." then you have moved already! Your mind already moved so there is not much point holding this position and being in agony . So just stretch your legs and allow the pain to go and then continue with practice. I'm sure you know there are additional ways of sitting when pain arises; you can just bring your body into this position (demonstrates the Guan Yin pose) and continue with the practice, and of course you can change with the other leg. So there are different ways of dealing with the pain. Knowing this, you can be quite relaxed, knowing that whatever arises, you have a way of using it and dealing with it and learning from it. This makes practice much more polite, but also interesting, it is not just this black and white situation.

Pain, Tension and Relaxation

So this is how we deal with the pain. Of course the nature of pain itself is illusory, there is no such thing as pain. Pain is a feeling which arises out of causes and conditions at a certain point and it does not stay the same; it is continuously changing and then it disappears. When these conditions change it disappears; so there is no one thing called pain. But whenever pain appears, we have this impression that pain won't go away if I don't do anything. So then you start to be involved, you develop all kinds of strategies to avoid this pain and then you start to move your body, you do this, you do that, and you are not practicing! This is not what I said earlier, allowing pain to appear in the field of our awareness and then closely observing it. This is completely different, when you develop different strategies to avoid the pain you are back in this old pattern of yours, of grasping and rejecting and this is what makes the mind very tense.
When the mind is very tense, the body is very tense. When the body is very tense, of course pain is there. We created the conditions for the pain to be there. That's why the best remedy for pain is relaxation. Just completely relax your body and you will relax your mind. What does it mean to relax the mind? We know how to relax the body, what does it mean to relax the mind? We can relax the mind precisely by not grasping and not rejecting; this is what makes the mind relax. When we allow everything to appear and everything to go away, then the mind is relaxed. When the mind is relaxed, the body is relaxed. When the body is relaxed, there is no pain. You can sit for a very, very long time without any pain.

Wandering Thoughts

The second group of difficulties is wandering thoughts. What can we do about wandering thoughts? Nothing, really. We shouldn't really be bothered by them. It is completely natural and normal that wandering thoughts are there. This is just our own thinking mind which we trained so well that it can't stop, it just continues. Basically we shouldn't pay attention to those thoughts. We should just pay attention to our method of practice. If we confront those thoughts, if we create some kind of opposition towards them, then it will just bemore wandering thoughts. It's creating a conflict, and when conflict is there of course emotions arise and we end up in a very terrible inner state. So don't confront your wandering thoughts, don't oppose them, just allow them to be but don't pay attention to them. Consider it to be normal and just pay attention to your method.
You have to develop interest for the method, and our interest in the method should be much greater than our interest in what the wandering thoughts are offering to us. If this is the case, there is no problem, the mind will go in the direction we want it to go. In that way we will be more and more with the method and less and less with our wandering thoughts, and our mental scenery will change. This is extremely important in the practice, that this mental scenery through which we are passing is changing in that way. It's as if we start in cloudy and rainy and stormy weather, and as we continue with our practice the weather is changing. First there is no rain, then no clouds, then the blue sky appears and the sun comes out. This is how this mental scenery can change.
The basic principle in relation to the wandering thoughts is as I already said, not opposing them and not following them. We are ignoring them, in other words. And where do we put our minds? We put it on the method. The method is considered to be the only right thought. All other thoughts are wrong thoughts, however clever they appear, and however stupid they appear (we have the whole spectrum, I'm sure, in what we are thinking.) So just ignore them and go back to the method.


What about drowsiness? That's a very heavy condition. This is how we feel when that condition appears [demonstrates] we just can't open our eyes. Our eyelids seem to be very heavy and our mind is just sinking and sinking and sinking and sinking. In one moment we are awake and then we fall asleep, and then before our head falls on the floor we jerk back again [demonstrates] continuously like this. Sometimes the whole period can be this way; this is really exhausting. There are different ways to deal with this. First of all you have to make your posture very straight; you have to straighten your spine. Then you have to take a few deep breaths in order to bring the oxygen to the brain. And you shouldn't have closed eyes when you are sitting, your eyes should be half open, looking down at a 45° angle but not looking through them. We keep our eyes open in order for light to come in, not in order to look around.
If all of this doesn't work you can think about impermanence, you can think about the fact that the retreat is passing very fast and it is not very appropriate to spend it sleeping in a sitting. Or you can use a little bit more drastic measures; you can imagine that you are sitting on the edge of a cliff, something like where I am sitting here [on a high teacher's chair] can you imagine if I fall from here? You can imagine something dangerous like that, and that sometimes can keep us awake. If nothing works—this is what Master Sheng Yen usually says—then just go and sleep. Because really sometimes nothing works; we can be so exhausted physically that we just can't keep ourselves awake and then of course we need to rest. You know we have to give our body what it needs.

Getting Stuck

It is very easy to get stuck on something in our practice. Our mind is used to always being stuck. It can be something so simple as for example, swallowing; if you think that something is wrong with your swallowing, with the saliva, then you can be bothered so much that your whole practice can be spoiled. Almost insignificant things can attract our attention and we can be stuck on them and not be able to proceed harmoniously with our practice.
Interviews are very important in the context of retreat, because in our conversation you can free yourself from those problems and your practice can develop harmoniously. I am encouraging you, these remaining days of the retreat, that whenever you have a problem you just come for an interview. In this way we shall be able to work together, and I am sure we will be able to somehow overcome all the problems which appear.
We have to work with ourselves on retreat, we have to work with whatever we find when we are facing ourselves. Whatever we find, this is our working material, it is not something to dislike, it is not something to suppress or hate or form some kind of a negative relationship towards. After all, this is US, you know? Whatever we face in our practice, this is who we are and there is no point in running away from it. We can't run away from it. However difficult that can be sometimes (because we can find ourselves in quite a difficult state, physically and mentally) there is no point in running away from it. Quite the opposite. We have to face ourselves. We have to find a way to deal with ourselves.
What is good about it, even in the case of very difficult situations, is that there is nothing fixed in ourselves. And this is something really wonderful, that there is nothing fixed and unchanging in ourselves. Whatever situation we are in at the moment is something which we have created, and whatever is created can also be uncreated. This is why I give this constant reminder in our practice that you shouldn't worry about anything.

Piling Bad on Top of Bad

When we are worrying about the state that we are in, when we oppose the state we are in, we are actually creating another bad state on the top of the one which is already there. You see that? You can feel very bad physically, or you can be in emotional distress, but once you realize this and then start to hate yourself because of it, that is another bad mental state on the top of the one already present. It is as if someone shot you with an arrow and then you shoot another arrow into yourself because you were hit. You see? It's completely pointless. But this is what we very often do to ourselves. Something goes wrong and then we hate ourselves because of it. There is no use in doing that at all; we just make our situation worse and worse. Sometimes it's difficult to get out of this. It's like a vicious cycle which we enter into without even knowing how got there. And if we don't know how we created all this of course it's difficult to uncreate these states and situations.
So what do we do? I already said at the beginning of this talk that whatever state we find ourselves in, we should appreciate it. This is our own creation, and we should appreciate that. At the same time we are appreciating it, in the midst of this situation we have to relax. Relaxing means actually accepting whatever is there. So, physically we relax, mentally we accept. We say, "Okay this is the state I am in. Fine. This is who I am at this particular moment. This is the result of my living which I am facing now." And of course we have to accept that.

Changing the World

By appreciating what we find, by relaxing and by accepting, we create a completely different internal atmosphere which is of such a quality that this state of body and mind, whatever it was, starts to melt down, starts to change. This attitude is extremely important, an attitude of appreciation, of acceptance, of fully relaxing in the midst of our own situation in which we find ourselves. If we can do that, the situation will drastically change. And once we see that our situation is changing, we develop confidence, we develop trust in ourselves and in the method of practice. Then we become very enthusiastic about engaging ourselves more deeply into the practice. You know, the whole world changes.
So I would like you to take seriously these words and try to apply them, try to apply this in your sittings and also outside of the sittings. This is extremely important, to accept ourselves, to appreciate the fact that we are in a position to face that, and to accept that, and to change that.

Normally in life people are not in such a position. Either they never met the Dharma or they live such busy lives that they don't have space to reflect on themselves in this way. Whereas all of us, we have met the Dharma and we are on retreat, we can actually use Dharma in order to understand ourselves. This is something which we have to appreciate If we think about these things in this way it would be very natural for us to appreciate this. This attitude is extremely important. It could be explained in a different word like "mood"; we have to change this mood in which we are practicing. This attitude definitely changes the mood and altogether we change the whole atmosphere in which we are practicing. Then everything which does not correspond with this new attitude and new mood just disappears, melts down, goes away.

Fertile Soil

This is how pain can leave our body. This is how wandering thoughts can leave our minds. This is how difficult emotions can just disappear. The presence of all these things is telling us that the atmosphere and the mood in which we are practicing is conducive for those things to be present. If you put the seed of some plant into land which is not fertile, it won't grow. If something is missing, water or light or warmth, if any of those conditions are missing the seed will die out, it won't give birth to the plant. For our minds, this attitude and mood is like a soil which is favorable to certain kinds of seeds; if it is conducive to the seeds of pain and wandering thoughts and negative emotional turbulence then these are the things which will grow.
So the first thing we can do is change our attitude and the mood in which we are practicing. This means of course we have to use and apply our method. Once we appreciate our whole situation and once we relax and accept ourselves, then we have to put our mind on the method. These are the basic steps with which we can change our situation, and open a completely new perspective, and build up confidence and faith in ourselves. We can see that what seems to be impossible, becomes possible and we are able to do it. In this way we develop faith in the method, in the teaching, in the path itself. This is why we are here. All the time we have in this retreat is for us to do precisely that. There is nothing else you have to do here. You don't have a busy schedule, meeting with these people meeting, with those people, doing this job, traveling here, traveling there, nothing. We are here all day long in one place doing only one thing, following these steps.

Judging Progress and Looking for Results

When we work on a method there are several things which are very important to remember. The first thing is that you shouldn't judge your progress. You shouldn't judge yourself continuously wondering "Am I doing good? Am I doing wrong? Where am I now? What stage is this?" If you find out that you are not on the stage you think you should be, you'll be disappointed. And of course you can judge yourself wrongly most of the time. Any kind of judgment is actually wandering thoughts, which just take us away from the method and from the practice itself. So don't judge yourself. Just practice for the sake of practice. Another thing is of course expectations; you can expect a lot from your practice. You took ten days off in order to come on this retreat so it's natural that you expect some results. But if you start to think about the results you will be very disappointed, because whenever you think about the results they never come. It is as simple as that, they never come. Any expectations and thoughts about the future are just ways of being absent, being not present right here and now.
This is something you have to be aware of: you have to see when you are practicing whether you are continuously commenting on your practice, continuously judging yourself, comparing this sitting with that sitting, this retreat with another retreat and so on. All these kind of activities are just wandering thoughts and something which separates us from the method. Thinking about the results is also something which separates us from the method, and this is not the way to use the method.
In using the method we have to clear our minds of those extra things which we tolerate because they seem to be somehow connected with the method. We may think, "If I am looking at whether I am practicing well or not well, that's part of the method, so it's a good thing to do." Also it may seem that, if we are thinking about the results of practice, we're not thinking about being somewhere on the beach enjoying ourselves, we're actually engaged in the practice, so it seems a good thing to do. But actually it's not. It is something which separates us from practice. And when we realize we are doing it, we have to put it down. Just clear your mind and allow only the method to be in your mind. When we are following breath, it has to be just breathing, nothing else but breathing. There is nothing there to judge. All these thoughts about how you were doing before and how you are doing now, they are not breaths; they are not breathing. So instead of thinking, you have to experience the breath. Instead of conceptualizing about it, you just go directly to it and experience it, becoming one with it. This is very important.

Circling the Mountain

Another thing which is important about how we use the method is that we have to somehow adapt the method to our own state. You may ask, "But isn't that judgment? If I have to adapt the method to my present abilities I have to judge." But it is one thing to be aware where you are with your method, and another thing to be continuously thinking about it. Of course we know where we are when we practice, we know whether our mind is wandering or whether our mind is on the method. But we don't need to add some kind of qualification to that; we don't need to interpret it or start to think about it especially. This is just, the mind is on the method or it is not on the method, and you know it. If your mind wanders very often from the method then you might go a step back. If you are following the breath you can go back to counting breath; use something stronger which will enable you to stay with the breath. Or if that doesn't work you can go back to just relaxing the body, and once you are relaxed you can go back to following the breath.
But again this doesn't mean that you change your method all the time; because if you are changing the method all the time you're going nowhere. It's like circling under the mountain. There are many roads leading to the top; when you take one road it seems difficult so you go back and take another road and that road is also difficult, so you come back and you take a third road, and you are circling around at the base of the mountain and not going anywhere near the top. It is essential that we stick to our method; but what I am suggesting now is just a slight adaptation to the circumstances which are changing, which can be changed by applying ourselves correctly to it.
So what is the hardest of these things I just described? What do you think is the most difficult to do? Attitude? Appreciation? Acceptance? Working on the method? Start in this order, it's very important that you start in this order. Just change the way you look at your practice and that will help you to accept, that will help you to relax. As when you relax and accept, you're already there; you've arrived. You know you are in the present moment; your breath is there. It's a very natural progression and will bring a lot of joy in your practice if you follow these steps. Joy is also an essential ingredient of the soil of our minds.
To close this talk I will just remind you of what I said at the very beginning: appreciate your practice. Whether it brings pleasant experiences, whether it brings unpleasant experiences, appreciate your practice, appreciate the difficulties and stay with your method. 

(This article was tittled Acceptance and Appreciation in Chan Magazine 2013 Autumn.)