Challenges in Meditation


By Jack Lawlor, True Direction



Among other things, sitting meditation is a form of relaxation.

When we look at how Thich Nhat Hanh (“Thay”) sits, it does not look like he is straining!

Thay invites us to begin each sitting meditation with what he describes as “mouth yoga”, that is to smile!

Sitting meditation, when practiced with consistency, is relaxing and can become a good friend!


At the center of all Thay’s teachings is the simple enjoyment and joy that arises by being attentive to the sensation of each in-breath and each out-breath.

We are invited to simply sense and feel each inhalation, each exhalation.

We can do so by observing the movement of the breath through our nostrils, across our lips, or by the rise and fall of the area between our lungs and our stomach: what the Japanese call breathing from the “hara” and others call “abdominal breathing” or even “baby breathing”, because infants demonstrate it perfectly looking up at you from their changing table!

Sometimes stress builds enormous tension across our neck and shoulders and constricts pliability in the vicinity of our lungs.  Enjoying a few cleansing breaths after our “mouth yoga” and before the remainder of our round of sitting meditation helps us become more relaxed, at ease, and centered in the breath.  What is a cleansing breath? It’s a skillful means to remind us to enjoy the full capacity of the lungs during our sitting meditation.  Doing so leads naturally to a sense of well-being.  Early in our meditation, we deliberately enjoy a few exhalations that are longer than our inhalations.  Or we might we instead deliberately breathe a few deep inhalations as we sense our lungs fill as if they are a pliant toy balloon, and then enjoy a thorough exhalation, perhaps a bit longer than a normal exhalation.  We can do this quietly on our cushions.  We only enjoy a few such cleansing breaths before returning to merging our attention in the breath, allowing the rhythm and depth of the breath change as it pleases.  Cleansing breaths help us focus on our breath early in a round of meditation and provide a sense of centeredness and peace that can last throughout the day.

If we don’t assume that attentively merging our attention in the sensation of breathing is boring, it won’t be!  Experiencing the natural changes in the length, depth and rhythm of the breath is actually fascinating.  Remember the “Curious George” children’s books about the playful little monkey visiting civilization?  Develop “Curious George” mind about the sensation of breathing and enjoy!


It is natural to free-associate for a while upon taking our place atop meditation cushions.  Thay likens what sometimes happens in our minds to the strands of orange pulp in the fresh orange juice stirred inside an electric blender, resulting in cloudy juice at first, but which later becomes clear and delicious.  So we shouldn’t be too judgmental or impatient.  If we sit, smile, and just merge our attention in the rise and fall of the breath after practicing mouth yoga and a few cleansing breaths, we too become clear, lucid and delicious.

If recurring patterns of thought keep visiting, don’t get angry with them.  Smile at them, watch how they arise, abide for a while, link themselves to something else and fade away.  Say good-bye to them with a smile and return to the breath.  We may have to enjoy this exercise more than once (possibly dozens of times) in a single sitting.

Dharma Teacher Mitchell Ratner has recommended another practice for consistent ruminations or worries that won’t benefit much from further deep looking atop our meditation cushions.  We’ve all been to bookstores where we’ve been invited to leave our backpack or brief case with the cashier in return for a bright clothespin or numbered ticket, which we can use to reclaim our belongings after our visit to the store is completed.  If we feel obsessed with a concern to the point that we are thinking too much and not relaxing at all during our sitting meditation, Mitchell suggests promising to yourself that you will leave your conundrum at the door of the meditation hall, allowing you to rest while you practice sitting meditation, and then take up the mental challenge at the conclusion of your sitting when you leave the meditation hall.  Your dilemma may still be there waiting for you, but the nourishment of sitting meditation will help you look more deeply into it than before!

If our physical restlessness is interfering with sitting meditation, it can be very helpful to do something a little surprising.  In Thay’s tradition, as well as most meditation traditions, it is customary to first enjoy sitting meditation before the first round of walking meditation.  If physical restlessness is high, you might experiment with enjoying walking meditation first!  It is remarkable how a round of walking meditation can transform the physical restlessness sometimes encountered in sitting meditation.


The best advice to transform sleepiness atop our cushions is to re-prioritize the use of our time creatively in order to get more sleep!

Other practices can help.

Early morning, pre-dawn meditation can be very sound and deep.  The world is still, and it is easy to immerse ourselves in that stillness, being aware of the emerging colors and birdsong as the sun rises.

A lovely outdoor walk, invigorating our bodies, can be a wonderful prelude to a lucid, alert round of evening sitting meditation.

Sometimes, we are nonetheless sleepy.  Our normal starting or “base” position for sitting meditation is to sit with our eyes half-opened and out of focus.

If we find that we are sleepy, we might sit with our eyes more open than usual, admitting more stimulating light to help nourish our alertness.  Conversely, if our mind is later racing, we can experiment with gently lowering our eyelids or even shutting our eyes.


It is not so good to have super-high expectations about meditation practice based on our quick review of a book or two.

It is better to take refuge in the most simple elements of breath practice, some of which are described above.

If we stay close to these basics of practice and enjoy their simplicity, our expectations and judgments about meditation will fall away naturally by themselves.

Later in the day, hours after morning meditation, a challenge will arise by surprise.  Rather than react instinctively to the provocation, let’s say, in a meeting, you will find yourself silently taking refuge in the breath before responding in any way.  A friend or co-worker may even comment: “How did you do that?  How did you avoid taking the bait on that provocation? That subject normally creates great commotion whenever it’s discussed!”  When you hear unsolicited comments like that, you know that your enjoyment of the basics of meditation-based mindfulness practice is taking root.

There are times, however, when we don’t receive feedback like this and doubts arise in us about the wisdom of meditation.

It is so helpful to practice meditation in a group, as a Sangha, rather than alone.  We are social beings.  When we enjoy sitting meditation together, it may not appear that we are doing much.  But our very presence authenticates and supports one another’s individual efforts, and our doubts about meditation begin to fade.

Also, there is great merit to finding a way to practice meditation with daily consistency.  Doing so, we realize how we are slowly becoming less reactive, more calm and centered, more capable of pausing and determining what to do and what not to do in any given situation.  A kind of faith in the form of quiet, earned confidence arises.  Doubts fade, although we should always be alert to misperceptions about what is going on within us and around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Pragmatic Approach to Looking Deeply

Based on the Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Recognizing, Embracing, Transforming)

During our sitting meditation, because we have closed the doors of our sensory input in order to stop listening, looking and reasoning, the internal formations that are buried deep in us have the opportunity to reveal themselves in the form of feelings or images that manifest in our conscious mind.  To begin with, there may be just a feeling of anxiety, fear or unpleasantness, whose cause we cannot see.  We have to shine the light of mindfulness on it and be ready to see this feeling.

When this feeling begins to show its face and to gather strength and become more intense, we may feel it robs us of all our peace, joy and ease.  We may not want to be in contact with it anymore.  We may not want to continue with the meditation, and we may say that we’re sleepy and would prefer to meditate some other time.  In modern psychology, this is called resistance.  Deep down we are afraid to bring into our conscious mind the feelings of pain that are buried within us, because they’ll make us suffer.

There are people who practice sitting meditation many hours a day, but they do not really dare to face and invite their feelings of pain into their conscious mind.  They deceive themselves that these feelings aren’t important and that they give their attention to other subjects of meditation — impermanence, selflessness, the sound of one hand clapping, or the reason Bodhidharma came to the West.  This isn’t to suggest that these subjects are unimportant, but they should be considered in the light of our real problems in order to be authentic subjects for meditation practice.

We don’t practice mindfulness in Buddhism in order to repress our feelings, but as a way of looking after our feelings, being their sponsor in an affectionate, nonviolent way. 

When we’re able to maintain mindfulness, we’re not carried away by or drowned by our feelings or the conflicts within ourselves.  We nourish and maintain mindfulness through conscious breathing and try to become aware of our internal formations and conflicts as they may arise.  We receive them with love as a mother takes her child into her arms.  “Mindfulness is present, and I know that I have enough strength to be in contact with the knots in me”.  In this kind of environment, our internal formations will manifest as feelings and images in our minds that we can contact and identify fully and deeply.

Without judgment, blame or criticism for having these feelings or images, we just observe, identify, and accept them in order to see their source and their true nature.

If there’s pain, we feel the pain.  If there’s sadness, we are sad.  If there’s anger, then we are angry, but our anger is accompanied by mindfulness.  We don’t lose ourselves in the pain, the sadness or the anger, but we calm them down.  Even if we haven’t seen the roots of the internal formations, the fact that we can greet our pain, our sadness and our anger in mindfulness already causes our internal knots to lose some of their strength.  Thanks to our vigilant observation, eventually we’ll see their roots and transform them.  The teaching on the Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness on how to be in direct contact with our feelings and invite them up to manifest on the surface of our consciousness is wonderfully effective.  The practitioner can work with difficult internal formations with the help of a teacher or co-practitioner. The teacher and the co-practitioner, because of their mindful observation, can help point out… the manifestations in the internal formations that lie deep in …consciousness.

From pp. 173-174 of “Awakening of the Heart” 


There is a Buddhist teaching found in the Sallatha Sutta, known as The Arrow. It says if an arrow hits you, you will feel pain in that part of your body where the arrow hit; and then if a second arrow comes and strikes exactly at the same spot, the pain will not be only double, it will become at least ten times more intense.

The unwelcome things that sometimes happen in life—being rejected, losing a valuable object, failing a test, getting injured in an accident—are analogous to the first arrow. They cause some pain. The second arrow, fired by our own selves, is our reaction, our storyline, and our anxiety. All these things magnify the suffering. Many times, the ultimate disaster we’re ruminating upon hasn’t even happened. We may worry, for example, that we have cancer and that we’re going to die soon. We don’t know, and our fear of the unknown makes the pain grow even bigger.

The second arrow may take the form of judgment (“how could I have been so stupid?”), fear (“what if the pain doesn’t go away?”), or anger (“I hate that I’m in pain. I don’t deserve this!”). We can quickly conjure up a hell realm of negativity in our minds that multiplies the stress of the actual event, by ten times or even more. Part of the art of suffering well is learning not to magnify our pain by getting carried away in fear, anger, and despair. We build and maintain our energy reserves to handle the big sufferings; the little sufferings we can let go.

If you lose your job, of course it’s a normal response to feel fear and anxiety. It is true that in most cases to be out of work is a suffering; and there is real danger attached if you don’t have enough to eat or can’t afford necessary medicine. But you don’t need to make this suffering worse by spinning stories in your head that are much worse than the reality. Some people in this situation may think “I’m no good at this or that,” or “I’ll never get another job,” or “I failed my family.” It’s important to remember that everything is impermanent. A suffering can arise—or can work itself out—for anyone at any moment.

Instead of throwing good energy away on condemning yourself or obsessing over what catastrophes might be lurking around the corner, you can simply be present with the real suffering that is right in front of you, with what is happening right now. Mindfulness is recognizing what is there in the present moment. Suffering is there, yes; but what is also there is that you are still alive: “Breathing in, I know I’m alive.” Your eyes still work: “Breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes. Breathing out, I smile to my eyes.”

To have eyes in good condition is a wonderful thing. Because you have eyes in good condition, there’s a paradise of shapes and colors available to you at every moment. There are those among us who have gone blind. They’ve lost that endlessly changing kaleidoscope of shapes and colors; and what they want more than anything is to have that faculty back again. You only need to open your eyes to be in touch with that kaleidoscope. It’s a paradise, if you only stop to notice and appreciate it. If you have eyes in good condition, just open them and enjoy what you see. Happiness is possible immediately—even if not everything is perfect.

When you look at the person you love, if he or she is absorbed in anxiety, you can help that person to get out. “Darling, do you see the sunset? Do you see the spring coming?” This is mindfulness. Mindfulness is for making us aware of what is happening now. Not only are there always conditions of happiness present in me, but they are also all around me.


Often, it seems there just isn’t time to sit.

But there are creative ways to adjust our schedules.

Let’s say we aspire to sit 20 minutes each day, or more, if possible.

Twenty minutes is shorter than a situation comedy or the time it takes to read a second newspaper.  There must be ways to prioritize!

There are other creative options.

Study the rhythms of life in your household.

What if you were to enjoy pre-dawn meditation?  Or late evening meditation?  Would anyone be disturbed?  Are your body rhythms a good match for sitting in meditation either late in the day or late in the day?

There are other options for those of us in busy households.  Many churches are open throughout the day.  You may be surprised how many lay people take advantage of the silence of largely empty churches at mid-day, often before or after a short noon church service.  You can enjoy silent sitting atop the church pews.

In good weather, opportunities to enjoy sitting meditation outdoors abound!  Be creative!  Pre-dawn meditation outdoors on a deck is a lovely way to be one with nature and experience our lucidity grow with the light of dawn.


Only a few decades ago, there were few books offering instruction in meditation.  Now there are almost too many to read!

We may find ourselves trying to read many, many of them.

How do we sort out all this advice?

In the midst of so much advice, it would help to stay close to the basics of practice in a way that infuses our daily life with mindfulness, enabling us to be responsive to the person in front of us! 

Early in my practice, I developed a helpful rule of thumb:  I would not on any given day spend more time reading about meditation that I enjoyed that day on my meditation cushion!

Meanwhile be patient with our efforts to try to integrate what we’re read in books and what we’ve encountered in participating with various meditation traditions.

If these efforts don’t help you be more mindful, concentrated and insightful, you might want to make a few creative adjustments to integrating so much information!


With a little time and patience, it is not too difficult to become comfortable with sitting meditation on a cushion.  If sitting on a cushion remains uncomfortable, most of suggestions below apply to sitting on a chair as well, with a few additional suggestions below.

It is helpful to sit with our back straight.  The upper spine reaches upward like a jack pine tree toward the sky. However, we honor the natural curve in the lumbar region in our lower spine.

It is helpful to sit on the front third of the meditation cushion, which helps tilt the pelvis downward, helping us place our knees on the floor for stability.

If we are seated on a chair, it is also helpful to sit on the front portion of the chair with the upper part of our spine straight and not dependent on the chair’s backrest.  Relying on the backrest, especially in a cushioned lounge chair, may induce sleep.

If it is too hard to sit in a full lotus position, many find the “Burmese” posture helpful.  We sit on our cushions and place one calf next to the other, rather than sit in a full lotus with each calf crossing the other.  A key advantage to the “Burmese” posture is that our lower legs do to not intersect, which is what causes physical discomfort for so many.  After a short period of experimenting with the Burmese posture, measured in a few days or weeks, many people find the Burmese posture quite comfortable.

If we are sitting on a chair, it is helpful to sit with our feet shoulder-length apart, with the foot of our soles on the ground.

There is no need to hold our shoulders up; doing so will add to tension across the top of the shoulders and across the back of the neck.  Let the shoulders rest naturally.

Some meditators let their arms drape naturally and place their hands lightly on their thighs or knees.

Others place their hands gently into a lotus position, with one handing resting in the palm of the other with the thumbs gently touching, as though they are holding a thin sheet of paper.  If we are experiencing unrecognized tensions, our palms may become sweaty and grip one another rather than rest together in a relaxed way.  If we are sleepy and don’t recognize it, the palms and hands may stray from each other and fall to our sides.

Be creative with your posture and avoid sitting in sharp pain.  Don’t continue to sit in such pain; slowly and kindly adjust your posture quietly, in mindfulness of each movement.  If you feel uncomfortable about your posture but would like to spend more time in sitting meditation nonetheless, it is lovely to enjoy rounds of walking meditation between rounds of sitting meditation.  Doing so revitalizes our circulation, relaxes our bones and muscles, and enables us to enjoy additional sitting if we’d like!