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Hindrances Within Mindfulness Meditation


Traditionally there are five main hindrances to the development of concentration within the meditation practice: attraction, aversion, mental sluggishness, restlessness and doubt. They certainly are hindrances to meditation if our focus is on development of one-pointed concentration. Since the five hindrances are the meditation object within MIDL it is not appropriate to call them hindrances to meditation but rather characteristics of distraction to be observed and understood. This is the way that we approach hindrances to our meditation practice when they arise within MIDL. Submit Your Question

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The Five Hindrances in MIDL

Your Question: If I understand it right, in pure concentration techniques we hold one object in attention and come back to the meditation object when we are distracted. To switch to mindfulness meditation we stop concentrating on one object and start investigating the five hindrances meditation as a mindfulness meditation object. Is this correct understanding?

Stephen Procter: In a pure concentration meditation practice for tranquillity you take one meditation object and ignore all distractions. This suppresses the five hindrances to meditation through the development of one-pointed concentration and develops the perception of permanence as a basis for tranquillity and Jhana.

In MIDL mindfulness meditation you develop initial fixed concentration to temporarily suppress the five hindrances to meditation in order to bring about clarity of awareness. You then release your concentration on your meditation object, allowing the five hindrances to arise and use your meditation object as a reference point from which to observe when your attention moves. In this way you develop momentary concentration and the perception of impermanence as a basis of developing Wisdom. The five hindrances to meditation in this case are not hindrances to meditation but rather characteristics of distraction to be observed and understood. They are the content of the practice.

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My Posture Collapses

Your Question: My spine tends to slump as I relax within this meditation and I usually have to straighten it every few minutes. Sometimes I have let it go and end up in a seated forward bend which is okay as it’s fairly comfortable. So should I let my spine slump or straighten it as necessary?

Stephen Procter: Slumping of the spine while seated is based on alignment and balance. The first thing to check: "Is the top of your pelvis tilted forward or backwards?" If the top of your pelvis is tilted backwards then your lower spine will 'round' and your posture will collapse. The top of the pelvis should be tilted forward, if flexibility stops this then sitting towards the front of a raised meditation cushion or a kneeling stool can help. The general rule is the lower the flexibility in the hips the higher the cushion needs to be.

The second thing to check is your shoulders and lower ribs: "Are your shoulders rounded forward and your lower rib cage collapsing inwards?" This is about balance, when your shoulders round forward your posture will collapse as you will no longer be balancing on the spine. To make an adjustment first push your shoulders forwards, then shrug them up, then bring them back and drop them down. They will now lock the shoulders back into place without effort, notice how your lower ribs now open outwards. This is how you correct this part of your upper posture.

The third thing to check is your head: "Is your chin tucked under slightly, is your head forward or balanced on your neck?" We develop habitual postures of slumping our head forward throughout the day, particularly with mobile phones and computers. These habits come into the meditation when our muscles relax and the tension is no longer supporting the neck.

When you take your meditation posture align your body using the first two adjustments - pelvis - shoulders, this will balance your spine on your pelvis. Now gently play with the balance of your head on your neck until it aligns, balanced on your spine. Tuck your chin under lightly, stretching your neck and picture the top of your head stretching towards the ceiling.

When my posture was continuously collapsing my teacher guided me to make the balance of my meditation posture my meditation object. I used the balance within my seated posture as my meditation object for a few weeks during intensive meditation practice, mindfully adjusting my posture to find perfect balance. If you were in my meditation class and approached me with this question I would also recommend that you make mindfulness of your posture your meditation object. This is part of mindfulness of body.

I was taught that there are no hindrances to mindfulness meditation, just areas of investigation to turn my attention towards. Approaching it in this way the mental factors of investigation, mindfulness and concentration will develop as will the balance within your meditation posture .

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Meditating With Noise

Your Question: Thank you for your teachings. I need to find a calm and peaceful place to meditate, I don't know where, since I live on a crowded city and my house is full of noise.

Stephen Procter: If you cannot find a quiet place to meditate you can learn to meditate with noise and busyness around you. At home choose one place to meditate and use it just for that, it may be on a chair or in the corner of your room. Once you have chosen this place try to stay with it as over time your mind will identify this spot with becoming peaceful. Another good place in a crowded city may be sitting in your car, arrive where you are going 10 minutes early and use that time to meditate, or you can even do it while travelling on a train or waiting for something.

If there is noise around you when meditating then follow these specific steps in order to ground your awareness.

1. After taking your meditation posture start to tune into the general experience of just ‘being here’; heaviness of your body, touch and any sounds around you.

2. Allow your awareness to go out towards the sounds. Gently hear them as they come into you but don't listen to them. Become aware of the flow of change within the sound, allowing it to hold your attention. If you do this you will notice how sound comes and goes. Holding your awareness on the flow of change within sound will make sound your object of meditation. Focussing on this flow will help to develop your concentration allowing your mind to settle.

3. Next bring awareness into the experience of your meditation posture; becoming aware of warmth or coolness, holding them gently in mind. Also starting to become aware of touch, touch of your hands, and pressure of your body; the general heaviness of your body as it relaxes.

4. Once your mind has settled your breathing will appear to you as movement within your body. You can now gently follow the experience of breathing within your body and begin mindfulness of breathing.

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Distracted During Meditation

Your Question: Hi Stephen, why do you have such long periods of silence during your guided meditations? Other guided meditations use constant guiding or music to help me stay more present. When I follow your guided meditation and there is silence I find it hard not become distracted.

Stephen Procter: If there are no gaps of silence within a guided meditation then it is not a really a meditation, it is just another form of distraction; entertainment to take our attention away from difficulties within our life. To gain full benefit from a guided meditation there needs to be periods of silence in which we apply effort towards being continuously aware of our meditation object, noticing any movement of our attention away from it. In this way the mental factors of investigation, mindfulness and concentration will develop.

If our attention is being held by an external source such as music or constant talking during the guided meditation, then it may feel pleasurable to be distracted for a period of time but it will not strengthen our mental faculties or have any impact on our life. Through observing any distraction within our mind during the periods of silence we develop understanding about the mind that will lead to being free from it. It is important to understand that distraction itself is not separate from mindfulness meditation; distraction is the content mindfulness meditation.

The gaps of silence have been put within the 52 MIDL Mindfulness Trainings so that you will become distracted, so that your attention will wander. So that you will have an opportunity to develop your meditation practice.

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Losing Awareness During Meditation

Your Question: Lately, I've been falling asleep in meditation (while sitting) by going so deep that I actually lose consciousness. Is that bad? Anyway I feel very refreshed and recharged and inspired when I "come back" It feels like connecting to the Source.

Stephen Procter: Mindfulness meditation is a balancing act of too much and too little effort. If we put in too much effort then energy levels increase and we become restless. Too little effort then energy levels drop, awareness sinks and we fall into a dream-like state. The deeper the concentration during meditation, the finer the balance of energy becomes. It is like walking on a tight rope with a balancing pole, as concentration develops the rope we are walking on becomes thinner and harder to balance on. The ends of the balancing pole are effort and no effort, the middle of the pole is mindfulness. Mindfulness knows what each end of the pole is doing. Our skill is to be aware of imbalances and adjust our effort between restlessness and sluggishness.

What you are experiencing is a dulling of the knowing factor of awareness. During seated meditation as concentration develops it calms the mental activity of the mind, but it is also possible to over-calm the 'knowing' factor of awareness at the same time. This over-calming of awareness causes energy levels to drop too low, leading to awareness becoming dull. This will cause you to mentally sink into a sleep like state with little awareness of anything. This mental state within itself is very pleasant and can seem profound, but is a trap for many meditators. It is important to remember that development of mindfulness meditation is not directed towards dulling of awareness – knowing less – but rather towards an increase in clarity of awareness – knowing more clearly.

For your meditation practice to deepen you need to put more effort towards remembering to be aware of being aware of your meditation object. In this way you will cultivate mindfulness, increase the knowing function of awareness. If your mind habitually sinks into this dulling of awareness then make the sinking mind, the lack of mental clarity of the knowing function of your mind, your meditation object. Mindfully observe this lack of mental clarity, the slipping of awareness between knowing and not knowing. Become intimate with its elemental quality, of its close relationship to delusion and the conditional process of 'sinking' itself.

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Numbness In My Head

Your Question: I have an issue and would be grateful if you could give me a possible answer please, I get head numbness often and it is frustrating? It does pass but it’s a daily occurrence at the moment, I get this even when I am calm and feeling ok.

Stephen Procter: Lets separate out this question and help to clarify it for you.

1. Frustration: Firstly, as a MIDL meditator it is important to understand that numbness is an experience and that frustration is a defensive reaction of your mind towards the experience. They are separate.

Your task as a meditator is to mindfully observe and soften / relax into any identification / participation with any defensive postures of your mind. This creates your path in mindfulness meditation.

2. Head Numbness: What you mean by this is not clear to me so I will break it into parts.

a) Physical Numbness: If you are experiencing physical numbness in areas of your head you should see a doctor. As a meditator you should still soften into your relationship of not liking the experience of this numbness.

b) Mentally Numb / Dull in Daily Life: This is probably due to habitualised stress / chest breathing. Short, shallow chest breathing will cause you to hyperventilate. Retraining of diaphragmatic breathing in MIDL 3/52 twice daily over a period of 4 weeks will bring back mental clarity.

c) Mentally Numb / Dull only in Seated Meditation: This is due to the 3rd hindrance to meditation, Sloth & Torpor. All medtators experience this at some stage as a development of the path.

This mental sinking occurs when concentration develops and the effort towards being clearly aware is too low. It is an energy imbalance that causes the mental faculties, including awareness to 'sink'.

This is usually due to an over-calming of the knowing factor of awareness. Effort towards being more clearly aware of your current experience plus investigation of the 'sinking mind' itself will gradually bring energy levels back into balance.

*** Again, the feeling of frustration is separate from this. Frustration is a defensive posture within your mind that arises when things aren't going the way you want them to.

You believe that numbness shouldn't be there and has nothing to do with meditation. But it is there, so it should be there, and it is part of your meditation path.

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Belief and Meditation

Your Question:I have heard you say that many of our beliefs are beyond the 'range of experience of a human being'. If this is true must I abandon my beliefs to practice meditation or is it alright to maintain them?

Stephen Procter: Mindfulness meditation is only concerned with that which we can know through personal experience through the six senses. As you have said many of our beliefs are beyond the range of our senses so can not be know through actual experience. Even thought this is so you do not need to abandon any of your beliefs in order to progress in your meditation. This is because MIDL mindfulness meditation is not concerned with what we believe but rather our relationship towards our beliefs.

It is not our beliefs but rather our relationship towards them that is wholesome or unwholesome; that combines or separates. It is within the thoughts, speech and actions that arise from our relationship to our beliefs that wholesome and unwholesome are found. Belief in this world is necessary for us to function in a healthy way with our family, friends and society.

Some level of belief is needed for us to function within this world; attachment to our beliefs being true is not.

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Concentration Collapses

Your Question: There is a relentless obstacle for as long as I can remember in the practice. Whenever I start working with a new method, for a period of time the quality of meditation (or concentration) increases as a skill is being perfected and reaches a certain depth. But then not after very long it starts to decline in quality and five hindrances and distractions becomes more and more frequent guests before work starts bearing more tangible results. Maybe you could help with your experience on mechanics of this situation and how to best approach it?

Stephen Procter: The mind is habitual and records anything that is repeated for a period of time. This recording is a survival mechanism that allows the mind to lower the amount of resources it uses and to ‘fade’ that which it already knows to be safe so that it can notice when something new appears within that landscape; like a tiger. Once faded we no longer see what is in front of us; habit then takes over by observing and reacting for us.

You are experiencing this survival process. When you first start a new MIDL training your mind is entertained for a while and finds joy in doing something new, in the background it is recording it into habit. Once recorded it starts to ‘fade’ that which it already knows, this fading collapses mindfulness which leads to the collapse of concentration and the habitual arising of the five hindrances.

You have been given different ways to structure your attention in your MIDL Mindfulness Training specifically so that you can notice your habitual relationships towards what you are experiencing. In other words the decline in quality of your meditation, the five hindrances and distractions are not hindrances to your meditation practice; they are the content.

It is important to first understand that the development of concentration during meditation is not necessarily a sign of the quality of the meditation, it is just a sign of the development of concentration. Just because it feels good does not mean that it is a deeper meditation practice.

When the 'quality' of your meditation practice starts to ‘decline’ then you should make the 'decline in the quality' of the meditation practice your meditation object. When the five hindrances and distraction become more frequent guests, then you should make the five hindrances and distraction your meditation object.

The tangible results as you refer to them are not found in your ability to concentrate but in your 'relationship' to the ‘quality of your meditation’, to the five hindrances and to distractions. It is your habitual relationship towards what you are experiencing during meditation and in daily life that creates the soil for the five hindrances to habitually arise and dominate your mind.

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Habitual Patterns

Your Question: Stephen could you talk more about the habituation of the mind and reference points. I struggle with being mindful throughout the day.

Stephen Procter: One of the survival responses within our mind is the recording of any patterns of behaviour, be they physical or mental, that are repeated throughout the day. Once recorded the mind habitualises these patterns and is able to play them autonomously. This means that these habits can play free from the input of intention. These patterns can cover the way you walk, talk, think and behave throughout the day. Also the way that you meditate.

But there is a problem with this habitualisation in regards to meditation and living an aware life. From a survival viewpoint habitual patterns of behaviour use less resources and are therefore more efficient than processing new ways of doing things. Once the behaviour is recorded the mind fades the perception of what it thinks it already knows; when acting through habit it no longer needs to look. We can see this clearly walking down our street or within our home, we cease to see things in the same detail that we do when we travel and are in a new town or country. We see everything in detail in the new neighbourhood, this is a survival trait, but we don't see the dust on the shelves in our own home until it builds.

This fading has another advantage in regards to survival, since what is familiar is no longer clearly perceived anything that is new stands out. Like fresh edible berries on a bush or a tiger hiding in the grass waiting to pounce. But this fading is a disadvantage to the meditator because it involves the collapsing of mindfulness and the lowering of the clarity of awareness. You will observe this during meditation when you don't clearly know what is being experienced or when you become lost within habitual thinking that the cause of this is mindfulness has collapsed. So mindfulness and habit don't exist together, when mindfulness isn't present habit takes its place.

As a meditator habit is our enemy, even our meditation practice can become habitual. Once habitual we will sit down to meditate and our mind will start playing the same movies again and again, we think we are experiencing good, peaceful meditation but we are stuck. We develop no understanding or wisdom because we literally have stopped looking, we are caught in a mind created dream. Our task during mindfulness meditation is to observe the habitual patterns within our mind during seated meditation and within our daily life.

Once understood our task is then to decondition all habitual patterns within our mind until we are someone who has no habitual patterns - we are free. In this way our meditation practice is not about improving or adding anything to our self, but rather it is a path of deconstructing our self. Decondtioning all the habitual layers of defensiveness that control and define our life. To break free of the habit of falling into delusion - not knowing.

When you first start to observe this in daily life you will become lost within the habitual tendencies within your mind - this is perfectly ok. Observe the fearsomeness and impersonal nature of these cycles, this will motivate you to be free of them. Notice how your mindfulness continues to collapse and you fall into unawareness during meditation and throughout the day. Observe that it is within this unawarenss that you disrespect yourself and others. Observe others around you slipping into the unawareness of delusion and reacting habitually. Observing this aspect will start to develop disenchantment to these cycles and your attraction towards them will start to fade.

To remove these layers of habit in MIDL we regularly change the way that we structure our attention through the 52 meditation trainings. This still cultivates investigation, mindfulness and momentary concentration but it does not allow the mind to become comfortable and habitualise our practice. These trainings, in particular grounding awareness within our body and observing attention move create a foundation for daily life.

In daily life start with one meditation object, being aware of the experience of your body. Be prepared to become lost in habit throughout the day, when you do just acknowledge that you were lost and re-establish awareness within your body. It is the same game that you play during seated meditation. Refine your skill by learning your MIDL Mindfulness Trainings without a guided meditation playing, number 1/52 is a good start for a foundation, take it seriously, it is not a beginners meditation. Guided meditations are just training wheels on your bicycle, when you first remove you training wheels you will fall off a few times, you may even crash into the gutter before you learn how to balance. It takes the same patience.

Once awareness establishes within your body you can then use it as a foundation from which to observe habitual reactions throughout the day, your body will respond to reflect your state of mind, and use your MIDL Softening skill to soften your response and decondition the pattern of behaviour.

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Stop & Start Meditating

Your Question: I've been meditating on and off for about 10 years. My problem with practicing is I start and stop and start and stop. My longest continued practice lasted for about a year. Breaks in practice can last anywhere between a few days a few weeks or months. Coming back is then hard because I have to get past my doubt and try to focus on what I'm doing well instead of the fact that I might stop again. I'm much gentler with myself around it but it's still frustrating that this is my pattern.

Stephen Procter: Time is irrelevant to mindfulness meditation. When I sit to meditate my mind wanders and I become lost within a thought for 30 seconds and I notice it, I than re-establish mindfulness now within my body and align my awareness with my present experience. I sit down to meditate again, my wanders and I become lost within thought for 1 minute, 5 minutes, 30minutes, 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week, a life time ..... and I notice it, I than re-establish mindfulness now within my body and align my awareness with my present experience.

It is always about re-establishing mindfulness within the present experience ‘now’. You may not be able to be continuously mindful, you may become lost within life for months at a time, but you can always be mindful ‘now’. Your relationship to ‘now’ is always available and all that ever matters.

You always begin now, this stop and start means nothing, it is just part of a cycle. Your cycle of becoming lost is big, this is what you work with, it can’t be any other way. As you practice your cycle of becoming lost will become smaller, you may only be lost for a day, 1 hour, 30 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute, regardless you will do the same thing, notice it and than re-establish mindfulness now within your body and align your awareness with your present experience.

Come back to now, always to now, observe and learn to soften your relationship towards what you are experiencing now.

This cycle has something to teach you, make it the object of your meditation. Regardless of what meditation you do or don't do this cycle of avoidance will be in the background.

This cycle is driven by something, I strongly suspect the experience of anxiety is in the background, attention training will not help you in this case, your strategy instead should be to teach the survival part of your mind that right now, is safe.

Approach this with a two fold strategy:
1) Develop sensitivity to your breathing patterns by retraining diaphragmatic breathing. In this way when the anxiety starts to arise and motivate you to run away you will notice the change in your breathing pattern from your belly up into your chest. Practice MIDL Mindfulness Training 3/52 once per day for 3 - 4 weeks.

2) Develop your skill in Stillness. Stillness will weaken the defensive nature of your mind and teach it to find safety in 'not doing'. Practice MIDL Mindfulness Training 40/52 once per day.

In this way we can bring this cycle to an end.

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