Working With Difficult States
In Meditation, And In Daily Life
by Tarchin Hearn
(adapted, Dec. 2009, from earlier writings)
Opening the doors of seeing, listening, smelling, touching and tasting.
Rooted deeply in the earth,
Overflowing with wonderment,
In such a garden, where can there be difficulties?
There are times when the natural simplicity pointed to in the above verse seems no more than a pious hope. In such moments, we are often desperate to find ways of ‘solving’ our problems and we find ourselves looking for specific guidelines and useful methods. Here are a few basic approaches for working with difficult states, both in meditation and in daily life. Often the simplest methods work best. Complex techniques, though sometimes intellectually satisfying, can become diversions. In the enthusiasm of studying a method and learning to do it correctly, we can neatly avoid touching, and being touched by, what we actually need to get in touch with!
A General Three Method Approach
There are three basic approaches for working with difficulties or distractions that arise in meditation. These methods can also be applied to situations in daily life. The order is quite important. Try the first approach – ‘simple noting’. If that doesn’t help, then try the second – ‘exploration’. If that one dries up, move on to the third – ‘pleasurable activity’.
1. Simple Noting
Simply acknowledge the difficulty or distraction and continue with your meditation exercise. This type of experience happens every day. To illustrate what I mean, imagine you are focussing on something while in the background there is a noise or a conversation happening. It is possible to be aware of this background sound without having to abandon what you are doing. In a similar way, while in meditation, note the ‘distraction’: the thought, the feeling, the perception, the fantasy; whatever it is. Without encouraging it or trying to push it away, simply acknowledge this input as a peripheral aspect of your present arising experience, and continue on with your exploration.
Sometimes this simple noting, seems impossible to do. It’s as if the distraction has completely captured our attention and we loose the thread of the meditation. If this happens then it’s time to use the second method.
If, after trying the preceding method of simple noting, the distraction is too insistent and you are unable to stay with the exercise, then clearly and consciously decide to set aside the meditation exercise and turn your attention to exploring the raw experience of the distraction itself. This clear intention to shift your focus from the meditation exercise, towards exploring the various factors that make up the difficulty, is important, as it will support a sense that you are not merely a passive victim of a difficult state but that you are clearly deciding, with intent and interest, to investigate this particular arising.
There are many ways of mindfully exploring or investigating a difficult state. How is it manifesting in your body? How does it affect your breathing? – your digestion? – your overall state of energy? What triggered it? What tends to accentuate it? Are there particular areas of muscular tension in your body? If so, supported by an awareness of your breathing, can you find ways to soften and relax around them? How does this difficult state affect the way you use your senses, the way you attend to and engage with the outer world? In what way does the weather, the temperature; the physical environment you are in, contribute to the current situation? In the midst of this experiential enquiry can you discover ways to let be into the fullness of the situation?
In general, if the problem seems to be primarily mental or emotional, it is often useful to investigate how your physical body supports and sustains these mental processes. If the problem is centred around physical symptoms, it is often useful to look for attitudes, memories and mental states that preceded it and support it. Some more specific methods for exploring difficult states are outlined in the section below; ‘Exploring or Shifting Difficult States’.
I have often been asked, how to know the difference between exploring a difficulty or just wallowing in it? The answer to this is relatively simple. If in the process of looking into the difficulty it resolves or transforms, or even disappears, – that is exploring it. Even if it doesn’t completely resolve, but you feel you are making new discoveries or gaining fresh insights, – that is exploring it. If you don’t make any new discoveries or gain any new insights but the process of looking feels interesting and in some indescribable way, worth doing, – that is still exploring it. If however, it doesn’t resolve or transform, you don’t make any new discoveries, and the investigation itself doesn’t feel worth doing, then it’s time to suspect that you are wallowing in the difficulty. Though ‘wallowing’ might be wonderful for a hippopotamus in a waterhole, wallowing in misery and unhappiness is of no value for you or anyone else. If you find yourself ‘hippopotomizing’ in unhappiness, let go of this less than successful attempt to explore the particular difficult state and move on to the third method.
3. Pleasurable Activity
If the difficulty is so engulfing that you are unable to explore it, then mentally and physically leave the meditation and do something that makes you feel good. To paraphrase an old saying; wise is she or he who runs away and lives to love another day. You won’t learn anything by wallowing in misery or frustration. It doesn’t benefit ourselves or anyone else. Go for a walk, do some stretching, have a cup of tea, read something inspiring, work in the garden, paint, draw, make music. Take a break and do something that you enjoy and find refreshing. Later on you can come back to the exploration or the meditation, when your energies are more balanced and functional. At such a time, when difficult states visit again, as they likely will, you may find the first method of simple noting is all you need for support.
Exploring or Shifting Difficult States
Here are a few specific methods for exploring or working with difficult states.
Immediate First Aid
Breathe in and out, slowly and deeply, three times, while very lightly tapping your breast bone with your fingertips. At the same time, imagine that you are in a place of great beauty. As you breathe and tap and imagine, gently massage the upper palate of your mouth with your tongue. Although this method is unlikely to ‘solve’ any deep rooted problems, it will help to shift the over-all energy state in a direction of greater lightness and flow.
No More Running
In the face of unpleasant sensations or situations, we can often fall into ingrained patterns of denial or defensiveness. At times like this we will do almost anything to physically or mentally get away from the perceived problem or threat. Whether we realise it or not, the unpleasant physical and mental sensations are arising in the functioning of our own body and mind and no matter how fast we run, we will not be able to run away from ourselves. We carry our functioning and our feeling with us. The first step in true healing is to stop running and to somehow become interested in what before we just feared. Here is an effective way of encouraging a transformation from defensive running to curiosity filled engagement. I first learned it from the very wonderful Vietnamese teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.
While in the presence of the difficult state, become intimately aware of your breathing. Breathe with your whole body, with every organ, with each cell; a community of trillions of cellular beings, breathing in and breathing out together. On each inhalation, mentally name the difficulty. For example, ‘irritation’. On each exhalation, mentally say, “I’m here for you”. Irritation, I’m here for you. Breathe like this again and again. Let the breath support and carry you. To really be here for someone implies you are genuinely interested in them. You want to know more about them. Your senses focus on them and you give them all of your attention. You listen with all of your being. All of me listening to all of you. Fear, I’m here for you. Agitation I’m here for you. Shame, I’m here for you. Jealousy, I’m here for you. Depression, I’m here for you. Such a simple thing. Without doing anything more than being deeply present, this way of ‘no more running’, becomes a radical act of love.
Contemplating Interdependence or Interbeing
Effective resolution of any difficulty ultimately comes about with a blossoming of insight. Deep insight is often accompanied by a sense of wonderment and mystery which can be profound medicines in themselves. Looking deeply into anything, even a difficulty, will reveal it to be an inter-being of myriad factors; a whole universe weaving together this extraordinary, unique, moment of present experience. There is no technique for doing this. Once you get the idea, be creative and let your curiosity guide you.
The following words are hinting at a larger possibility, a more wonder filled way of living. Let them fertilise your intuition as you deepen into the richness of this difficulty you wish to explore.
Contemplate the essential inter-beingness of this difficult state. Recognize how each aspect of your existence; physical, emotional and conceptual, inner and outer, micro and macro is interweaving with everything else in the universe. Nothing stands independently on its own. Everything is created, sustained and supported by everything else. All arisings are mutually shaping.
With this understanding, where is this ‘me’ that so often seems apart from the rest of the universe? The sense of a separate self is experienced as spacious and ineffable, as awareness opens to the fullness of the present moment. One feels clear, relaxed and vitally awake. Breathe with this for a while.
Supported by a rich and intimate awareness of your own breathing, consider some of the factors that are necessary for your present experience: your body, its needs and functions, metabolisms and defence mechanisms; your parents, DNA lineages, food chains, green plants, tides and gravitational fields, the sun and moon, your own unique and unpredicted life journey and the life journey of the other person that you may be having difficulty with, along with their body, DNA linkages, metabolisms and so forth. Everything is interconnected at many different levels and dimensions of being.
Astronomer Carl Sagan once said that if you wanted to make a cherry pie from scratch, first of all you would have to make a universe. If you wanted to make a ‘you’ or a ‘me’ from scratch; if you wanted to make this particular difficulty from scratch, first of all you would have to make a universe. In the light of this, examine your difficulty. Then, let go of thinking and allow yourself to rest in wonderment and a sense of the vast mystery; a whole universe giving rise to this moment of you relating to a world.
Sometimes we feel really stuck; caught in a deep unworkable place. In moments like these it can be a blessing to be able to pray. Imagine that you are in the presence of the Buddha, Jesus, your root guru, or a valued mentor. If you don’t feel such a personal connection, you might bring forth a sense of being suffused with the grace of God or the intelligence of nature unfolding. Surrounded by this supportive presence, from the depths of your heart, from the fullness of your being, mentally ask for guidance and support. Pray with each breath. Ask with each heart beat. Then stop thinking, stop trying, become very still and let be into a place of simplicity and childlike openness. With great sensitivity, feel your way into what is going on within you and around you and, in the process, allow space for a greater wisdom than your intellect to make itself known.
Holistic Clearing Meditation
Sometimes we can benefit from more methodical approach for exploring difficult states. The holistic clearing meditation is a mindfulness practice for healing that my root teacher, the Ven. Namgyal Rinpoché taught. The emphasis is not on fixing a particular problem rather, it is about meeting the entire mandala of one’s present experience with greater empathy and understanding. This approach often leads to fresh clarity and insight which, in turn can give birth to new situations and new possibilities. Holistic clearing meditation can be used to explore both positive or negative situations. In this article, I will sketch out a way of using it to explore a negative or difficult situation.
A session of holistic clearing mediation comprises six sections. The first and second, involve cultivating a positive experience of body and mind. Part three clarifies our aspiration or intent. Section four is the main practice. Five is a review, and the last section involves sharing of the merit.
1. Preparing the Body
Do some pleasurable physical movement that leaves you feeling loose and energised. A few possibilities are, running, swimming, yoga, aikido, tai chi, awareness through movement, general stretching, or spontaneous dance. Whatever you do, it should be something that you enjoy – not an mechanical chore.
After you have loosened up, settle into a comfortable posture, one that tends to support qualities of bright awakeness and easeful presence. You could use a chair, or stool, or mediation cushion, or you could even lie flat on your back. Now, relaxing deeply, begin to lightly focus on the physical sensations of breathing.
2. Preparing the Mind
As you deepen into the flow of your breathing, imagine you are in a natural surrounding that speaks to you of great beauty or inspiration. For some people, it helps to remember actual places in which they have been; perhaps a primal forest, a favourite garden, a pristine beach, or a mountain vastness. Richly imagine yourself in this environment until you begin to actually feel shifts and responses in your physical body.
Now, in the midst of this imagining, feeling and breathing, examine the over-all quality of experience that is occurring for you. You are not looking for particular details, rather you are attending to the over-all felt sense or texture of the moment. It will be a composite weaving of physical, emotional, and mental phenomena. Once you are able to recognise the flavour of this state, then, in a very straightforward unsophisticated way, see if you can name it, ideally with only one or two words. For example, in the midst of myriad subtly shifting physical sensations, emotional tones, thoughts, memories and so forth, the over-all summation state or tone or texture, may suggest a word such as, ‘happy’ or ‘energised’ or ‘alert’ or ‘joyous’ or ‘serene’. The feeling tone of your over-all state needs to be positive or at least neutral before proceeding. This is particularly important when you are wanting to explore difficult states.
Now that you are in a reasonably positive state, consider your aspiration or intention for this particular session of meditation. What are you are trying to do? What are your aspirations or intentions for this session of exploration? You may identify a number of levels of aspiration. There may be an over-all life aspiration such as to become free from suffering so that you are able to be more totally present with and for others. There may be a more specific aspiration, for example, to come to a fresh understanding or a greater clarity about a particular problem. Finally there may be the very immediate aspiration or intention to stay with the technique; to meet everything that arises in this session with kindness and interest and to remain very present.
Take some time to reflect on and become clear about you aspiration for doing this practice. It may begin as an intellectual exercise but as you take it to heart you will eventually feel it working in the juices of your being.
4. Main Practice
Having established a positive state and clarified your aspiration, now bring to mind the particular difficulty you wish to explore. One way of doing this is to imagine an actual situation. In your mind’s eye, see the person or interaction that, in the past has triggered the difficulty. At the same time, carefully track how the sensations of your body begin to transform, from the positive quality you recognized in part two, into something new and probably less pleasant.
Exploring in your imagination is not likely to have the same impact as being face to face with the triggering situation, however, for the purpose of the meditation, imagination can be quite sufficient. Recalling an actual event or interaction will usually be enough to start the process. After that, you will be working with what is immediately manifesting in the here and now of your experience.
Continuing, with a rich awareness of the rhythm and textures of your breathing, track the shifts and changes of physical sensations and mental movements as they morph into a new attitude or posture of being. Look deeply into this freshly arisen state and see if you can name it. At this stage you should completely let go of the situation or person you imagined in order to initiate the meditation. Now you are exploring the sensations and experiences arising in your immediate embodied experience. Track the physical and mental movements and sensations until they solidify into something nameable. When you name this overall state well, it is quite common for a shift or shimmer to go through the body of experience. There will be some feeling of movement, some change or release.
Tracking the rich subtlety of what is occurring, gently ask; is there something behind this state? Have there been other situations in my life where the overall feeling-tone texture in my body/mind has been the same as it is now? How might that situation and this situation be connected? Gradually the verbal questioning will refine into a more silent, experiential probing as you deepen into the present arising experience. Track the changing sensations and, when they settle into a more stable configuration, again feel your way into the overall texture or visceral quality of the moment and name it. Is there anything behind this? Once again, track the physical felt-sense response to your asking. You may go through a number of shifts and namings; tracking – naming – tracking – naming. Continue exploring until the session comes to an end; either because you have run out of time, or because you feel have done enough for the moment.
Go back to the beginning of the meditation and recall the positive state you experienced in ‘part two’. It can help to remember what you named it. Retrace the movements, the shifts and changes in the body of experience. It’s as if you rewind the video of the meditation and then see/feel/sense it again. It is not necessary to analyse the experience. Just ‘re-view’ it. View it again. In the reviewing, it is not uncommon for fresh understandings and even new experiences to emerge.
6. Sharing the Merit
Sharing the merit at the end of a session of holistic clearing meditation, or any period of positive growth or exploration, can be a rich and valuable practice. It is especially important to share the merit when you have been trying to explore difficult states, and even more so, if you have had a challenging time in the process.
Reflecting on some positive aspects of the session; a realisation, or fresh understanding, or simply the fact that you had the courage and determination to attempt this difficult exploration, mentally recite; “May these explorations be of benefit to all beings.” or, “May these discoveries or these attempts to foster healing, blossom in myself and the lives of everyone I meet.” Let the words arise spontaneously as a reflection of your deepening appreciation for your interconnectedness with others.
Finally, having shared the merit, get up and continue on with your day.
Afterthought: The holistic clearing practice was originally designed be done on one’s own, however, there may be times when we get so caught up in the emotions or feelings of the moment, that we don’t remember the instructions. At times like this, it can help to sit with someone who is very experienced in the practice. They can then act as an external reminder of the meditation. In this situation, when the over-all state is named it could be spoken out loud and the support person could discretely jot it down. Periodically, if it seems appropriate, the support person can remind us to stay with the experience or more specifically to stay with the body sensations, or with the breathing. They could remind us to ask internally if there is anything behind the experience. In essence, the supporter acts as a mindful presence, a kind of external verbaliser, who can remind the meditator of the basic instructions and can help them to stay on track. In the review, the jotted down list of names can be given to the meditator and will sometimes help lead to a richer recall.
For further reflections on working with difficult states see the Essay: “Wrestling With Demons”