Avoiding Difficulties in Meditation and Retreat

Buddha taught in terms of the four noble truths: problems, their causes, the state of their total elimination, and pathways of mind that lead to that elimination. Therefore, to deal with difficult experiences that arise in meditation and in retreat and to eliminate them, we need to know the causes of the problems.

Outlook, Meditation, and Behavior

A balanced practice of Buddhism spans three areas:

  1. A constructive outlook, view, or attitude (lta-ba)
  2. Meditation on it (sgom), which means accustoming ourselves to the attitude
  3. Integration of the outlook into our daily behavior (spyod-pa).

If any of these are missing, our practice will have only minimal beneficial results. We are likely to face difficulties and frustration, not only in meditation, but in life as well.

  • To try to meditate, but without a constructive outlook or attitude as the state of mind that we wish to develop by means of the meditation, accomplishes little.
  • To learn about a constructive attitude without meditating on it makes little change in us.
  • To meditate on a constructive attitude without putting it into practice in our daily lives renders our meditation into a hobby and has little effect.
  • To try to put a constructive attitude in our lives without meditating on it is extremely difficult.

Listening, Pondering and Meditating

To meditate, we need to learn about a constructive state of mind, attitude, outlook, or view. Thus, we need the power of listening (thos) to a correct explanation so that, with this information, we get an accurate verbal idea of just the words that delineate:

  • the state of mind and heart that we wish to develop – what it focuses on (dmigs-pa) and how it cognitively takes this object (‘dzin-stangs), such as compassion being aimed at others’ suffering and its causes, with the wish for them to be free from both,
  • the function of the state of mind – the destructive or disturbing emotion or attitude that it counters and how it functions to counter it,
  • the benefits of developing the state,
  • the drawbacks of not developing it,
  • what the state of mind depends on – what we need to develop beforehand that will serve as the foundation for developing the state,
  • the instructions for developing it,
  • how the methods for developing the state function to produce the state.

Then, we need the power of pondering (bsam, thinking, contemplating, reflecting) so that

  • We understand all the above points.
  • We gain an accurate idea of what the words describing the state actually mean and what the instructions actually entail.
  • We are convinced that the state and methods to achieve it conform to logic and experience, and fit with Buddha’s teachings.
  • We are convinced of the benefits of gaining the state and the disadvantages of not developing it, and therefore have the strong wish and intention (‘dun-pa) to attain it.
  • This wish and intention is what is meant by motivation (kun-slong) in Buddhism. The intention may be not only to achieve this state as our goal or aim, but also to do something with it once we have achieved it, such as help all others. The motivation or aim needs to be accompanied and supported by a constructive emotion or attitude, such as compassion.
  • We are convinced that we can attain the state, based on a realistic understanding of the nonlinear manner in which good qualities grow – progress goes up and down.

Based on the powers of listening and pondering properly, we may then engage in meditation to achieve and accustom ourselves to the constructive state of mind. For this, we need a spiritual teacher to guide us, to check our progress, and to correct any mistakes in our practice.

Daily Meditation

To make any progress with meditation, it is essential to have a daily practice. As with taking a vow, if we have a practice that we promise to do everyday, we eliminate the difficulty of indecisiveness about whether or not to meditate today. The good habit of meditating needs to become as ingrained as the habit of brushing our teeth.

In addition to following the general Buddhist methods for overcoming laziness and frustration, and for developing ethical self-discipline, patience, and joyous perseverance, further steps are helpful for minimizing difficulties in establishing a daily meditation practice.

  • Meditate either in the early morning upon awakening or late at night before retiring. This will minimize distraction from the busywork of the day and from street and house noise. Do not wait, however, until being so tired at night that it becomes a struggle to stay awake.
  • Do not meditate on a full stomach, to avoid feeling heavy or dull.
  • Sweep the floor and tidy the meditation room, to help the mind to be more orderly.
  • Make offerings, at least of water bowls, and offer prostration before sitting down to meditate, to show respect.
  • Make sure the meditation seat is comfortable, to minimize physical pain.
  • Have the minimum daily practice be short, so that it is manageable even when very busy, sick, or traveling.
  • Structure the meditation period with (1) preliminaries – such as quieting down by focusing on the breath, reaffirming the motivation, and performing the seven-part practice – (2) the main meditation, and (3) the dedication. Unless the positive force of the meditation is dedicated to attaining enlightenment for the benefit of others, it simply serves to benefit our samsaric existence.
  • Do not attempt a meditation that is too advanced without being well prepared and ready – not only in terms of having the powers of listening and pondering and having meditated on the steps that lead up to it, but also in terms of having sufficient emotional maturity and stability.

Tantric Retreats

In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, a retreat usually means performing a serviceability retreat (las-rung) for a specific Buddha-figure (yidam, deity). Completing such a retreat, together with its concluding fire puja (sbyin-sreg), makes our minds serviceable with the Buddha-figure and its practice. It makes our minds serviceable to take the self-initiation (bdag-‘jug) to renew our tantric vows and serviceable to engage in more advanced practices of the Buddha-figure.

During a serviceability retreat, we recite the sadhana for visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure and repeat the associated mantras hundreds of thousands of times. We may do this in the context of four, three, two, or one session a day.

The number of mantras we recite during the first session of the entire retreat establishes the minimum number that we need to recite each day. Therefore, it is recommended to recite the mantra during this initial session only a few times, for instance only three times, so that if we are sick, we are able to do at least this number. It is important never to break the continuity of the retreat by missing a day of practice. Having only three repetitions of the mantra as our required number minimizes difficulties if we become sick.

Serviceability retreats are not intended as a period for studying and acquainting ourselves with a tantric practice – to gain a "taste" or an "experience" of them. Practitioners undertake them only after they have already studied and practiced them, so that they already have deep familiarity and are free of questions or doubts.

Many practitioners take a period off from their daily lives to perform one or more of the special preliminary practices for tantra – a hundred thousand repetitions typically of prostration, the Vajrasattva hundred-syllable mantra, mandala offerings, and guru-yoga. Such intensive practice is not formally called a "retreat."

Retreats in the Modern Western Usage of the Term

Contemporary Western Buddhists often use the term retreat for any residential meditation course, even if for only a weekend, and for any period of time taken out of their busy daily lives and spent in secluded meditation on any topic. This may include time spent on pondering topics, such as from the lam-rim (graded path to enlightenment), to gain a basic understanding of them.

Some Westerners also call a "retreat" secluded time spent studying and familiarizing themselves with a particular practice. The stated aim is to gain a "taste" or an "experience," to inspire them for further practice.

Such types of retreat may lead to competition with other practitioners and to disappointment if we do not gain any experience. If gaining an experience is the aim of a retreat, it is important to undertake it without any hopes or expectations for any results to come from it.

Solitary Versus Group Retreats

Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhists do solitary retreats. Thus, they need to rely on themselves for discipline. If they do retreat with others – mostly done to pool economic resources – each person typically meditates alone; and, when the retreat entails mantra-repetition, at his or her own rate.

Many Westerners prefer group retreats in which all the participants meditate together. The main advantage is that such method of practice provides the discipline that would be difficult to establish on one’s own. The disadvantages are that it may lead to dependency, competition, distraction, and annoyance.

Maintaining strict silence during the retreat can minimize some of these dangers. Periodic optional discussion sessions can provide the opportunity to share experiences. Periodic compulsory consultations with the spiritual teachers guiding the retreats provide the supervision that can help participants avoid mistakes and resolve doubts.

Lung (Subtle Energy Disorders)

Whether in retreat or in daily meditation, it is important not to push ourselves too hard. Pushing ourselves causes anxiety and frustration, commonly referred to in Tibetan as a lung (rlung, subtle energy-wind) disorder. Lung may also arise due to insufficient preparation for the retreat or meditation practice, and the confusion and frustration that follow from lack of clarity about what we are doing or why.

Lung may manifest as quickened pulse, pain around the heart and back, and a general feeling of nervousness, restlessness, and irritability. It may cause visions, ringing in the ears, seemingly "out-of-body" experiences, and/or insomnia.

Imbalances of lung are not easy to quiet. Knowing when to take a break and to rest is helpful, as are long distance views, laughter, friendly affection, and keeping warm. If it is necessary to take a nap during the day, sleeping for only twenty minutes is sufficient to refresh ourselves, and short enough to avoid the heavy, dull feeling that comes from sleeping too long during the day. Avoid getting cold, being in drafts or wind or under a fan, and listening to loud music, particularly music with strong base and drums. Loud machinery and television and computer screens that emit much radiation may also aggravate lung.

Diet also affects lung. Items that will worsen a lung disorder include:

  • coffee, black tea, green tea, chocolate, and anything else containing caffeine,
  • lentils,
  • chicken,
  • pork.

Items that quiet a lung disorder include:

  • fatty dairy products,
  • warm milk,
  • lamb,
  • wheat products, such as bread.

Emotional Upheavals during Retreat

Often during retreats, deep memories and suppressed emotions surface. This particularly happens when pondering the teachings and doing analytical meditation, particularly in reference to our own life experiences. The quiet space of the retreat and the meditation lowers our inner defenses and, consequently, these naturally arise. In Western psychological terms, the meditation process helps us to gain access to the unconscious.

If such memories and emotions arise and the experience of them is extremely disturbing, it is helpful to recite a mantra, such as OM MANI PADME HUM, with a feeling of compassion, and not to repress them. The mantra and compassion provide a stable container for the experience. Especially when not engaging in a serviceability retreat or a retreat to develop concentration, working through such emotional material by applying the Dharma methods can be very beneficial.