”This wonderful book goes to the heart of why we practice and don’t practice. In this fascinating piece of inquiry we begin to recognise how these are not opposite places but are intimately interconnected.”

Rebbecca Crane, Director, Mindfulness Research & Practice
Bangor University

Chapter One

Why Do We Want To Meditate?

Some motivations are profoundly helpful, while others can stop our meditation practice in its tracks. Being motivated to remain mindfully present with our chaotic minds and difficult emotions is often hard, but once we begin to feel the benefits of this our practice becomes more self-sustaining.

Chapter Two

Taking Our Seat

The practical issues of starting and maintaining a meditation practice: creating a routine, choosing a time to practise and for how long, fitting in around family, finding a place to sit and making a ritual. It also invites us to clarify for ourselves exactly what is the method we are practising.

Exercise

Calming our anxious minds – just five breaths

As you read the pages of this book, you will find a great deal about the problems we all face when practising mindfulness meditation. This could perhaps be a little disheartening, and so it helps to remember that even for the most novice meditator finding a way to calm an anxious and agitated mind is actually entirely possible and only five conscious breaths away.

This is how: Rest your attention on your breath and simply follow it as you breathe in and out for five breaths. Let the breath be as relaxed as possible, so you can feel that it breathes itself in and out without you having to do anything to help. It will naturally slow and deepen, but this is its job, not yours. And stick to just five breaths – resist doing more.

Chapter Three

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The Guardian at the Gate

All about distractions. They may be because we are unused to trying to concentrate for sustained periods of time, but they can also be because they defend us against going close to thoughts and emotions we do not want to feel. Defences are not bad, but maintaining them once they are unnecessary works against us. Read more...

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Extract From Chapter 3

Guardian at the Gate

Resisting
While Buddhism is extraordinary insightful about the emotions that drive us it does not have a concept of the unconscious and how this unknown part of ourselves can profoundly influence how we think, feel and act. However, psychotherapists working along broadly psychoanalytic lines have begun to understand how unconscious processes work. Unsurprisingly at the centre of this is our universal experience of feeling endangered. Quite simply, when we feel under threat, to defend ourselves, we resist what threatens us. Whether this be an external situation, perhaps aggression directed towards us, or from within our own psyches, the result is the same. By one means or another we do all we can to avoid the stressful emotions it engenders. Resistance, as a defence, is therefore natural and happens spontaneously without our even having to know we are doing it. When the perceived threat is our meditation, or rather the way we feel when meditating, then our defences are activated and we find ourselves resistant to practice. Ruth describes how difficult being mindfully present with ourselves can be. Despite having an interest in meditation for many years something inside of her finds it almost impossible to just sit with herself and accept what she finds:

I will do anything rather than sit in spite of the fact that I really want to. . . but there’s something which is just intolerable about it. A whole load of emotions about longing and at the same time fear, a lot of fear and I don’t know fear about what, but… it’s just much easier not to go there.

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Chapter Four

Meeting Ourselves

Here we explore what might being going on behind our defences. We are primarily emotional beings who when threatened respond by grasping, resisting or cutting off. We increase our unhappiness when we attack ourselves for being who we are, which introduces several different ways of understanding why we seem so divided within ourselves. This all points towards patterns of hurt accumulated during childhood that may be unconsciously affecting our ability to meditate. Finally, we may unknowingly sense that our meditation threatens our sense of self and this is why we hesitate to practise.

ExerciseHow long does an emotion last?

Opinion differs on the question of how long an emotion lasts – perhaps only ninety seconds; perhaps several minutes. Certainly, a really intense burst of emotion is short-lived – feeling suddenly angry, afraid or moved to love and wonder.

We can do an experiment for ourselves, asking: How long does a burst of strong emotion last for me? Does this emotion just come and then go or does it cause further emotions? What happens next? What do I do with my strong emotions? Do I try to contain or smother them or let them out and be swept up in them? Do I find myself prolonging them?

Chapter Five

Grabby, Grumpy, Sleepy, Jumpy and Maybe

The chapter that takes the Buddhist notion of the Five Hindrances and uses it to understand in detail why our meditation may not be working and exactly what to do about it. Lots of practical suggestions here.

Chapter Six

A Deeper Insight

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Sometimes when our meditation gets really stuck it may be because something in our personal history is keeping it locked. Traditionally, Buddhism has paid little attention to our personal stories, but sometimes it can be invaluable to understand our psychological history, so we can identify if there is something about meditation that is threatening us and causing an ‘amygdala meltdown’. When this is the case we can work with it by ‘acknowledging, doing something different and doing it again’ – a three-stage way to heal our traumas and get back on track. Read more...

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Extract From Chapter 6

A Deeper Insight

Acknowledging our meditation practice is now in deep trouble and nothing seems to help is difficult because it is not something we recognise until it has become a real issue. Typically we do not notice that we are cutting our sessions short, missing them altogether or are still sitting but have become emotionally disengaged from our practice. We may lose interest and no longer remember why we do it, replacing the pleasure of the practice with empty habit or worse still, duty. Most of us can do all these things for an astonishingly long time. Days quickly turn into weeks, months and then even years before we look at what we are doing - or not doing - and see it is not working. We are surprisingly willing to bear the discrepancy between what we believe can be experienced in meditation and what we accept for ourselves, rarely asking how we feel - really feel - about our meditation and see if there is something happening during our practice, perhaps rooted in our personal history, that is acting as an unconscious block against it. As we have seen in previous chapters, resistance to meditation, while being annoying and perplexing, may have its own hidden intention and intelligence. Discovering this deeper level of hindrance, what it’s purpose is and how it functions, is an essential part of our path. A piece of self enquiry that may be helped by understanding more of our personal story.

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Chapter Seven

The Damaged Heart

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Kindness and compassion provide the essential atmosphere in which mindfulness prospers. Here we look at why these may sometimes be too painful to directly approach. We consider our first experience of love and the barriers that grow up around it and also wounds to the heart that we receive from life. Finally, we have no choice but to open to kindness and compassion because they naturally flow as our practice of mindfulness unfolds. Read more...

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Extract From Chapter 7

The Damaged Heart

We have reached almost the end of the afternoon on the one full day of practice that is part of the Eight Week Mindfulness Course. Together we are practising a meditation that ‘inclines the mind’ towards developing loving kindness and compassion. Imagining someone easy to feel kindly towards - a child, a partner, a pet - we move on to ourselves, those we do not know, those with whom there is some bad feeling and finally everyone including ourselves. Towards all these countless others and ourselves we make the wish, either using a traditional formula that has been recited for twelve hundred years, or something of our own that carries the same spirit:

May we be free of suffering and the roots of suffering.
May we know happiness and the roots of happiness.

Implicit within this is the essence of the course. The roots of suffering are the conflicted thoughts and emotions that we can all too easily get caught up in. The roots of happiness are our ability to be mindfully present and unconditionally kind. If felt this can be deeply beautiful; on many occasions people have been moved to tears.

However on this occasion we have in the group a rather earnest young woman who is seeking our attention and who the others are clearly feeling anything but kindly towards. Perhaps with memories of church, she insists on whispering the words of my offered aspiration out loud despite my repeated attempts to say do it, or something of your own, silently within your own mind. With each step of the practice, someone dear, herself, someone neutral, someone difficult, everyone, she repeats three or four times in a clearly audible mutter that there may be an end to suffering and its roots and knowledge of happiness and its origins. With each repetition the irritation in the room builds and builds.

For my part I do not know quite what to do. I am a mass of conflicting emotions. I feel a responsibility to help the group meditation, my failing and progressively shrill attempt to communicate not to speak aloud is an expression of this. I also feel the groups irritation in myself. This has not been the first time the young woman has chosen a powerful moment to have the whole group notice her. From the disproportionate power of my feelings I recognise how deeply I disapprove of this and how it would be something - how ever much I may want it - that I would never allow myself to do. Being with this insight is very uncomfortable and humiliating. I also feel some compassion for the young woman - there is something childlike about her whispered prayers, she may do all sorts of things but in this moment she really does mean what she is saying as well. She is wishing all of us happiness and that we all should be free of suffering - and some of us are clearly not wishing her the same back.

A dangerous love
I tell this story now because it so clearly shows how there can be an enormous discrepancy between going through the motions of meditations that generate loving kindness and compassion and what may be going on within us, beneath the surface, at the same time. Western teachers writing about mindfulness and loving kindness have become aware of this difference. Paul Gilbert, author of The Compassionate Mind, talking about the resistance we meet in ourselves to cultivating compassion, identifies many causes. We may view being compassionate as self indulgent or being weak and spineless. Or we may feel that we cannot extend compassion and kindness towards ourselves because being responsible for our own ills we do not deserve it - as we do not if we are a bad person. More complex still is when we find that loving kindness and compassion are stirring up deep wounds in our psyches, the core wounds that we have visited in the last chapters. We may find that we touch into previously unrecognised wells of anger and grief connected to feelings of lost, insufficient or absent belonging and love. More painful still it may be that those of us who have received both love and cruelty from someone we have been dependent on will find that the presence of loving kindness and compassion is felt as an unbearable threat that must be resisted or escaped from. This is deeply confusing and frightening. Talking with the psychoanalyst Valerie Sinason, who is known for her work with those who have been ritually abused, she told me of an experience where she had offered some kindness to a patient saying that they were now safe. However, tragically, this had the opposite effect, rather than comfort it created even greater fear. What Valerie did not know was that their hurt had been preceded by seeming love from those who then became the abusers. In the persons mind kindness, love and abuse had become wholly associated and intermingled.

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ExerciseRedeeming the bragging box

Many of us are so full of self-criticism and shame that it is almost impossible to notice and acknowledge when something about our meditation has gone right for us – when it feels good.

The bragging box exercise asks that we recognise and express something good about our practice and simultaneously notice what this brings up emotionally for us. For instance, if we have managed to sit three days in a row when we have only ever managed two before, that is what we recognise and express: ‘Three days. Well done!’ And, as we say this, we also notice what it brings up – ‘Yeah, but the practice was rubbish’, or, ‘I can’t say that, I’ll get big-headed’, or, ‘Well three days, that’s nothing, I’ll do three months next with no problems’. Whatever it is, we also acknowledge this and accept it with kindness – this is what my mind does with something good. Then we return to what has worked, what is good, and feeling it as a felt sense we remain present, allowing ourselves to let it fully in.

Choose something really good about your practice – it need not be something huge.

Write it down or say it out loud. Say it again. Listen, hear it. Again.

Notice what reactions this brings up and then put them aside. ‘Thinking.’

See if you can get a felt sense for what is good; where do you feel this in your body? Make this your object of mindfulness. Stay with it; let it in.

And do it again.

Chapter Eight

It’s Not All Pain

This reminds us that mindfulness is not all sitting with what is difficult and painful. We can face what scares us and find the courage to be fully present with what we experience. Joy, happiness, contentment, calm and many other deeply healing experiences all flow from our mindfulness practice.

Chapter Nine

Final Words

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Beyond our meditation practice is a wider path that takes the insights found through meditation and weaves them into wise and compassionate interactions with those around us and the world in which we live. Whether we decide to formally meditate or not, this ethical and meaningful engagement can still be at the centre of our life. Read more...

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Extract from Chapter 9

Final Words

From practice to path
A group of us meet to sit and practice meditation together. Everyone has attended the Eight Week Mindfulness Course at some point during the last six years. However many within the group also have some experience of and involvement with Buddhism. The issue of whether we are identified with MBSR, MBCT or one of the numerous Buddhist schools is however simply not an issue. We are all together because we value sitting in a group and because mindfulness, kindness and compassion are things that have come to be important in our lives. However this is not to say that we are all good at practising meditation and do not continue to struggle with all the obstacles and hindrances that we have looked at here. When we talk with each other about our practice it is clear that it is frequently hard to keep going and yet the way it affects and influences our lives continues to be deep and pervasive.

This brings us to the end of this book. We have given nearly all our attention to trying to understand why sometimes we cannot meditate; what it is within us that gets in the way and blocks our practice. We have also recognised that there are occasions when the decision not to practice can legitimately be a good one for us. That if we have reached the end of a mindfulness course, MBSR, MBCT or Buddhist, and make this decision, it need not be a cause for self criticism, shame or disappointment. Buddhism is useful here, because it is not solely focussed on practising meditation, we can be Buddhists and yet not meditate. In fact in the countries that are ‘Buddhist’ in their religious orientation - South East Asia, China and the Far East - the vast majority of Buddhists may pray regularly but virtually never have the sort of formal meditation practice we have talked about here. For them Buddhism is about the values that increase happiness and diminish suffering and how these values may be expressed in our daily lives. In all the exchanges we have with others and the planet upon which we all live. When the Buddha taught he laid out a whole plan in which meditation was just one part. This is the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’ that describes the skilful means to be ethical and wise as well as the elements of meditation that help us achieve this. Taking just one part of this path, whether it be the parts that are about living an ethically aware and engaged life or the parts that are about how to practice meditation, is to diminish it as a whole.

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"This book provides a rich, clear, and compassionate account of the difficulties and barriers meditators may encounter on their path. It addresses so many of the everything-you-always-wanted-to-know-but-were-afraid-to-ask questions which everyone who meditates run into. But it also shows how powerful and healthy meditation can be. The book is an inspiration both for people who are interested in meditation but have never done it, as well as for more experienced meditators. The interviews this book is based on bring the reader in direct contact with what meditators experience. The author’s own profound experience, as well as the grounding of the book in key notions of Buddhism, make this book a jewel amongst the vast literature on meditation and spirituality.”

Professor Bas Verplanken,
Head of Department of Psychology,
Bath University

From the Network Review

"The question in the title will be familiar to anyone who has undertaken a meditation practice and struggled with keeping themselves on track in everyday life after the original weekend seminar. This means incorporating mindfulness practice as an everyday habit and prioritising it over other pressing activities. The author has some experience of this himself and draws on that of other teachers and meditators in a series of interviews. I think this is the first book of its kind, and contains a wealth of practical advice as well as being highly recommended by respected practitioners. Various kinds of resistance are discussed, including the sense of vulnerability and the necessity to meet oneself as one really is, especially on an emotional level and in relation to wounds from the past that have not been resolved. The reader is advised simply to be present in such circumstances and aware of defence mechanisms arising from one’s temperament and background. The practice can also challenge core beliefs and bring one more directly to a realisation of impermanence - especially in relation to the ego. The underlying process is one of growth towards greater wisdom, kindness and compassion, including self-compassion, as both Paul Gilbert and Jon Kabat- Zinn suggest. At the end, there is a quick fix chart for the struggling meditator summarising many of the insights of this valuable and helpful book."

David Lorimer