Bill Morgan, Psy.D., a Boston-area psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner, is a member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy (IMP).
These remarks are excerpted from a talk given at a joint BCBS/IMP program called “Buddhist Psychology in Contemporary Perspective” in Cambridge, MA in the fall of 2001.
There is a saying in Buddhism, “Meditation is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.” I don’t know how it is for any of you, but my experience has been something more like: “There is resistance in the beginning of meditation, there is resistance later on in meditation, and there is resistance even later on in meditation.” There is resistance in daily practice; there is resistance in retreat practice. There is resistance even when you have—to quote from the Buddha—“suitable conditions” for meditation. Tonight I would like to speak about some of the types of resistance that may manifest as meditation progresses, drawing attention to some of the parallels to the resistance encountered in psychotherapy.
We know something, both theoretically and experientially, about some of the fruits of meditation. These are well documented: starting with stress management, working through deepening levels of self-acceptance, the ability to tolerate what was previously intolerable, to some experience of calm and clarity and interconnection as things get a little deeper, and maybe even a glimpse into the manufactured nature of “self.” However, the mind is very adept at keeping us from seeing the constructed nature of the self too clearly; we all possess a certain ambivalence about waking up.
There are good descriptions of the mind-state meditation is meant to access. “An unbroken flow of reality, without fixating,” is a phrase used earlier this evening. In the Tibetan tradition they talk of “non-obstruction.” In Zen they talk of “the samādhi of innocent delight.” A phrase I heard recently from Morita therapy, is arugamama, which means a condition where the mind is “not unduly arrested by anything and runs smoothly.” All these descriptions sound simple, but of course getting there is another matter. It’s a journey filled with conflict and ambivalence.
The causes of our mental suffering include an unexamined and unremitting adherence to the pleasure principle and to an enduring sense of a self. We are very deeply attached here, and want the sort of insight that will not challenge these ways of viewing the world too much. And that’s the rub. We want to have insight, but not too much insight.
I see the process of meditation as a series of narcissistic injuries. From the beginning right through to the end, it challenges our narcissism at every level. Do you remember the first time you tried meditation? The instructions were so very simple—being aware, with increasing continuity, to what is happening in the present moment. And yet, right away, we find this enormously challenging and humbling. The first insight is the ungovernableness of the mind, the difficulty of just placing attention on the breath. We form the conscious intention, but the unconscious has something else in mind, doesn’t it?
I see the process of meditation as a series of narcissistic injuries—from the beginning right through to the end,
And then of course the five hindrances come along. These are the things that come to visit when we try to pay attention to anything for more than a few seconds. The classical list of the five hindrances is sense desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, worry and flurry, and doubt. I find it more useful in my own practice to associate these terms with modem equivalents from the psychological tradition. You can check this out in your own experience and see if it captures the flavor of your hindrances. Instead of sense-desire I think of it as “accruing” or “embellishing.” Instead of ill-will, I experience it as “disowning.” Sloth and torpor manifests as “depression,” while worry and flurry feels more like “anxiety.” And doubt often has the flavor of “masochism” or “self-judgment.” It is not just that I am having difficulty doing this, or I don’t quite get it; rather it feels like “This is yet one more thing I can’t do. I can’t even pay attention to the breath.”
Doubt is particularly prevalent for many western students. For a while we can rationalize our difficulty by thinking “If I really put my mind to this, I could do it. I’m not really trying.” But this softens the blow only for a while. Soon enough, the mind is frequently lost in thought and a harsh superego is hovering around with self-judgment, self-doubt and self-condemnation. There may be a few moments of calm, but these are tempered by an overall sense of inadequacy. Eventually it becomes clear that our initial dream of rapid transformation is not coming true.
This is often the first narcissistic injury that someone coming to this practice has to deal with. And it is often something we don’t talk about. We may not want to report it to our teachers because we want to be good students. The Buddha talked about three kinds of students. There is the really sharp one who just on hearing the Dharma gets it, and gets awakened. Then there is a middle, average kind of student. Finally there is the real sluggish kind of student. It can be disappointing to realize that our fantasy of being that advanced, quick-study type of student that the Buddha talked about is not coming true. And although this is hard to swallow, we might wriggle around with it a little and perhaps finally accept that okay, perhaps we are an average student.
But then over time, we may have to face a further narcissistic injury…perhaps we are not even average, but are one of the slow students. It can be much harder to let this one in. Speaking for myself, it was a slow and painful insight: “I’m actually quite slow at this.” But of course it is not about you at all. Really it’s about seeing the limit of will power to undo some of those deep drives we have, the deep conditioning. It’s seeing how deep it is, how long and steep a path it is that we are facing.
I think this accounts for some of the difficulty for many in sustaining a regular daily practice. I’m going to guess that many of you have struggled to find and keep a regular daily practice. The instructions we hear emphasize developing a non-reactive approach to whatever comes up in the mind, and an even-handed return to the breath. But the truth is that in daily practice there is usually a fundamental resistance to being with what is unpleasurable and out of control. Daily practice is by no means always pleasant.
There is resistance to forming a direct and intimate relationship with the first noble truth of suffering. We want to understand it intellectually, and to say, “Oh, yeah, I get that. The Buddha said that suffering is wanting something other than what is there (this is one way to understand dukkha). No problem.” But when it’s actually happening in the mind, and we see, “This is happening, but I want something else to be there—not this. Or, I want this to stay—not go away. Yeah, that’s what he was talking about. But that’s enough now!” It’s hard to actually sit with it, isn’t it?
We meet clients where they are and take them where they do not want to go.
Early in psychotherapy there is also resistance to anxiety and pain, and a secret wish to be transformed without going into the heart of our suffering. Even after some ground of trust and acceptance has been established in therapy, there is more vulnerability and pain present to address, which is a tremendous disappointment. It is not what we were hoping for. This is a similarity between beginning meditation and entering psychotherapy. The late Norm Zinberg from Cambridge Hospital used to say, “We meet clients where they are and take them where they do not want to go.” That’s what meditation is about, too.
In what I will call the middle phase of meditation, the mind settles a bit. It is able to tolerate a wider range of mental and emotional states, which is a great relief. Also the initial narcissistic injury of disappointment and inadequacy subsides a little. There is an acceptance of the truth that one is neither particularly gifted, nor terribly depraved. So both ends of narcissism start to moderate a bit, which itself is one of the fruits of meditation.
Some of what was previously difficult is seen and held as less personal and more universal. Some of the sadness that starts to well up takes the form, “Oh, yeah, this is human sadness.” Some of the anger becomes, “There is content here, but this is the angry mind and heart.” The ability to tolerate and hold some difficult emotional states develops as well. The sense of self shows up as a little bit less solid and a little bit more malleable—like Gumby.
However, just when you thought it was safe to go into the woods, deeper, more primitive material begins to emerge. This is your reward—darker stuff comes up! We can hold it as, “Oh, it’s coming up for a deeper level of integration,” which is true, but that feels intellectual. The reality is, “Oh, no! Oh, no!” The impulses, thoughts and fantasies which come forward uninvited challenge our identity as a decent, or even reasonable, person.
The material is so foreign and threatening in some way that it feels like “This couldn’t be me.” It is actually some of the deeper unconscious stuff that has been repressed, starting to come up. In a paradoxical way, it forms a bridge of connection to humanity; at least this was my experience. These thoughts came up and I thought, “This, too, is stuff of the mind.” And further, “Oh, we’ve all got this stuff in our mind and heart.” Wonderful stuff, and very difficult stuff, in every one of us.
Resistance at this level leads to an attempt by the mind to control and redirect, by focusing more narrowly on the breath. And distraction by rational thinking also occurs, as a way of self-soothing and consolidating one’s sense of self. The mind is protecting itself and what it is identified with. It’s a natural defense, this sort of resistance.
In psychotherapy, as we know to our chagrin, pain actually gets more vivid for a while, as the psychotherapy goes on. Self-acceptance may deepen, and we may be able to tolerate more of what is happening. But then even more difficult material begins to emerge, which we may choose not to share. Then there is strong transference, and counter-transference, and the whole process just continues to deepen. So it is in meditation. Deeper stuff comes up, including what is not yet safe to really open to.
The phrase which captures resistance at the middle phase of psychotherapy is Freud’s: “Neurosis retreats in the face of the analysis.” I think a corresponding phrase for this state of meditation might be something like: “Attachment to sense of self retreats in the face of awareness.” The stronger awareness becomes, the more creative the self gets at camouflaging and finding places to keep its identity. As awareness deepens, the self gets more intent upon staying alive. And it feels like a primal struggle for survival.
As meditation deepens even more, less of what comes up in the mind is problematic. You can have more arugamama, more of that sense of non-problematic flow of things coming up. One is not frightened so much by the mind. Partly this is because as mindfulness becomes stronger, impermanence becomes clearer. It also becomes clear that the bogey-people are not solid entities. Things are arising, coming, and going—very quickly. And we have the courage to hang out with more of what arises, because it is all rapidly changing. The mind becomes naturally less involved with holding on or pushing away. It becomes clearer that craving and aversion, to use the Buddhist terms, are the cause of a lot of our suffering. This is naturally what will happen as we go a little bit deeper. The self, too, starts to be seen more clearly as constructed, moment-to-moment. The thoughts of self come up, but there does not seem to be as much behind them. It’s just, “Here’s another self-thought.” “Here’s another self-thought.” But there isn’t anything to which they’re referring, as the mind gets clearer.
Then a fascination begins to emerge. “Could that really be true, that there is nothing actually behind that thought of self?” It becomes quite compelling. But again, at the same time, there is something very frightening about seeing it. Now we are starting to get to “Oh, no, wait a minute now. Enough is enough.” Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan teacher, used to say, “This is a nice place to visit, but we really don’t want to spend too much time here.” We want to just do peek-a-boo with this, when insight starts to deepen. We’ve got a lot invested in the separate self.
So there are competing tendencies both to look more closely and to turn away. There are moments when you say, “Oh, I think there is something important here.” Then the mind, a moment later, is turning and running away. The resistance takes two forms. The first is thinking—and we identify strongly with thinking—about meditation and about how the mind works. “Oh, now I understand. The self is really just constructed moment-to-moment. That’s really cool.” Rather than actually hanging out with the dissolution moment-to-moment, the mind is trying to make meaning of it to keep itself secure.
The second form resistance may take is returning to focus again only on the breath. The breath becomes a refuge. As concentration deepens, there is a pleasurable quality that starts to happen there with the breath, a sense of peace and ease. “Maybe I’ll just stay here with the breath. This is sweet.” So we get attached to this sweet feeling. It’s like a port in the storm. The attachment to concentration becomes, paradoxically, one of the last holdouts or hiding places of the separate self. We need concentration to have insight, but once we get enough concentration to have really deep insight, we’d rather stay with the concentration. This is a more subtle form of the pleasure principle at work. The sweet attachment that can happen with concentration provides a buffer from some more difficult kinds of things that are there waiting to be revealed by insight.
The attachment to concentration becomes one of the last hiding places of the separate self.
At some point—and here I am not speaking from personal experience—it is said that there is a place of really deep practice where resistance is finally overcome. At some point our holding on and our identification with self and with our old patterns, begin to truly exhaust themselves. This opens up a deeper area of practice where there is not much resistance. But until then, resistance is our constant companion.
Let me just say in closing that we can view this topic of resistance in meditation also through the lenses of systems theory, cognitive behavioral thought, or psycho-dynamic theories. Resistance to change and the attempt to re-establish ingrained dysfunctional patterns are central to systems theory. From a cognitive behavioral vantage point an intermittent reinforcement schedule, where we get rewarded every so often, is the hardest one to extinguish. The pleasure principle keeps rewarding us periodically, and when we least expect it, which makes it particularly hard to let go of. It is also worth noting that systematic desensitization is also a major part of meditation practice. Finally, from a psychodynamic point of view, we are motivated to be in control, to avoid anxiety and pain and fear of the unknown. With our friend repetition-compulsion, we prefer the familiarity of the known, even if it is not satisfying, to the unknown.
In summary, to paraphrase the immortal words of Roshi [Neil] Sadaka, “Waking up is hard to do.”