Obstacles to Practice

I am currently learning about the four primary obstacles to practice as part of my Secular Buddhist Studies Program. The current class series that I’m taking is called Finding Your Path and is taught by Ethan Nichtern

Practice for this class refers to daily sitting meditation, a habit that I’m actively trying to build and strengthen. My goal for this six week class is to sit for 20 minutes every day — and to not beat myself up when I miss a day. There are many reasons, excuses, and attitudes that lead to skipping practice. In the context of the Buddhist path, there are four primary obstacles to practicing. 

1. Speedy-busyness

I had never heard the specific phrase of speedy-busyness prior to this class, but its meaning is not new to me. This first obstacle — and most common in my (non)practice — is when a person has too many things to do, too many distractions, and too much activity. I used to think about this concept as life getting in the way of my practice, but I now realize that my life is not different than my practice whether it be yoga, mediation, or study. Everything is interconnected and it’s just one life and it’s up to me on what to prioritize, cultivate, and let go. 

The idea to contemplate with speedy-busyness is the priority and value that is given to daily practice. Sitting on your ass doing nothing for 20 minutes a day isn’t a use of time that is valued by our current modern society. Whether you are practicing for five minutes or five hours, creating the space for this in your life can be challenging and while it’s common to talk about how busy we are, the topic of how much space we’re creating doesn’t come up because commitments and responsibilities trump

So the questions we must ask our (Type A) selves are: What value does my practice have? What am I accountable to? What are my intentions?  

2. Common laziness

Laziness is often a result of a speedy-busy life, but it can also be from an “I just don’t want to” attitude. 

My personality is very karma energy based and I’m more likely to be doing something than nothing — in fact trying to do less is more of a challenge for me. This can and probably will change, and when it does, the solution to common laziness is less theoretic and contemplative and more action based — you just need to do the thing. 

Get out of bed. Go to the gym. Eat the salad. Call your mom. File your taxes. Clean the bathroom. Put on pants (ok that one is totally optional). Renew your passport. Do the thing. Sit and meditate. 

There are a few strategies to help combat common laziness. Keeping your meditation gear (blanket / cushion / chair / whatever) out and visible means you can’t hide from it. I keep a blanket and two yoga blocks out in my room. Another way is to assemble an altar. This was — and mostly still is — a little uncomfortable for me as I still associate it with dogmatic religious contexts, but when viewed as a symbol or message for the behavior and mindset that you want to cultivate, it makes a lot more practical sense in my mind. If the only things in your space are electronics, food/booze, and material possessions then that’s what you’ll continue to invest in. But if there is even a little reminder placed in your room or home that encourages you to sit down, then you’ll be more likely to do so. 

3. Disheartenment

Are we there yet?

The practice of meditation is centered around living the the present moment, but there are also positive outcomes that can manifest and focusing too much on the end goals or lack of attaining them leads to disheartenment with the practice and giving up temporarily or all together. The path is long and it’s up to you to maintain it, which is a lot of work and the rewards aren’t instant or even clear over time. Reminding yourself how far you’ve come (I practiced more days than not this week!) and celebrating the positive changes (I didn’t get angry at the length of the Whole Foods line today!) will help to reinforce the good parts of practice.

I chose “practice makes practice” as my theme because it’s a constant reminder to myself that the benefits of practicing will only surface if I’m focused and dedicated to the practice itself. By shifting your attitude towards practice the obstacle of disheartenment can be overcome more often than not.

4. Attachment to harmful activities (addiction)

Addiction in this context could mean harmful substances and physical behaviors, but it also means attachment to activities, emotional behaviors, and thought patterns that distract us from the path and take away our awareness. They are our escapes and we should try to limit being around that activity or thing. 

My iPhone. The Netflix auto-play next episode feature. Texting my ex. Being hungover. 

While these activities and behaviors might not directly impact my ability to sit daily and try to focus on my breath, they are distracting to my medium and long term positive development and growth. I have much work to do in this area and will report back if I figure out how to break my habits for good.