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Setbacks on the Path - In Meditation and Life

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A friend recently sent me the following email: "I had a 'set back' yesterday and was struggling with 'too many thoughts' and feeling frustrated. I did some deep breathing --- which helped. I just wanted to ask you --- what do you do when this happens to you? What is a good way to push these feelings aside in a helpful manner? Sometimes I just get overwhelmed."

My friend is new to the practice of meditation. She recently began participating in Oprah's online seminar featuring Eckhart Tolle. She is not in a class or studying with a local teacher. Her concerns and questions are common to almost all beginners and serve as a reminder to all practitioners that the journey is never over. These are some of my comments.

Each time we sit in meditation, we are inviting all of our self to show up. In fact, all of our self may show up whether we have intentionally invited it or not. If we expect only the peaceful part, we will inevitably be frustrated or disappointed. Does this sound like other parts of your daily life? How much struggle and discomfort do we create by our expectations? Meditation does not and should not replace our life but sharpens our awareness of how we see and live our life.

And that which seems a "set back" is really only our judgment of our performance. If we look at our life and our growth of awareness and consciousness, it is rarely a linear path. I would liken the path of practice and increased awareness to an ascending spiral. We make a little "progress upward" and eventually come back around to the same recurrent issues. This next time around however, perhaps our perspective is a little different and the emotional and mental noise is not so loud.

So here we are given the opportunity to not judge. We just notice - "Ah, yes! There is my frustration again. There are my thoughts trying to make me believe that they are in charge." You notice your thoughts. You notice that you are not at peace. You remind yourself that you are not your mind. You are bigger than that. You remind yourself that you can accept who you are just as you are. Nothing needs fixing. You are not broken - only human.

Is there a "good way to push feelings aside?" There certain are many ways. Our culture is rampant with methods. But is it a good idea? Paradoxically, meditation practice, by "neutralizing" many old thought patterns, can allow a greater degree of experience of our emotional selves. Trying to push away a part of our self is like engaging in civil war: a lot of resources get spent, there is often no apparent winner, and at best there remain two parts occupying the same territory and living an uneasy truce - certainly not the path to peace.

As for "too many thoughts", your focus on the breath or a mantra or other method can help calm the whirling of the left brain. But remember that your brain activation is triggered mainly as a defense against your immediate experience. It is a lifelong habit grounded in our beliefs in what is acceptable to think or feel. When we begin to feel something outside this framework of acceptability, our brains "come to our rescue". When your mind speeds up, allow yourself to tune into what you would be feeling if you weren't so busy thinking. How would you feel if those thoughts were not true? Go back to your breath.

Again, frustration is the result of an expectation, of not embracing our present reality. We think something should be other than it is. We think we should be other than we are. We try a new practice, begin changing our perspectives, then find we still have some old issues to deal with. We think that we will always be peaceful if we practice, but often, when we become still, the turmoil beneath the surface bubbles up. Our minds don't like this and try to distract us from our immediate experience. But that turmoil is only a part of ourselves wanting to come forward so we can heal. So practice. Practice patience and trust. Trust that what surfaces emotionally when you sit is merely part of yourself that needs to be seen and felt in the present.

When we embrace our immediate experience, we are practicing reality and most of all acceptance. Only from that point can things ever shift or change. Only from that point can we find peace.

Kay Goldstein,