Articles January 1, 2016

How to Work with Challenges that Arise during Meditation

Bob Stahl

When you formally practice mindfulness meditation, from time to time, you’ll experience challenges that are considered hindrances to your growing practice. You will experience a wandering mind, and at times you will be occupied with states of wanting this or that, aversion, restlessness, sleepiness, or doubt. These challenges are very common and even predictable for all meditators, both new and old. The good news is that you can learn skills to transform these hindrances into deeper learnings.

Wandering Mind

One of the first insights you’ll experience when you first begin mindfulness meditation is how busy your mind is and how much it wanders. Rest assured that it’s always been that way—you’ve just never been very mindful of its activity. Although you may think that an inability to focus means you’re no good at meditating, almost everyone’s mind inevitably wanders during meditation. It can even be helpful to notice your mind’s activity when it becomes distracted. You may discover that your thoughts and emotions are often preoccupied with either rehearsing the future or rehashing the past. This insight into the workings of your mind will give you important information. You may realize, for example, that you need to deal with an unresolved relationship or other unfinished business.

In dealing with your wandering mind, you’ll begin to understand more about your mind-body connection. When you come back to the present moment after wandering off with various worries, you may notice that your jaw is clenched or your stomach is in knots. You’ll begin to realize that these physical tensions are connected to your thoughts and emotions.

Another benefit of working with the wandering mind is concentration training. The way to build and sustain concentration is to repeatedly bring your mind back to the present after it has wandered off. Just like lifting weights again and again to grow muscle, when you bring your mind back to your breathing or whatever you’re meditating on again and again, you increase your capacity for attention.

As your practice of mindfulness deepens, you’ll begin to understand that the only changes you can ever make are in the here and now, and the moment you realize you’re not present, you are, in fact, present. This is “where the rubber meets the road,” starting in this moment.

Wanting or Avoiding

In addition to your mind’s wanderings, you’ll also be swept away at times with wanting things that make you feel good or trying to avoid things that don’t. Wanting and avoiding are opposite sides of the same coin because both are concerned with a state of feeling good. The antidote is to know when it’s happening when you’re getting tangled up in a state of wanting or avoiding. This knowing helps you see where you are, and then and only then can you begin to untangle yourself.

Restlessness or Sleepiness

Restlessness and sleepiness are also opposite sides of the same coin because at the heart of each is a desire to escape the present moment. Restlessness is like a pacing tiger that cannot be in his or her own skin, and the sleepiness is filled with sloth and torpor and cannot stay awake. Both of these challenges can keep you from being present in the workings of your body and mind by either wanting to get away from the discomfort or to go to sleep and not be present. Once again, the antidote is your knowing mind. Once you know that you’re restless or sleepy, you can begin to choose how you’re going to respond to it. Restlessness is unharnessed energy that, when accessed, can be of great support to you. With sleepiness, you may want to intensify your practice to bring more wakefulness. You may need to open your eyes, change your posture, and splash a few drops of cold water on your face, particularly if you’re often falling asleep or numbing out. If all else fails, sleep and be happy, and when you wake up, begin your practice again.


The last challenge is being filled with doubt. You may think, “This meditation is not going to help me. What’s the use? I’m never going to feel better and diminish my panicky feelings.” The antidote for doubt is awareness, similar to the other hindrances. When you know that you’re experiencing doubt, you can begin to deal with it. Doubt is something to be acknowledged just like any other feeling, and in time you’ll see that it’s just a passing mind state like any other. This understanding will give you more confidence in your practice.

May you remember the meditation practice is about you, and may you hold your practice in kindness and compassion. Here are some beautiful words from Bob Sharples, a meditation teacher from Australia:

Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way, there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead, there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.

Bob Stahl

Bob Stahl

Guest Teacher

Bob teachers Insight Mindfulness Meditation retreats worldwide and is the former guiding teacher at Insight Santa Cruz and a visiting teacher at Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Society.