As our mind becomes
clearer and more lucid
in meditation practice,
hindrances show themselves
I WAS RELAXING with Poohbear on the couch, leafing through the latest copy of Spirituality and Health magazine, when I came across a wonderful picture of a monk sitting in a monastery. In the article below the picture, the monk was quoted saying he had learned to sit perfectly still by watching a cat. Pooh was in his usual spot on the back of the couch, looking over my shoulder, so I held the picture up for him to see it.
“I didn’t realize I was following such a venerable tradition, Pooh. Even monks learn how to sit from cats!”
“A great many notable people have been influenced by cats,” Pooh responded. “For example, did you know that the famous inventor Nicola Tesla first started wondering about electricity at the age of three, when he saw sparks fly when he petted his cat, Macak? There is also a story about the prophet Muhammad. One day when he was called to prayers, he noticed his cat, Muezza, sleeping on the folds of his sleeve. Rather than disturb the sleeping cat, Muhammad cut off the sleeve of his robe. I could tell you many stories like these.”
“And I would love to hear more of them later, Pooh,” I said, putting aside the magazine. “Right now, however, it’s time for my meditation. Why don’t you join me?”
We sat for more than an hour. The story about the monk brought tranquil images into my mind, allowing me to let go of thinking and sit perfectly still. I reached a very deep state of concentration and then experienced my whole body being surrounded by radiant white light. There was a softness to my breathing and a velvet quality in the air around my body. I was filled with gratitude and a deep feeling of peace. When I came out of meditation, I was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to tell Pooh.
“I am pleased you had a good experience, Kat. You have been diligent in your efforts, and it is paying off,” Pooh said. “However, at this stage in your practice, it is common to experience moments of blissful trance. This is what we call beginner’s luck. You must let go of your desire for this altered state, or it will hinder your progress. To attribute this to your skill at this stage in your practice is delusion.”
I stood up to put my meditation cushion back on the couch and folded my shawl to drape it over the arm. “I wish you would be happy for me instead of reminding me how much I have to learn, Pooh. And I don’t particularly like being told I’m deluded. It was a beautiful moment. Can’t you let me bask in it for a while?”
“You are taking this personally, Kat, and this is not what I intended.”
“Well, it feels personal,” I replied.
Pooh jumped to the floor to sit in the sunlight coming in from the window. “I am providing guidance to help you with your practice. Do not identify personally with my words. You are not deluded. You may be heading down a path that includes deluded thinking because you lack knowledge of certain practices that will lead to wisdom. That is all I am saying.” He paused. “Of course, I am happy that you had a good meditation experience.”
This calmed me down a bit, and I felt a little foolish for acting like a spoiled child who wasn’t praised for her special achievement. I was pleased with my incredible meditation experience and decided to be satisfied with that.
Just then Catzenbear interrupted us by bouncing into the room, so I picked up a string and began running around the loft with him close on its trail. After we raced back and forth for a few minutes, I was out of breath, so I pulled the end of the string right past Pooh’s tail. Catzenbear pounced on Pooh and off they went in a romp. I must admit, it amused me to see my venerable Master act like the playful kitten he once was, before he gained so much wisdom.
Michael and I were having some friends over for dinner that evening, so I decided to leave Pooh and Catz to their playful pursuits and go upstairs to take a nap. While social events were becoming more enjoyable now that my depression was lifting, it still took a lot of energy for me to stay engaged in conversation for several hours. At least I could do that much now, and for this I was very grateful.
When Tom and Linda arrived that evening, we were in the kitchen area giving Catzenbear and Pooh their dinner. Michael opened the door, and to our surprise, their little gray poodle, Nicky, bounded in and raced to the food bowls in the kitchen. I have never seen Pooh move so fast. He was across the loft, up the stairs, and on top of the landing out of Nicky’s reach in what seemed like a single bound. Nicky was close on his heels, barking all the way.
In all the commotion I had the presence of mind to grab my camera, so I was able to get a few pictures of Pooh in his full fur-up, back-arched pose. Meanwhile, Linda grabbed Nicky and took him downstairs, putting his leash on to keep him close by. Of course, then Catzenbear immediately came up and leaped on him. They had a great tussle, and then they both settled down for the rest of the evening. Pooh went to sleep on the landing, remaining above us in his safe, superior position until after our guests left.
The next day was Sunday. As I drove to our weekly meditation retreat in Mount Washington, I was looking forward to more blissful sittings like my last one, convinced that I now knew what I was doing. On the way over to Gordon’s house, I was laughing about last night’s scene with Pooh and Nicky, and thought about how much my mother would have enjoyed watching that little comedy.
The weather was perfect, so I settled down outside for the first sitting. I found myself feeling very emotional. I missed Mom so much, and once I let that feeling in, it became overwhelming.
Finally that passed. Then I felt a surge of anger at Dad for the way he handled Mom as her condition worsened. He treated her like a belligerent child, not his very ill wife of fifty-some years. I became so agitated I wanted to get up and walk out. I could barely sit, and felt I must be crazy to think this meditation stuff was ever going to work. What could Jason, a teacher fifteen years my junior, know about life anyway? Finally I was so exhausted trying to sit through all of this that I fell asleep near the end of the meditation and awoke with the bell.
What a nightmare! I sat quietly through the discussion and left before the next sitting, saying I had promised Michael I would be home early.
I arrived home and threw myself on the couch. Pooh knew I was home too soon, so he suspected something was wrong. He came around the corner and jumped up on the couch with me.
“This is never going to work, Pooh! For every step forward, there are a thousand steps back. I just don’t think I can do this anymore. I have had enough!”
“I know this is difficult for you, Kat. Humans have feelings that are not based in the present, and you carry them about as though they are. What is happening to you is that more and more of these feelings are coming up in your meditations, and you do not yet have the skills and understanding to tolerate them.”
“That may be, Pooh, but you have feelings, too. I saw how you reacted to Nicky last night. You seemed pretty anxious about that situation,” I responded defensively.
“Exactly my point,” Pooh said. “I saw the dog and went into action. I dealt with the situation in the present moment, and after that I did not think about it. I did not second-guess my actions. It was over.”
“Well, the incident with Nicky is one thing. You could take action right away. Fight or flight. You decided flight, which was very interesting to me because Nicky is pretty small. Nevertheless, you took action immediately. But a lot of the thoughts coming up for me in my meditation are not things I can act on.”
“That is because they are not real. They are just thoughts, and the thoughts are generating more thoughts. And those thoughts are generating feelings. The good news is, now that these thoughts and feelings are coming up, you have more material to work with. You just need new skills to help you learn how to tolerate these feelings in your meditation. This means you have reached a new level in your practice.”
I thought about what Pooh had said the next day when I began my meditation. While I was able to observe my feelings better, I had to work at it pretty hard. Even though I tried to concentrate on the still points of my body, I got lost, confused, and tired of trying to sit through a never-ending stream of scenes from the past and projections into the future.
Pooh saw I was struggling, so after my session he said, “The problem you are having, Kat, is that you cannot solve this in the logical way you have solved problems before. As Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem at the same level at which it was created. In other words, you cannot solve these problems with your ordinary mind.”
“Well, after this last sitting, it’s obvious to me I need help. Am I ever going to learn how to meditate, Pooh?”
“Take heart, Kat. The feelings coming up in your sittings are no different than the hindrances faced by the Buddha 2600 years ago,” Pooh said. “Remember the story about the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree for forty-nine days?”
“Yes I do, Pooh, but I’m sure you are going to tell it to me again.”
Pooh ignored my attempted humor and went on. “The Buddha fought many formidable battles with Mara, the god of darkness who embodied the hindrances. Ultimately the Buddha defeated Mara and was able to reach a deep state of concentration leading to enlightenment.”
“I remember the story. There were five hindrances.”
“That is correct, Kat. They are called by different names in various Buddhist texts, but I like to think of them as Clinging, Anger, Sleepiness, Restlessness, and Doubt. I suspect that if you review that terrible sitting you had at Sunday’s retreat, you will find that many if not all of these hindrances were present.”
I left Pooh, went up to the bedroom to get my notebook, and sat on the bed reviewing my notes about Sunday’s sitting. Sure enough, all the hindrances were there. I was clinging to Mom, angry at Dad, restless enough to want to walk out, doubting Jason’s ability as a teacher, and at the end, I succumbed to sleepiness. Wow, no wonder my sitting had been such a nightmare!
I came back downstairs, waving my notebook in the air. “You are not going to believe what I found in my notes, Pooh! I encountered every single hindrance in that one sitting.”
“I am not surprised, Kat. Often the hindrances will come in groups, although there will also be times when just one hindrance haunts your sitting. Being able to recognize them and learning how to deal with the hindrances is the key to developing the power of your Buddha mind. This is what I meant when I said you cannot figure this out using your ordinary mind. You must learn to open your mind to a much larger vision. This reminds me of the story about the frog who lived all his life in a well …”
Just then Catzenbear bounced into the office and jumped up on the desk. He skidded across, knocking off the vase I used to hold pencils. I jumped up and grabbed him before he could escape.
“Look what you did, Catzenbear! You broke the vase Mom gave me! You know you are not supposed to jump up on the desk!” I showed him the broken vase and gave him a little tap on his butt. “This is not acceptable behavior,” I said sternly.
I put him on the floor and began picking up the pieces, watching out of the corner of my eye as he tried to slink out of the room. Pooh beat him to the door and reiterated my scolding more physically. After a brief tussle, Catzenbear raced out with Pooh close behind him.
I guess this is one of those instances when I can take immediate action. I was angry at Catzenbear for breaking the vase my mother had given me. I reprimanded him. The vase could be repaired. End of story.
Then I had a flash of insight that showed me what Pooh meant about developing the power of my Buddha mind. I had two choices if I was meditating and this incident came up. One would be to let the memory of the incident pass by without dwelling on it. The other choice would be to begin reminiscing about when Mom gave me the vase, the conversation we had about it, how vital and alive she had been, how much I missed her, how awful her descent into Alzheimer’s was, and on and on and on.
I shook my head to clear it. Then I picked up the pieces of the vase and placed them on my bookcase to be glued later. Pooh had talked about opening my mind to a much larger vision. I felt I had just gotten a glimpse of it.
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