When Difficulties Hinder Our Path

Yesterday morning after the “Back class” I teach in Glenville, I chatted with a student as I was packing up my mat and gear. Our conversation centered on the fact that these past two months had been difficult for so many people in the classes I teach, as well as friends and family. The usual maladies of winter including colds, flu and sinus infections had caused many to miss work and self-care activities, such as yoga. And outside of class there had been accidents resulting in injuries, required surgeries and other health issues.

It seems that the old phrase that pain is a given, but suffering is optional would be something to ponder when the going gets really difficult. One of my favorite meditation teachers tells a story of Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga. To advertise his meditation classes he created a giant poster of himself with flowing white hair and beard, dressed in only a loincloth and standing on top of a surfboard. The caption underneath read, “ The waves will keep on coming, so it is important to learn how to surf.” How wonderful and also challenging to view a difficulty in our life as a wave that is steep and threatening right now, but also temporary, returning back into the ocean of our lives until the next wave comes.

Patanjali, the ancient author of the Yoga Sutras, counsels us to cultivate the opposite (pratipaksa bhavanam) by practicing to develop uplifting physical and mental habits in order to dispel negative emotions and tendencies. This is not a recommendation to ignore or deny what is occurring, but points to the wisdom of being able to see that even though life may be difficult right now in this moment, there are also other elements present that bring joy and happiness.

A favorite meditation practice that I personally rely on when the going gets tough is Loving Kindness Meditation, or Metta Practice in Pali, the language of the Buddha. It is a concentration practice and an opportunity to direct our thoughts in a specific way, which nurtures non-reactivity and self-acceptance. Modern neuroscience has proven what the ancient sages already knew. By directing our mind in certain positive way we could actually change our own mental habits and increase our level of happiness. Recent research has also shown that long time meditators also increase the volume of grey matter in their brain.

To begin a Loving Kindness Practice it is important to be undisturbed and comfortable for fifteen to twenty minutes. This can be done in a traditional meditation posture or by simply sitting in a chair with hands released softly in your lap and feet placed on the floor. There are specific phrases that are silently repeated, which offer goodness and love. You may use the phrases I offer here, or create ones that feel right for you.

We begin with the first direction, ourselves. This can often be difficult for people, but it is important to hold ourselves in the arms of loving-kindness before expanding it to others. If it is very hard I suggest that we picture ourselves as a five-year-old child or remember a time we were especially kind or generous to someone.

We offer the following phrases to our self in a silent whisper, taking a deep breath after each phrase to allow the words to settle in our consciousness.

May I be filled with loving-kindness.

May I look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.

May I be as healthy as possible today.

May I know the full joy of being alive.

May my heart and mind awaken. May I be free.

  It may take several repetitions of these phrases to become comfortable with offering this goodness to ourselves. When we feel centered in offering this to ourselves we then offer these phrases to a loved one or a person very special to us. Picturing this person in our minds eye and holding them in our heart we off these words.

May you be filled with loving-kindness.

May you look at yourself with the eyes of understanding and love.

May you be as healthy as possible today.

May you know the full joy of being alive.

May your heart and mind awaken. May you be free.

 Again taking our time, and allowing these wishes of well being to flow outward.

I encourage those new to a meditation practice to begin with the first two directions of intention and practice over a period of time to feel grounded in this practice before continuing with the last three directions.

The third direction offers these phrases to a neutral person. The mailman you may not know or the lady in the shop where you by bread and milk.

The fourth direction includes offering the phrases to someone with whom you have had great difficulty. Someone who has hurt you in some way. Offering the phrases to that individual and forgiving them to the extent that you are capable, at this point in time. That is all.

The fifth direction opens our well wishing to everyone everywhere and all living beings on the earth. Plants, flowers, companion animals, people in foreign lands, and mother earth herself.  Extending this sense of good will outward, touching everything we can imagine.

This simple meditation offers us a pathway to ride the waves of difficulty and nurture joy within us.