lesson
9

Obstacles to practice:
Not too tight, Not Too Loose

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In elation, we're holding our mind so tight that it begins to panic, just as a horse does when we're reining it in too hard. In laxity, we're holding our mind so loose that it drifts away.

The obstacles of elation and laxity only arise once you have some stability in your practice. Because your mind has to be well gathered in order to experience them fully, these obstacles are signs of progress. They indicate that your mindfulness is strong and your mind is stable. It's important to work with them, though, because it's how you begin to find the middle ground of the balanced mind—not too tight and not too loose.

With the development of stability in your practice the horse is always staying on the trail. Occasionally, however, it's taking off after something to eat, and sometimes its stubbornly spacing out. Because its no longer rearing or bolting, however, you might hardly notice these other behaviors.

In both elation and laxity, we experience the movement of the mind that keeps us from being fully present.

Elation

Elation, joy, euphoria... Aren't these states we seek to reach through meditation? What's the problem with elation?

In elation, we're focused too tightly on the breath. With no warning, our mind takes off after some enticing little pleasure: a thought of ice cream, pizza, a cup of coffee, a pleasant past event, romance, sunshine—it could be anything. Suddenly we're no longer in charge.

Why pleasure? After we've established some stability, it's more common for desire than aggression to disturb our meditation. No matter what stage of practice you're in, it always feels better to want something than to feel anger, jealousy, or pride. We eventually arrive at a place where anger and jealousy and pride no longer arise so much, but pleasurable little desires still hook us. And we don't know we're hooked until our mind is gone.

Laxity

In laxity — the opposite of elation — the mind sinks into itself. Our relationship to the breath is loose, fuzzy, and distant. We lack freshness and clarity. We blank out. We've lost our taming power.

"Too loose" may feel as if you're not thinking, but what's really happened is that you've deadened your mind. You've suppressed the mind's movement. Because thinking is so neurotic, marauding, tedious, and obnoxious, you've decided to boycott it. That's what laxity feels like.

What's happening in that state, when mind nullifies itself? One scenario is that the thoughts and emotions cancel each other out. Another is that we're trying so hard to be mindful, our mind sinks. When we sit down, we just fall asleep. This is connected with boredom. We're frustrated because we're used to constant entertainment, and now the mind can't even produce remotely interestiftg thoughts. So it's bored— seemingly with meditation, but actually with itself.

Antidotes to elation and laxity

The antidote to both elation and laxity is awareness. You look at what's going on in your mind. Once awareness has told you that you're too loose or too tight, you have to learn how to adjust.

Elation

Try relaxing the technique, giving it a bit more room.

  • Give your outbreath more focus than the inbreath so that the mind has more freedom.
     
  • Try lightening your focus on the breath altogether. In that space, the agitation might settle down and we can go forward with a strong and clear meditation.
     
  • Lower your gaze.

Laxity

Tighten up your practice.

  • Bring more of your mind to the breathing overall.
     
  • Focus on the inbreath.
     
  • Try stabilizing your posture.
      
  • Try to perk up by removing a layer of clothing, raising your gaze, or opening a window.

Not recognizing the obstacles

At times of great stability the mind may not apply a needed antidote. For example, you might be feeling relaxed, soothed, and content with our medilation, not recognizing that you're in a state of laxity . Everything feels good, you're in a good mood, and you think you've achieved perfection. Since you don't realize you're facing an obstacle, it's hard to apply an antidote. Yet the appropriate antidote in such a situation is to apply the antidote.

We have gotten so used to these obstacles that we may not even regard them as obstacles. We might not realize they are the rocks, boulders, and trees that need to be removed from the path of our meditation.

It's up to you to learn how to use the tools provided to us by thousands of years of practice and teaching. It takes experience and maturity to be intimate with the intricacies of your mind. You have to be able to see exactly what is going on: "Ah, I'm not just distracted, I'm stuck in elation." Then you can apply some practical advice.

Working with obstacles like laxity and elation is a process of trial and error. Even as your practice is becoming subtler, you're still discovering the ways to hold our mind to the breath.

It's like answering the phone while you're cooking.

As soon as you detect an obstacle, relax your focus on the technique. Continuel applying it, but not so crisply or tightly. At the same time, you can deal with whatever trouble is arising. In this way the meditation continues without being interrupted. It's not as if we stop, deal with the obstacle, and come back.

As we practice shamatha, most of the time we'll be learning how to recognize laxity and elation and then overcome them by applying the appropriate antidote. When our awareness is very strong, we can deal with obstacles as they arise while continuing to hold our mind to the breath.