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
Elation, joy, euphoria... Aren't
these states we seek to reach through
meditation? What's the problem with
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.
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
"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.
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.
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.
Tighten up your practice.
- Bring more of your mind to the
- 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.
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.
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.
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.