When someone hits a roadblock in practice, it often takes the form of, “things aren’t supposed to be this way!” Maybe it’s a lack of concentration. Perhaps sleepiness. Maybe constant incessant thinking. There are two options in cases like this–one is to make modifications to practice (like standing up or opening the eyes, in the case of sleepiness, or focusing on a very specific object like the breath, in order to reestablish concentration). The other option, which I’d like to address here, is to consider–what if this “roadblock” isn’t actually a problem, but rather, just another sort of experience to investigate?

In a moment when clarity is low, why not get curious about the experience of being “unclear”? What does unclear feel like in the body? Is it heavy? Is there sleepiness in it? Irritation? Are there other physical body sensations? All of a sudden, you might find that you have become quite clear about the experience of being “unclear,” simply by virtue of examining it rather than resisting it.

…Similarly with tiredness, irritation, other afflictive emotions.

And with thoughts–it can be useful to examine them in this same way. Not looking at the content (i.e. what the thoughts are about), but rather–are these thoughts auditory or visual, or both? Where in my head do they seem to be occurring? Are they loud or soft? Bright or dim? What emotions are being generated (or covered up!) by these thoughts? Where do I feel those emotions in my body?

The bottom line is, when we are looking at the present moment, we are looking at the senses. One of my teachers, Shinzen Young, likes to divide them up into hearing, seeing, and feeling (just for the sake of simplicity). A thought is just made up of hearing (internal dialog) and/or seeing (internal images). An emotion is usually made up of feeling (in the body), though there is often a thought (hearing + seeing) running alongside. So as long as we are looking at the component senses which make up an experience (e.g. examining their texture, shape, size, intensity, motion or stability, etc.), then it doesn’t matter what experience we are looking at! We are “in the moment.” We are “being mindful.” And “roadblocks” are simply grist for the mill.


Meditation can easily become myopic. In fact, it necessarily starts out this way. While concentration is low, attention needs to be held on very small, specific objects of focus. But in the long term, the name of the game is disidentification, which means widening attention to include the parts of ourselves that we are identified with (emotional sensations, thoughts/beliefs, etc.).

As concentration and clarity improve, a practitioner can include more and more of the periphery in awareness, both in practice and in life. As awareness becomes wider and more subtly sensitive, the practitioner is less and less likely to identify with one bit of sense experience while examining another. In the long term, he/she can experience all of life (and all of self) as a process–a flow.

The Enlightenment Trap

statue of lady with birds

One of my teachers, Shinzen Young, shared a comment that his Zen teachers used to repeat. “Today’s enlightenment is tomorrow’s mistake.”

He calls it the “enlightenment trap.” You have an insight, and walk away with expectations about the way things are/will be. The idea here is: don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t expect things to be how they’ve been. Forever newly curious. Continually letting go.

Pointers At The Moon

Many people find it constructive to use multiple techniques in their practice. This can be skillful, for one, because a practitioner will tend to hold a given technique in a certain light, emphasizing some features, and deemphasizing others. To use the analogy of "pointers at the moon," each technique serves as a pointer, askew in a slightly different direction.

By keeping track of how practice makes us feel, we can have some sense of which technique would provide the best course correction. As time passes, and experience with a given technique grows, the pointer that it provides will become more refined.

To help this process along, a few example questions: in practice, can the experience of compassion become part of the way of looking? How about the feeling of equanimity? What would it feel like to apply less effort? And in the heart practices, how high can the concentration be?

At the deepest level, all techniques are pointing at the same thing.

Allow Everything

Remember – it’s already there.  What’s actually there?  Are you going looking for something?  Just look.  You don’t need to look for.  It’s just the looking.  What do you actually see?  Feel?  Hear?

On the other hand, what does “looking for” or “looking in a certain way” feel like when it isn’t coupled to resisting what is?