Bodhisattva Downfall: Not overcoming obstacles to mental stabilization.
In this context there are five. If we make no effort to abandon them we incur a secondary downfall: (1) Needless self-reproach and excitement, (2) Malicious thoughts, (3) Sleep and dullness, (4) Distracting desires, (5) Frequent and disturbing doubts.
Needless self-reproach refers to how we tend to beat ourselves up when we discover that we have become distracted. Anger at ourself is still anger, and therefore a delusion. When we discover we have been distracted, we should patiently accept it and gently (but firmly) decide to go back to our object of meditation without unnecessary drama. It’s normal and natural that we become distracted, that is why we are training. Needless excitement refers to when we have some mental breakthrough or some profound “ah ha” moment and we get over-excited about it. Sometimes this is hard to resist, but our over-excitement about it will cause us to lose the feeling or understanding. Better to be happy and try to maintain the continuum of remembering the new discovery for as long as we can. The longer we do, the more deeply we plant the new understanding on our mind.
Malicious thoughts are bad both in and out of meditation, but they are especially bad in meditation itself. We do not usually realize, but this happens more than we think. What often happens for me is I am meditating on some idea of Dharma, and then it causes me to recall how somebody else in my life is not living up to this idea of the Dharma, and then I start to judge the other person using the Dharma as my lens of judgment. This can also take the form of we are angry at somebody, we sit down to meditate to try calm down, but we spend our whole meditation time contemplating the faults of the other person and why we are right and they are wrong.
Sleep and dullness happens to all of us. Our gross minds arise from our subtle minds, and our subtle minds arise from our very subtle mind. The entire purpose of meditation is to plant the Dharma at increasingly subtle levels of mind. When we do so, all of the minds that are grosser than the depth to which we have planted the Dharma will be a reflection of the Dharma pattern we planted deeper than these gross levels of mind. It is a bit like putting the stained glass of Dharma on our mind, and the light that then shines through it reflects the pattern of the stained glass. The more we concentrate, the more subtle our mind becomes. The problem for us is the only subtle minds we know are sleep. So when we enter meditation, we fall into the parts of our mind that correspond with sleep and we become sleepy, we get the “nods” (our head bobbing up and down as we fall asleep while trying to stay awake), etc. There is not a single meditator who does not, from time to time, struggle with this. What can we do to overcome this? First, it is usually best to meditate in the morning because we are more rested and less likely to fall asleep. If we are generally groggy in the morning, we can take our shower and shave first, do our meditation, and then get dressed for the day. Second, when it does happen, accept it as part of our training. When we die, our mind will likewise become increasingly subtle. By learning to try to maintain mindfulness of our objects of meditation as our mind becomes more subtle is the best possible training we can do to become prepared for death. Third, we need to keep a positive attitude. Do not beat yourself up or feel like a failure, instead know you are purifying and working through your obstructions. We all have to go through this. It is a training, not a demonstration of accomplishment. Fourth, sometimes if it is really bad, we can try open our eyes, stretch, roll our head around to the maximum extent possible in a circle, etc. As a general rule, we should avoid giving in to the sleepiness and going to take a nap. This is a bad habit to get into, and it will train our mind to equate meditation with taking a nap, and so we will have the problem of sleepiness even more in the future. If you want to take a nap, you can do so after your meditation is over, but you will find that most often as soon as you come out of meditation your sleepiness goes away. Fifth, request blessings. The Buddhas are right there waiting to help us with our meditation. All we need to do is request their help with faith. It does not matter if the sleepiness goes away. What matters is we keep training and keep trying.
Distracting desires was discussed extensively in the earlier posts on the vows related to mental stabilization, so I refer you there.
Frequent and disturbing doubts refers to our inability to ever believe anything until we are 100% convinced. Blind faith is an extreme in the Dharma, but so too is the inability to believe. We need to ask questions and probe the Dharma to gain a deeper understanding, but we also need to not expect to have a perfect understanding until we actually attain enlightenment. We need to be like a scientist. Scientists work with hypotheses. They gather all available evidence and information, and they say, “given all of this, what is the most logical and reasonable conclusion I can draw.” That conclusion then is their “hypothesis.” They then say, “how can I test to see whether or not this hypothesis is correct?” and they design experiments to test the validity of their hypothesis. The results of their experiment then give them more information and evidence with which they can either confirm or modify their hypothesis. They continue to work in this way, gradually refining their theories until eventually the develop “laws of nature” or “scientific axioms.” Throughout this entire process, they are never 100% sure that their theories are correct, but they are able to reach sufficiently high confidence levels that for all practical purposes this is what they “believe” to be true. On the basis of this belief, they can build cars, computers and space ships.