Working with Our Discouragement

An edited talk by Shaila Catherine

At some point in the practice, everyone feels discouraged. For some people disappointment is an occasional hindrance; for others it is a chronic obstacle. What are the roots of this obstacle?

Misunderstanding the Nature of Right Effort

Sometimes it is when we are trying our hardest, perhaps even using excessive effort, that we might be most vulnerable to discouragement. We might think that if our full effort is not good enough, then there is no hope of success.
However, strong effort does not guarantee predictable success. Preoccupation with “doing it right” or perfecting techniques will not free the mind. We need to learn to patiently persevere in our efforts—trust the unfolding of the path. The effort in meditation should not be directed toward gaining particular states according to a personal timeline; right effort is directed toward release.

The Delusion of the Self

Disappointment, discouragement, and self-doubt arise through the activity of the comparing mind. People may feed the hungry ego through accomplishments, appreciation, and praise. Often when students become discouraged, there is no real problem in their practice. But the hunger for validation and the habit of comparing tortures the mind.
Self-judgment can go either toward praise or blame. The flip side of discouragement is pride and overconfidence.
Perceptions of both worthlessness and arrogance are rooted in the same delusion of self, function through comparison, and describe a mind that is lost in a story of self. They are manifestations of conceit. Through mindful investigation, we see the root of conceit in the activity of comparing; we don’t believe stories of either success or failure. As the Buddha urged, “His mindfulness holds him posed in a constant evenmindedness where arrogance is impossible; he makes no comparisons with the rest of the world as ‘superior,’ ‘inferior,’ or ‘equal’ (Sutta Nipata, Purabheda Sutta, verse 855).”

How can we counteract discouragement?

We need equanimity with gain, loss, praise, blame, success, and failure. To maintain a steady meditation practice, we must confront the stories that we tell ourselves about our own progress.
Investigate the underlying force of conceit. Bring the resource of your mindfulness and wisdom to the painful comparing mind.

Support from the Sangha

When we are caught in a reactive pattern and entangled in the story of who and how we are, meeting with a teacher or good friend can have a balancing effect. Good friends, whether peers or teachers, offer a stabilizing and encouraging presence because they are usually not caught in your story of personal failure or self-grandeur. Teachers and friends might offer simple encouraging words that remind you of your good qualities and the potential of the practice. What strengths do you bring to the spiritual path? Notice how far you have come. Bring a little kindness (metta) to your endeavor.
Just as therapists offer a stabilizing presence that allows clients to explore patterns and issues that agitate the mind, the equanimous presence of dhamma teachers supports students as they ride the inevitable ups and downs of meditative development. Being with our stories in the presence of people we respect, who don’t buy into them, can transform our perception of the story. In the mirror of another’s nonjudgmental presence, we see that it is just a mental pattern, just a habitual thought.

Staying with Our Commitment

Remembering the commitments that we have made to ourselves is a powerful support. By doing what we say, we don’t let ourselves down. I have seen that students who leave discouraged before the end of a retreat harbor feelings of failure for a very long time. Whereas those who remain to the end and complete the process of breaking silence together, often find support in other sangha members and humor by sharing their experiences.
Although in some situations it is wise to leave a retreat early, pride and discouragement should not be the deciding force. For example, if we registered for a seven-day retreat, we should not let discouragement start our packing early. If we registered for a ten-month course, we practice integrity by completing it, and not letting our interest be overshadowed by competing distractions. Notice when the mind is agitated by the story of: “I can’t do this,” “I’m not good enough,” or “Everyone else is doing better than me.” Do not let comparison, self-judgment, shame, emotional insecurity, desire for praise, or any of the myriad habitual thoughts sabotage your practice and keep you from your goal. Examine conceit and the comparing mind in the context of practice. Bring mindfulness to thoughts that spark disappointment. See the story as a story; do not believe it.
Although encouragement is often needed just to get back on track, ultimately it will be the meditator’s direct insight into the painful force of conceit and its manifestation as discouragement that will free the mind.

Wisdom from the Buddhist Tradition

Meditators will face many difficult moments as they look into the mind. The Buddhist tradition offers several ways to uplift the discouraged mind including reflection on Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, reciting suttas, and association with dhamma teachers and friends. In ancient times, soldiers in the midst of battle might look up at the crest of the standard of the king and thereby regain their sense of purpose, commitment, and the courage needed to face the enemy.
Similarly, by reflecting on the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, we can regain the confidence to overcome the fear and trepidation that might otherwise stall a meditation practice. Recollecting that “the Tathagata, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One is devoid of lust, devoid of hatred, devoid of delusion; he is brave, courageous, bold, ready to stand his place,” we recognize the potential that we all share and again resolve for the goal (Samyutta Nikaya, 11:3).

The Buddha also said this about expectations: “What people expect to happen is always different from what actually happens. From this comes great disappointment; this is the way the world works” (Sutta Nipata 3.8, The Dart, Salla Sutta, verse 588). Just do the practice without expecting anything from it, without expecting it to be easy, without expecting to progress at a predictable rate.
In one discourse (Samyutta Nikaya, 2:6), a young deva complained to the Buddha that the practice was difficult: “Hard to do, Blessed One! Very hard to do, Blessed One!” As the Buddha offered a gradual teaching on virtue, contentment, calming mind, concentration, and walking the path, at each stage the deva again remarked that it is hard to do. And to each complaint, the Buddha acknowledged that “They do even what is hard to do … they gain even what is hard to gain … they concentrate even what is hard to concentrate … though the path is impassable and uneven, the noble ones walk it.”

The Buddhist teachings offer us a very worthy goal: the complete ending of greed, hatred, and delusion. It is not realistic to expect it to be easy. We cannot expect to have our hand held through every habitual thought that the mind conjures up. This practice does not promise immediate gratification. But it leads to a noble goal: the ending of the causes of suffering—awakening.
I find reading the Discourses of the Buddha to be an unparalleled source of inspiration. The ancient suttas illuminate the highest purpose, offer tips for practice, help me keep the goal in mind, and remind me that we are part of a long and effective practice tradition. My petty inabilities, skills, and personal patterns are of little importance in comparison to the depth of wisdom and the possibility of liberation that is offered in the teachings. Contemplating the Discourses of the Buddha instills patience in the pace of my own development.

I encourage all serious practitioners to read the Discourses of the Buddha, join a sutta discussion group, and periodically memorize a few inspiring verses for reflection and recitation. 
Find ways to remind yourself of the potential of liberation. Take every opportunity to let go of habits and stories of self. Using the support of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, without expecting to be transformed overnight and without letting the mind become discouraged, you can systematically and consistently uproot any habitual tendencies that perpetuate suffering

Originally published in the IMSB newsletter, January 2013.