Meditation is Difficult Because Waking Up Hurts

by | Meditation

Meditation is difficult because waking up hurts. And if we don’t understand why, we will run from the pain and abandon the path. There are countless people who have become spiritual dropouts, or who are lost in detours because they have not understood that hardship is part of the spiritual path.

The Longer Asleep, the More Painful to Wake Up

When your arm falls asleep, it prickles and burns as it returns to life. Frozen fingers sting when they thaw. But physical instances of anesthesia are mild compared to the anesthesia born of ignorance, and so is the level of discomfort upon awakening. If your fingers are merely cold, it is easy to warm them up. But if your fingers are frozen solid, it hurts like hell when they thaw. According to the traditions, unless one is already a buddha, an “awakened one,” one has been snoring from beginning-less time, and it can really hurt before we completely wake up. Mingyur Rinpoche writes,

“I’d like to say that everything got better once I was safely settled among the other participants in the three-year retreat. . . . On the contrary, however, my first year in retreat was one of the worst in my life. All the symptoms of anxiety I’d ever experienced—physical tension, tightness in the throat, dizziness, and waves of panic—attacked in full force. In Western terms, I was having a nervous breakdown. In hindsight, I can say that what I was actually going through was what I like to call a “nervous breakthrough.”

Every Spiritual Tradition has Stories of Hardship

Christ suffered in the desert, Buddha struggled under the bodhi tree, Mohammed grappled in his cave, the Jain saint Mahavira wrestled with his asceticism, and the Tibetan yogi Milarepa endured the demands of his guru. We will be hard-pressed to find a sage who slid easily into enlightenment, for great realization brings great obstacles. We may not practice in caves and deserts, but we sit in meditation and wonder why it hurts. We look into our hearts and wonder why we cry. We enter a path and ponder why life falls apart. Understanding hardship helps us to deal with it, whether it is the anxiety of sitting still for thirty minutes, or the fear of entering a three-year retreat.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, addressing those who have or will undertake a retreat, gives this advice:

“Meditation is difficult. You will fall sick, experience pain, and encounter many adverse circumstances. At such times do not think, “Although I am practicing the Dharma, I have nothing but trouble. The Dharma cannot be so great. I have followed a teacher and done so much practice, and yet hard times still befall me.”

Such thoughts are wrong views. Try to realize that through the blessing and power of the practice, by experiencing sickness and other difficulties now, you are purifying and ridding yourself of negative actions . Purify them while you have the chance. Do not think, “I don’t deserve these obstacles, these negative influences.” Experience your difficulties as blessings . . . when you do experience such difficulties, you should be very happy. Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Chaos should be considered extremely good news.”

Excerpted from The Power and the Pain: Transforming Spiritual Hardship into Joy” 

The Power and the Pain: Transforming Spiritual Hardship into Joy


“From Andrew Holecek’s first words, you know you can trust him. He writes from deeply felt experience as well as a masterful grasp of the vast dharma. His essential point is riveting: the path leading to the cessation of suffering necessarily includes suffering. This book is the essence of good meditation instruction.”—Irini Rockwell, author of The Five Wisdom Energies

“With brilliance and kindness, Andrew Holecek brings the shadow side of the spiritual path into the light helping the practitioner navigate the hardships he or she will inevitably discover. Holecek shows them for what they are—necessary obstacles on all levels of the path that can either hinder or strengthen our practice, and we can indeed be grateful to him for so clearly and completely elucidating this profound and necessary but rarely mentioned side of the spiritual path.”—Dr. Jeremy Hayward, author of Warrior-King of Shambhala: Remembering Chögyam Trungpa

“The spiritual hardships that each of us face along the way can be literally hard to bear whether these are purely psychological pressures or events that impact us on a physical level as well. Yet they can be ameliorated when we see their connection to our path as a whole. That is the distinctive gift of The Power and the Pain for contemporary Buddhist practitioners. It helps us make sense of our individual experiences which, as unique as they are, have been challenging practitioners in different ways since the time of the Buddha. . . . When we move beyond our theories about the spiritual path into the actual practice of it, that is when the insights and methods offered in this book will become truly useful. Andrew’s book is, in this sense, a compassionate refuge for troubled times.”—Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, author of Rebel Buddha

“When practicing on the spiritual path, often people do encounter difficulties and hardships. It is important to understand what these hardships are and how to deal with them when they occur. I am very glad that Andrew Holecek, who has studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, has written this book that will help people work through the situations they face as they practice the path.”—Thrangu Rinpoche

“A wonderful guidebook for spiritual travelers who are facing the challenges of daily living—and that is most of us surely.”—Mandala Magazine