By Natasha Friedman
Are you and your spiritual practice going through a rough time? Do you feel like you’ve stopped progressing, or you’re even backsliding? The goal seems impossibly far away and your current reality is too messed up to live with?
It happens to every practitioner sooner or later. The bad news is that there’s really no way to shake yourself out of it.
The good news: it’s not such a bad thing.
Although you might feel like your meditation practice has crashed and burned, facing a lot of inner obstacles can actually be a sign of deep transformation. If you’re encountering any of these four challenges, it just might mean you’re making real progress.
1. You feel frustrated
Sahajananda once said that what appears to the ego-bound person as frustration is longing to the mystic.
Often, we take frustration as a sign of failure. We decide that we’re bad at meditation, we’re not cut out for spiritual practice, something’s gone wrong, or we’ve hit a wall that we can’t go past.
The next time you feel frustrated with your meditation, go deeper into this feeling and see what it’s actually pointing towards.
A sense of helplessness, incompleteness. A burning desire for something just beyond your reach. A conviction that none of your personal efforts are adequate.
This is nothing other than a longing for the Divine.
Sooner or later, the spiritual path will take you beyond where “you” can go by your own effort, past what an individual can accomplish within the domain of relativity. This is the point of real surrender.
As Sahaja went on to say, on this path there’s no wall that doesn’t have a door.
So when you’re frustrated, stay with it! Drop the stories about what you can and can’t do, and let the intensity of emotion open into desire for union with the Beloved.
2. You notice everything, especially what isn’t so flattering
After a recent retreat, I suddenly noticed I had a lot of negativities.
I was snappy and impatient. I was resentful, jealous of others, and convinced of my own inadequacy. I got angry at my partner over trivial things, and easily fell into depression when something didn’t go right.
I felt like a total fraud. What was I doing, living at a spiritual center and practicing so intensely, and yet acting like a selfish idiot most of the time? Where did all my progress go?
What I actually was (and am) is human.
None of these flaws are anything new. When I look closer, all these behaviors are all too familiar. I just didn’t have the awareness to perceive them, or the maturity to work with them.
Eventually, nothing can be swept under the rug. At certain times, when you don’t have enough perspective to work with them, difficult emotions and negativities might be suppressed. You can make progress upwards—developing your best qualities and reaching higher states of consciousness—without really confronting the lower levels of the personality.
Once you’ve expanded to a certain level, you have enough awareness to give space to your negative tendencies, to witness them without following or identifying with them. It’s at this point that you can look at yourself with radical honesty and say, “Wow, there’s a lot of anger here.”
This is a huge step up from either flying into a rage or thinking, “Oh no, I’m an angry person and I shouldn’t feel like this.”
Now, you can really start working with the parts of yourself you aren’t comfortable with. The fact that you can see them more clearly is a sign that you’re ready.
3. Nothing makes sense
Do you feel the same but everything else in the world is just a bit off?
Or like it’s all completely wrong?
Don’t worry, it’s a good sign.
The world most of us live in is wrong. It’s a world of duality, separation, and concealment, where we are out of touch with the true nature of our existence. To put it less gently, it’s a world of suffering.
The first Noble Truth of Buddhism, the foundation of Buddhist practice, is simply dukkha, the truth of suffering.
The difference between a spiritual aspirant and an “ordinary” person is realizing this truth, seeing samsara for what it is. With this vision comes the impulse to escape from the cycle of suffering and connect with Reality.
Before we realize it, we look for satisfaction within the illusion, not understanding that the only lasting happiness comes from going beyond it. We can call this liberation, Self-realization, realizing the Spiritual Heart, enlightenment, salvation, or any number of other terms.
But, going back to why you feel weird after practicing yoga for a while.
Until your spiritual practice reaches a certain depth, you are still basically synchronized with the material world. You want more or less what the people around you want, and the structures of daily life seem more or less normal.
Once you start approaching Truth, you might notice that most of these structures are built on illusion. Whether in a subtle or obvious way, they maintain the paradigms of struggle, separation, and individuality.
So, don’t be surprised or worried if you find yourself questioning what you always believed in.
At this point, it’s also important to remember that everyone is at a different place in their spiritual evolution. What seems obvious to you now is simply not visible to people who aren’t at the same stage. And that’s okay: whatever they’re doing is exactly what they’re supposed to be doing right now.
Maybe you want to grab your friends and coworkers, shake them, and shout in their faces, “Don’t you realize our essential nature is Love?” It’s very tempting, but it’s unlikely to do much good.
Instead, just be compassionate to them as they are. Love them without expecting them to change. Love the whole world and work to make it better without expecting anything from it. (Easier said than done, I know.)
And be compassionate to yourself, to the seed of wisdom that is cracking open inside your heart. Don’t try to force yourself back into a life that no longer fits. Keep asking questions, and whenever you feel like you just don’t understand anything, look within. There is a quiet place inside you where all the answers are waiting.
4. Your practice is “just not like it used to be”
A meditation practice is always changing and evolving. Sometimes it’s easy to slip effortlessly into a deep state. It’s all bliss, and you can’t imagine it will ever be any other way.
Sometimes, it’s not like that at all. There is struggle and frustration, the mind goes crazy, thoughts come too fast and loud. Or, your motivation is gone—there’s no inspiration, no energy, no spanda.
A result-oriented mind, caught in a sense of doership, naturally thinks that a “good” meditation is a success and a “bad” meditation is a failure.
The trick is to move above this attachment to success. Part of spiritual maturity is detaching from the fruits of your own practice. It means both accepting that, ultimately, you are not responsible for your experience in meditation—you simply create the best possible conditions for the Truth to reveal itself—and letting go of the need to feel good during your practice.
Without this maturity, meditation becomes just a way to “get high.”
There’s a psalm in the Jewish tradition that includes the line: “To declare Thy loving-kindness (chasdecha) in the morning and Thy faithfulness (emuna) in the evening.”
You can interpret this as referring to these two poles of spiritual practice. In the “morning,” when you are open and everything comes easily, your work is to open to this Grace, to rejoice and be grateful for what you are receiving. In the “evening,” when the light has disappeared and you can’t even feel what you’re moving towards, it’s the time for faith.
This is the real test of your spiritual practice: not how high you can get when everything is easy, but how much your realizations can sustain you even when you’re cut off from the direct experience. Your simple persistence shows your authenticity, and how deep your practice has gone.
So just keep going. Consecrate your meditations, do your best effort to create the right conditions, and then let go. When your meditation is over, give thanks for your practice and dedicate it to the benefit of all beings—no matter how you felt during it.
Finally, remember that the night is darkest right before dawn. If you feel stalled out, confused, or like everything is falling apart, remember it won’t be like this forever. A new level of realization might be just around the corner.
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga student. You can read her post about maintaining your spiritual practice while traveling here.