This post is the second of a 9-part series on the obstacles to spiritual practice, from verse 1:30 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:
vyādhistyānasanśaya pramādālasyāvirati bhrāntidarśanālabdha bhūmikatvānavasthitatvāni cittavikṣēpāstē̕ntarāyāḥ |
Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, worldliness, delusion, non-achievement of a yogic state, and instability are the distractions of the mind, and they are obstacles [in yoga].
We’ve all encountered obstacles in the path of spiritual growth – the sage Patanjali names 9 of them in the Yoga Sutras. Styana (dullness) is the second, and this one may be the biggest challenge during our time in history.
Styana has many translations, and when you hear them you’ll understand why I believe this may be the tallest hurdle for us in the 21st century. Here are some of those translations:
- Inability to focus
- Apathy or Languor
Let’s take a closer look at each of these definitions of styana and how they hinder our spiritual progress.
Inability to Focus
We live in a time when entertainment is abundant – and is our bane. It’s caused an inability to focus our attention and remain present for any length of time. We’re often searching for the next thing to captivate us. Many of us have become so accustomed to constant entertainment, information, and distraction that it’s difficult to apply ourselves to practices that may not immediately “pay off.” Constantly available devices, social media feeds, virtual reality, and more keep us in a state of styana.
We expect instant gratification, and most of us that have meditated for a while know that spiritual practice isn’t always like that. In fact, many times meditation feels like a slog. Focusing our mind can be like trying to corral cats, each thought having their own idea of where they want to go.
In addition to all that, we may become overwhelmed with all our responsibilities. Work, family, relationships, community activities, the to-do list – it can all seem like too much, and put us into a spin where it’s nearly impossible to sit down and focus on anything.
By being lulled into this deceptive attraction of media or spun out with overwhelm, our minds become dull. It’s a fallacy to believe that filling our minds with more information and Tik Tok is keeping us aware and sharp. So it the idea that adding more to the to-do list will make us more productive. The truth is that a cluttered mind, filled with incessant images, thoughts, and information, dumbs us down.
When the mind is constantly stimulated, it’s hard to allow the space for original ideas to emerge, and even harder to quiet the mind when we intend to. Meditation requires the ability to be intently focused, training the mind to be single-pointed. It’s nearly impossible when our consciousness is already cluttered, much like an overflowing closet has no room for anything else and makes it impossible to find what you’re looking for.
Apathy and Languor
As a result of allowing ourselves to be constantly entertained and overstimulated, our overwhelm can lead to a shut down. It all seems like too much, and too difficult. We may slip into feeling apathetic about our spiritual and personal growth. Thoughts like, “Why bother? Nothing really changes… it takes too much work. I already have so much to deal with. Aren’t I already doing enough?” can slip in, and we lose our motivation.
If we give into and believe these thoughts, it results in languor, defined as a “weakness or weariness of body or mind; inertia.” It’s described as the feeling on a really hot, humid summer afternoon, when you don’t feel like moving. When we believe those thoughts, they can have the same effect on us, and we are convinced that we just can’t get ourselves off the couch.
You can imagine how easy it is, then, to fall into a state of boredom. We become convinced that there isn’t any interesting here at all. Meditation is just the same thing over and over. Again, our mind feeds us with thoughts that it isn’t worth it.
Boredom, paradoxically, should be a wake-up call. It’s pointing to the fact that we aren’t really present. We’re not really consciously engaging with this moment, as it is, and what is possible here. The mind has lulled us into distraction, with the idea that anywhere other than here would be more interesting. It’s one of the most elusive tricks that our psyche/ego has to keep us the same and hinder our awakening.
The Way Out of Styana
Before you become despondent over these very thoughts, hit the brakes! There are a number of practices and tricks you can use to overcome that mental distraction, dullness, and languor that hinder you. Here are some ways out of styana:
When you become aware of the thoughts that want you to turn to shinier objects (the Facebook or Instagram feed, the TV, etc….) or that try to convince you that the present moment isn’t interesting enough to sit with, challenge those thoughts. Come back to here and now, and remember your goals.
Embrace Boredom as a Gateway to Depth
We may come to expect the meditation high or the sensational experience. Although they are inspiring, they can be like sugar, which is addictive and fleeting. We need to turn our attention towards what is more sustaining to our spiritual well-being and takes us to a deeper place than the pleasant shallow waters. We’ll only find out if we go deeper into our practice.
Commit to Steady, Consistent Practice
It takes steady, consistent practice over a long period of time to truly reap the benefits of any spiritual practice. But it doesn’t always have to be a whole hour of meditation. Even a few minutes of breathwork, a 15-minute yoga break, or taking 5 minutes to pray for peace can make a difference, and are better than getting pulled into the state of styana. Just keep practicing! Create a regular schedule, and adapt it to what you are realistically able to do each day.
It’s OK to Add Variety
If you’re committed to yoga 3 times per week, for example, it’s OK to vary your practice. Adjust it to the time of day, season, and your energy level. Mix in new poses and sequences. This will keep it juicy, alive, and interesting to you and support your commitment.
Build Your Energy
Styana can emerge when the body feels fatigue. You can adjust your spiritual practice to one that builds your internal energy through pranayama, inner visualization, or restorative yoga. You can also conserve and build more energy through practices such as mauna (silence) – talking and thinking (especially obsessive, anxious thoughts) use a lot of energy and can drain you.
Give yourself a bit of a digital detox for an hour, a day, a week. Like the practice of silence, refraining from your devices for a period of time can clear our mind, bring ease and peace, and renew your energy.
Styana, or mental dullness and agitation, can be a daunting obstacle on the path of spiritual growth. But it doesn’t have to stop you. Bring your awareness to those times when distraction, dullness, apathy, and boredom arise. When you’re aware of styana standing in your way, you now have some tools to see through that obstacle and overcome it.
Stress and anxiety are a common cause of styana. Discover the 7 keys to overcoming them in my book, Awakening from Anxiety: A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life!
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