I recently asked one of my students how her practice was going. She was cursing me, she said. Her practice had gone so well before, but since she dug deeper into her life through psychotherapy, it had become so uncomfortable that she wished she could just go back to the innocent state she was in before she started all this. I quipped that the innocent state must have really worked well for her, given that it lead her to seek help. She laughed. So now her practice had dwindled, and instead she had taken to consuming boxes of cereal by the truck loads. I hoped it was at least whole grain cereal!

This is a common challenge. Meditation practice changes constantly, moving through easy and difficult periods all the time as we work our way through deeper and deeper layers of illusions and ignorance. What to do when the going gets tough? Her sense was strong that she ‘needed a break’ from practice because it was so challenging. The question is what this ‘needing a break’ really means and how to handle it.

For the untrained monkey mind ‘needing a break’ means metaphorically having started the ascent of a mountain, finding it too hard and simply abandon the mountain, or having termites in the basement, having started to deal with them, but finding it too challenging and slamming the door to the basement shut. That is not helpful. All boxes of cereal will do is make you fat! Not only are they not good for you, but they don’t solve the ongoing issue that plagues your life.

‘Needing a break’ can be interpreted much more skillfully. You are working with the window of tolerance of energy flow. What does that mean? Our organism is energy flow, and the brain regulates that energy flow so that the organism stays healthy and survives. This regulation occurs within a spectrum of energy flow patterns, from the chaotic on one end of the spectrum to the rigid on the other end. In between is the harmonious flow, which corresponds to health. When we fall into chaos (anxiety for example) or rigidity (depression for example), the brain tries to bring us back to harmony and health by mobilizing certain mechanisms.

In meditation, we engage the MPC (medial prefrontal cortex) to regulate energy flow in a new and more efficient way, which corresponds metaphorically to how a sailor navigates the ocean with all his instruments and experienced skill. We learn not to start a mountain climb unprepared, but have all the tools we need with us in our backpack. Depending on the nature of the energy flow for the meditator or the quality of the weather for the sailor, that navigation can become really difficult. There comes a point, where the meditator faces such strong headwinds in the energy flow that it becomes difficult to be in one’s own skin. This is the work we do with the window of tolerance for stress. The borders of the window is where the regulation of energy flow becomes difficult and borders on either chaos or rigidity. When the energy flow is so unruly as to trespass the borders, we are not in control anymore; chaos or rigidity have taken over and the fight/flight system is in full swing. We become reactive instead of responsive. In that reactive state we don’t handle stress constructively anymore and our meditation becomes unproductive.

Depending on the combination of lived history and innate temperament, we all have different sizes of windows of tolerance for the variations in energy flow. But we all have windows with borders, and at some point we need to know how to skillfully handle the instances when the energy flow threatens to trespass the borders. That is the moment when we may feel we ‘need a break’.

Rather than give up, we have to realize that working with the window and its borders is part of meditation. The single most frequent mistake meditators do is to not emphasize the attitude of COAL (curiosity, openness, acceptance and love) enough, without which the window tends to become significantly more restricted. COAL widens our window and allows us to continue our investigation of experience phenomena, even when it becomes difficult. Part of COAL however is also knowing when to back off, not giving up in a state of flight, but continuing the process of meeting our experience with curiosity and steadfastness. This new kind of ‘taking a break’ looks very differently from the ‘giving up/flight’ type. Rather than giving up, we take charge in a new way.

We won’t flee to the cereal box, but we will judiciously chose an activity that is wholesome, will allow us to continue our observations and at the same time also fall back into the window of tolerance. If you are in sitting meditation, this might include switching to walking meditation, or doing a few stretches, maybe a soothing bath or a drink of water, all activities done with judicious discernment and awareness, until we are back within the borders of the window and the brain feels safe, at which point we immediately get back to sitting meditation. Knowing how to constructively work with the window of tolerance is an art and a crucial part of a successful practice, because we cannot deeply observe and investigate our nature with a brain in panic. The brain needs to feel safe.

Safe does not mean easy – the practice can feel very challenging. Safe means not overwhelming, within the window of tolerance of today. As long as you feel you are in charge accompanied with a sense of mastery, no matter how difficult your experience is, your meditation practice is effective and you are rewiring your brain furiously. The moment you feel out of control in a fight/flight or even freeze state, Your practice is counterproductive, you only reinforce miswirings and you are wasting your time at best, if not hurting yourself. With time and practice, during which we cultivate our work at the edge of the window, the window expands and we become increasingly resilient. We then don’t need the cereal box anymore to find a sense of having a break.

Copyright © 2016 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.