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Impediments to the Practice of
Insight Meditation

by Matthew Flickstein

Insight Meditation is an introspective process through which we gain insight into the true nature of our experience. A consistent practice allows us to penetrate the deeper layers of delusion and to develop greater levels of spiritual clarity.

To practice insight meditation, sit on either a cushion placed on top of a mat or on a straight-back chair. Your posture is straight but relaxed. Your left hand is palm up and placed in your lap with your right hand, also palm up, on top of the left. (The reverse of this hand position is also acceptable.)

Make a commitment to remain still during the entire meditation period. You want to focus your attention in order to penetrate the reality of your moment-to-moment experience. Therefore, you need to keep your mind steady and free from unnecessary distractions. Your mind becomes disturbed every time you move your body.

Insight Meditation Instructions:

  • Your eyes are closed.
  • Your mouth is closed and you are breathing through your nose.
  • Feel the touch sensation of your breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils at the tip of your nose. Some people feel the touch more strongly within the nostrils, while others feel it more strongly on the upper lip.
  • Feel the beginning, the middle, and the end of every in-breath, and the beginning, the middle, and the end of every out-breath.
  • Sometimes the breath will be short – there is no need to make it longer. Sometimes the breath will be long – there is no need to make it shorter. Sometimes the breath will be erratic – there is no need to even it out.
  • Just become aware of the breath as it goes in and out of the nostrils at the tip of the nose.
  • Let the breath breathe itself.
  • Notice the impermanent and changing nature of each breath.
  • As you focus on the breath, notice that from time to time your attention shifts to other experiences or new objects of awareness. This is not a problem.
  • Whenever your attention shifts to an object other than the breath, merely become aware of the impermanent and changing nature of that object. Then, gently but firmly, bring your attention back to the touch sensation of the breath.

While the path to spiritual liberation is clearly marked for us, it is a long and difficult journey. In spite of determined efforts to cultivate and sustain our meditation practice, it is not uncommon to reach a meaningful plateau in our spiritual understanding, but feel unable to make further progress. At such times, it is helpful to explore the reasons why our practice might be blocked. We will discuss nine of the more common possibilities.

#1 Unresolved Psychological Issues

To develop spiritual clarity, we need to observe how the mind ceaselessly changes according to specific causes and conditions. If we have unresolved psychological issues, we tend to identify with the mind's story line and are unable to observe how the mind truly functions as an ongoing process. The four primary psychological issues that tend to keep us locked into the content level of the mind are: anger or resentment; unresolved grief; communication incompletions; and fear.

Anger or resentment over what has happened to us in the past is one of the most serious impediments to spiritual growth. We may feel justified in feeling resentment because of abuses we have experienced, but our anger only creates inner turmoil, unskillful behaviors and future circumstances that will prevent further spiritual development.

When we have unresolved grief, we continue to react emotionally whenever the memory of a particular loss enters our mind. We may still be grieving over the loss of a person, a possession, or a specific opportunity. Our unresolved grief keeps us focused on the past and unable to see things as they are in the present moment.

A communication incompletion is the lack of honesty or full disclosure in our significant relationships. It prevents a deep sense of trust and intimacy from arising and creates agitation and confusion in our minds.

Fear of the future is actually not fear of the unknown, but fear of the loss of the known. This fear causes the mind to consider time and again how our decisions may be putting at risk those things to which we are attached. It prevents us from being open to the truth that unfolds in each new moment.

#2 Attempting to Resolve our Problems While Meditating

The process of insight meditation involves watching the body, feelings, mind and mental objects rise and fall from moment to moment in order to realize their impermanent and selfless nature. If we attempt to solve our problems while sitting for meditation, we will not recognize the true characteristics of experience. We will only generate psychological insights, which may be personally valuable, but will not help us to achieve spiritual clarity.

#3 Not Living an Ethical Life

If we are not adhering to the precepts and are engaging in unskillful actions, speech or thoughts, we may experience guilt or remorse when we meditate. These unpleasant feelings will prevent us from concentrating our mind, and will act as an impediment to the arising of insight.

#4 Denial of Death

If we ask ourselves the question, "Will I die?" the answer will certainly be "Yes." However, the subtext of that answer is typically, "But not for a while yet!" A typical consequence of not acknowledging the potential immediacy of our death is to postpone spending extended periods of time on retreats where circumstances are most conducive to deep practice and spiritual growth.

#5 Focusing our Attention on Intellectual Learning

No matter how much reading we do, if we have not personally experienced what we have read, the information gained will not lead to liberation. Beliefs will never provide a true sense of security when circumstances become difficult, due to unexpected and unwelcome changes. In the same way that reading a menu will not satiate our hunger, reading spiritual material will not quench our spiritual longing.

#6 Insufficient Concentration

One of the main purposes of concentration is to suppress the mental hindrances. Suppressing the hindrances enables the mind to focus on its own processes, which leads to the recognition of the true nature of experience. If we have not reached a sufficient level of concentration, in which the mind is stable and steady, our spiritual development will be thwarted.

#7 Actively Searching for Insights

A significant impediment to spiritual clarity is believing that the mind can intentionally generate insights if it tries hard enough to do so. It is the mind that wants to know something beyond its conceptual grasp that acts as the barrier to seeing things more clearly. Whether the mind is attempting to recreate a prior spiritual experience, or trying to achieve an experience it has heard about, the activity of the mind becomes self-defeating. As we simply develop the causes and conditions that will remove the obscurations to wisdom, insights will spontaneously arise on their own.

#8 Not Developing a Relationship with a Teacher

The Buddha became enlightened through his own efforts at a time when the path to spiritual liberation had been forgotten. Self-enlightenment is one of the unique attributes of a Buddha. The rest of us need the guidance of a teacher to illuminate the path and to keep us moving in the right direction. A teacher can also serves as a model of inner-peace, selfless action, and boundless love, showing what is possible for us to attain.

#9 Our Commitment is not Focused on Spiritual Liberation

There are many reasons why individuals begin to meditate: to manage their stress; to satisfy their intellectual curiosity; to open their hearts; and so forth. It is important to realize that our intentions are directly related to the level and quality of our achievements. Therefore, focusing our efforts on the ultimate goal of liberation is essential to its attainment. It is also important to remember that the possibility of spiritual liberation is present at each moment and that nothing is actually "gained" when it is achieved.

Intention is also referred to as earnestness. In this discussion, it means the sincere desire to realize ultimate truth. Having true earnestness will help us to overcome any or all of the impediments to spiritual development, and will draw to us the optimum causes and conditions for spiritual liberation.

© Copyright Matthew Flickstein.  All Rights Reserved. 

Matthew Flickstein is the resident teacher at the Forest Way Insight Meditation Center. He has been practicing and teaching Vipassana meditation for over twenty-three years. His primary teacher has been Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a Buddhist monk for over fifty-seven years and author of the highly regarded book, Mindfulness in Plain English. Matthew has also studied with other teachers, including Achan Sobin Namto and Eido Tai Shimano-Roshi.

At one time, Matthew was ordained as a monk in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. In 1984, he co-founded the Bhavana Society Meditation Center in West Virginia with Bhante Gunaratana. Before developing the Forest Way Insight Meditation Center, Matthew was a psychotherapist and facilitated personal development workshops.

Matthew’s first book, Journey to the Center: A Meditation Workbook, was published by Wisdom in 1998. His new book, Swallowing the River Ganges: A Practice Guide to the Path of Purification, will be released by Wisdom Publications in January 2001.

Visit the Forest Way Insight Meditation Center:



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