“You’re Not Doing It Right”: Encountering Your Threshold Guardians in Meditative Practice

By Thomas McConkie, adapted from an episode of the Mindfulness+ podcast.

***

Years ago I was at a ten-day meditation retreat when I became consumed by a voice inside my head. The voice was like a drill sergeant barking at me, telling me that I was doing the meditation wrong — that if I were doing it right, I would be more comfortable, more relaxed, and happier. 

Given how unhappy and how uncomfortable I was, the voice started to make a lot of sense. I thought, “Gosh, he certainly has a point. I'm pretty miserable. I'm seven days into this retreat, and I'm supposed to be blissed out — enlightened, levitating with the ascended masters beyond space and time — but instead I'm just suffering. My back hurts, my knees are stabbing, and my mind is racing. I want a good, proper meal, and I want to stop waking up at 4 A.M to meditate.” 

That's the situation I was in.

Yet something in me just sat through it. And after days of enduring this voice in my head, suddenly, like a soap bubble bursting and vanishing, this voice just disappeared. It was gone. I was stunned because moments before it had vanished, it was real. It was solid, it was substantive. I could hear it clearly saying, “Quit meditating. Go home, you total hack!” And then moments later I was blissed out. I didn't feel any pain, there wasn’t a single thought in my head, and I could have just sat there forever.

My hope in sharing this story is to facilitate people across this common threshold. 

Threshold Guardians

In Jungian psychology, there’s talk of threshold guardians — challenges that show up when we're about to get somewhere significant in our life. These challenges can be personified in mythology as demons and beasts and villains, or we can just interpret them to be our own emotional barriers. 

If you decide you want to develop mindful awareness in a way that’s constantly benefitting and uplifting you moment to moment in life, you will most certainly encounter these threshold guardians. What should you do when this happens?

There are a lot of different ways to answer such a question, but in today’s short lesson I want to focus on the skill of recognizing inner chatter — the inner voice, the inner talk in your head that has an opinion about virtually everything. I want to sensitize you to what can happen. 

You have two options:

  1. You hear the voice, and then you tuck your tail and run. That’s what I was contending with when I heard the voice on that retreat. 

  2. You stay with the voice. You get really precise about what's happening. What's the voice saying? What's the emotion associated with that voice? You just allow the voice to arise.

So on the one hand, we buy into the voice, which ends up limiting us. On the other hand, if we stay with it, if we stay present and we stay open, we will witness the moment where this limiting thought passes and opens up into a whole new realm, a whole new territory. The truth is that sooner or later, every single thing you encounter passes. It just passes. And what was your reality, what defined your world moments ago, breaks open into utter freedom. 

That's my hope for humanity — that rather than tucking tail and running, we meet these boundaries, that we come into contact with them in a gentle and even tender way. That we wait, abide, soften, and breathe. 

Let’s see what this looks like in practice.

Practice

Find a place where you can stretch and settle in. Feel the ground beneath you, supporting you. See if you can relax your weight into it more fully, trusting the ground, softening. Feel the softness of the belly, allowing it to be round, expanding, contracting with the breath.

Feel the straightness of the spine. Notice the natural wakefulness, the natural alertness that comes from just being upright. Or if you're lying down, the wakefulness that comes with having a straight spine.

Bring your awareness to the space where this inner talk — this running commentary — tends to arise in your awareness. For many people this is somewhere inside the head, or maybe around the ears. Bring your awareness to this general area and notice when a thought arises in the form of talk. [Long pause.]

Good. Stay with it. Keep your awareness in the space where you perceive this mental talk to arise. You don't have to do anything about the mental talk. You don't have to prevent it from activating, and you don't have to dive into the stream, getting washed away with the content of the talk. You can just notice it rising, notice the profound stillness as it passes.

Sometimes it’s like a cat watching a mouse hole. The mouse won't poke its head out, knowing the cat is lurking outside. Often times when we park our awareness in this part of experience, mental talk suddenly quiets down, which is just fine with us. If you notice no thought in particular arising, good. You can just be with the inner silence. And if you notice thoughts activating, good. You can just let them activate, while not getting pulled into them, while not elaborating on the content of the thoughts.

Notice that however active the thinking mind is in a given moment, however much mental chatter you're aware of, you can always detect space in-between the words, in-between the sound. Notice that at the heart of it, this is a practice of coming from and returning to silence. 

Take a final moment to just notice the space you're in. Notice where this practice period has left you. And before you move back in to the business of the day, you can form an intention to leave this door open, free to return to silence at will.