Over the past few months I've been experiencing a lot of personal issues and as a result, my practice seems to not only have plateaued but also digressed. Sitting for an hour has become incredibly difficult physically and mentally. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to to return to the beginner's mind, or how to rid the mind of distractions?
There could be several reasons why your practice has plateaued. Without more background it is difficult to help. Here are a few common ones.
1. Ethical Transgression
If we have broken the sila (moral precepts) in the course of our personal issues, that's a very effective dampener on the practice. Apologising or making amends, and letting go of guilt are the appropriate remedies.
2. Accepting plateaus as normal
Going for an intensive retreat, preferably with a good teacher might help, but to be honest, plateaus are a part and parcel of anyone's meditation.
As long as our faith and perseverance aren't fading, we can't wish for super deluxe concentration all the time.
Every athlete has periods when they are not in form, every meditator has periods when their mind isn't seemingly responding to their commands, but it is still evolving. This isn't regression, this is impermanence.
3. Clinging to life situations
Learning to let go of challenging life situations is a skill to be constantly developed. Like a flower dies without water, our practice of letting go dies without watering it. If we are bothered very much by a life situation and retreat to meditation as a safe zone, it can help initially, but later meditation can become difficult until the life situation is handled or fully accepted.
4. Fading faith and perseverance
Doubts about the effectiveness of the dharma, questions about one's own practice, questions about one's method or teacher can all lead to lacklustre concentration.
What do you mean your practice has plateaued?! Are you perfect? Don't you have day-to-day challenges?
Practice is not just meditation. Your "personal issues" are practice too. See if you can trace your personal issues to improvement opportunities. Take responsibility. Stalk your ego patterns. Reconcile with "enemies". Break through your fears, stereotypes, projections. Life is an endless source of practice opportunities, day after day after day. If you are serious about this, you'll never get bored!
Yes, sometimes we plateau when we solve one set of problems, and wallow around for a while until we can grasp the pattern in our behavior / situations that then can be traced the next set of problems. As Buddho said, this is perfectly normal - as long as you are aware that you are in between jobs.
Take a rest, open your eyes and look around. The pathways to next levels are hiding among the obvious, long used to, unquestioned pains.
It seems you have arrived at a phase of the progression of insight that is characterised by an acute and intense perception of suffering. There is no other way out of that other than understanding the workings of suffering itself. To do that, when you meditate, contemplate how body, sensaions, mind states and thoughts arise due to causes. After sharpening the mind for a while with samatha meditation, contemplate how every one of these experiences has a cause.
For example, while observing your experience, you think of pizza and realise that the cause of that thought was hunger. You go back to your experience. You feel pain in the knee and realise the cause is sitting crosslegged. Go back to experiencing. You smell a pleasant flower smell coming through the window and realise that the smell arises due to contact between the substance in the smell with the nerves in your nose. Go back. You think of someone you miss and realise that your suffering is caused by attachment to that person. Go back. Etc. etc.
Contemplating in this way you'll realise two things: one is that suffering always arises due to causes, namely attachment and aversion to your experiences. Two is that your "self", your "I", is a false idea that arises in the deluded mind of a conditioned and sentient process constituted by your 5 aggregates. Mantain this perception of how everything works and you will break through a lot of suffering.
The first result is that you'll be more equanimous and let the intense perception of suffering behind, because you understood the causes of suffering. The second maturation of this practice will be that you'll break through a cycle of suffering.
Practicing metta meditation helps a lot. Never forget to practice it towards yourself because that's what aleviates your suffering during this phase.
I think you are operating under a false premise here. Your practice hasn't plateaued. It's doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing. Sitting isn't about ascending to the heavens or blissing out. Reaching jhana is great, but it's not why we sit.
The goal of Buddhist meditation isn't to replace our troubles with some blissed out alternative. It doesn't seek to eliminate problems but rather fundamentally alter our relationship to them. Sitting well isn't just about obtaining deep, unobstructed concentration. It's more about being deeply intimate with our minds. In developing that kind of intimacy, very often you are going to have to confront things that will be uncomfortable. In fact, that's pretty much the very definition of intimacy - staying with something even when it's causing you pain and discomfort. I would go so far as to say that the sits where you are fully absorbed and tranquil don't do nearly as much for your practice as do the sits where your mind is scattered, legs hurt, and you are harboring deep doubt. Becoming intimate with those states is far more productive than diving into a well of bliss.
Difficulties are the compost of practice. They are the mud where the lotus sends down it's roots. And if you are looking for some advice - the best solution for bad sitting is more sitting. ;-) Good luck!
In brief it deals with the five hindrances and how to overcome them in order to progress in ones practice.