No easy path

forest pathIf you want a quick and easy path to greater happiness, you’ve picked the wrong universe to live in. Better luck next time! Since it may take some time to find another universe in which personal change is swift and straightforward, you might want to bite the bullet and experiment with letting go of any lingering assumptions you may have that you’re going to be able to change without doing any work.

This isn’t to say that there are not great joys to be found on the path. In fact, although changing has its challenges it also brings great joys – just as a hike in the country is both hard work and invigoratingly enjoyable. But the challenges are definitely there. Sometimes your patience is going to be tested. Sometimes you will despair at the rate at which you are changing. Sometimes you’re going to be plain confused. Sometimes you’re going to feel like giving up.

All of these obstacles are not really obstacles at all. They are not rocks blocking your way, but are stepping stones to change. They are opportunities to get to know yourself better, and to develop fortitude, courage, and patience.

Your difficulties are going to be your greatest teachers, for we often learn most about ourselves when we are stretched to our limits – or to what we think are our limits, since often those limitations turn out to be illusory. We are all capable of far more than we know. Having our patience challenged is an opportunity to expand our understandings of what we are capable of. It is a call to a greater depth of understanding and acceptance of ourselves and others, and a call to let go of resistance to change.

Despair at the rate of change we are experiencing is an opportunity to learn about our preconceptions about what we think should happen, and an opportunity to learn acceptance. Any true artist has to know his or her materials intimately; has to understand how they will perform under different conditions. We have, as developing human beings, to learn the nature of the material with which we are working, and in meditation our material is our own mind. It would be wonderful if the nature of our minds was such that we could flick a switch and be happy. But that’s not how things are. Despair arises when we have a false understanding of how quickly it is possible to change or of what conditions are necessary for such change. This is obviously one of the main areas in which we can learn through meditation.

Doubt and confusion, rather than being looked at as experiences of failure, can be looked at as a healthy part of change. Confusion arises when we leave behind one set of preconceptions and suppositions, but have not yet found a new way to make sense of what is going on. We’ve let go of a false certainty, and are on the way to finding a new and truer understanding. That is a sign of progress, not failure.

No failure…

Ultimately, all suffering is a message that we have something to learn; that there is some skill that we have not yet mastered, that there is some idea we have that is false, that there is pattern of behavior we have that is not delivering the results that we expect of it.

In one psychological discipline, they say that in communication there is no failure but only feedback. I believe that this is true in meditation. If what we experience in meditation is not to our liking, then it is not a sign that we are not cut out to be meditators, or that we need to give up, or that we need to find a new meditation practice, but that we have something more to learn. Not only that, but we are often being given an indication of what it is that we must learn.

This feedback can be very precise. Meditating can be a bit like scrutinizing our lives with a microscope and seeing what we most need to work on. When we repeatedly experience tiredness in meditation, this can teach us about the need to look after ourselves and to guard our own sources of nourishment. When our minds are making lists and anxiously planning, we can see that we need to become more organized in our daily lives. When we find that we are spending our meditation mulling things over, this can teach us of the need to set aside more time to reflect. Inner arguments show us that there are important conflicts that we have yet to resolve, whether by forgiving and letting go of grievances, or by working things through with another person.

The concept of failure in meditation is profoundly disempowering. It leads to giving up. In meditation there is no failure, only feedback. Remember that your difficulties will turn out to be your teachers, your obstacles will turn out to be stepping stones, and that the sometimes hard and rocky path of meditation will turn out to be the way to greater fulfillment and deeper contentment. Learning is not always easy, but it is always beneficial in the long term. Let go of the idea of failure, and embrace the notion that everything you experience in meditation is feedback, and the path will be immeasurably more enjoyable and enriching.

16 Comments. Leave new

  • Hello,

    I know you said not to worry about failure, since everything can be learned from, but whenever I meditate thoughts come into my mind that I cannot get rid of, particulary failure. When I try to get rid of them, or I tell myself that there is no failure, only feedback, and that I should get my head down and just meditate, the problem worsens!

    Do you have any advice for a “noobie” about the problem of thoughts that cannot be removed?

  • Hi David,

    I sympathize with the problem of intrusive and unwanted thinking. I can suggest a few approaches.

    One is that you make these thoughts themselves into the object of your meditation for as long as they persist. This approach involves recognizing that the thoughts are not “things” that are permanently lodged in your mind (“cannot be removed” as you put it) but are impermanent processes that arise, seem to exist for a while, and then pass away. Now you may be saying, “But they keep coming back, so they are permanent,” but what’s happening in fact is that similar thoughts are being recreated over and over again. If you watch any one thought you’ll see that it wasn’t there, then it is (apparently), and then it’s not. Each thought is impermanent.

    Over time, if you keep doing this, you’ll start to recognize that these thoughts are simply passing through. And if they’re just passing through you’ll start to recognize that they’re not fundamentally part of you. You are not your thoughts; your thoughts are not you.

    It’s also not the most helpful approach to think in terms of “getting rid” of unwanted thoughts. When we try to get rid of thoughts we’re engaged in an impossible, and therefore fruitless, task. The thoughts will get rid of themselves — all you have to do is keep coming back to the breath (or wishing yourself well).

    Another thing I’d strongly suggest is that when these thoughts arise you notice the pain that follows on their heels. Actually, I’m sure you do notice the pain, but what I suggest is that you notice specifically where in the body this pain is located — what size and shape is the pain, what texture does it have — and cultivate lovingkindness for that pain: direct the thoughts, “May you be well,;may you be happy; may you be free from suffering” towards your pain, as if your pain was a suffering friend.

    May you, and all beings, be well!

  • I tried again this evening, I still had some trouble, but I took your advice to heart and felt some difference. Not a large one, but it is still my first day :p

    Thanks, and I wish you and all things well.

  • Hi again, David.

    “Some difference” is good, especially after one session. Those small changes mount up over time and eventually our approach to life is substantially different to what it once was. “Mony a puckle maks a muckle” as we say in Scotland.

    All the best,

  • I have been meditating off and on for some years now. I am finding it so difficult to be regular with my meditation. I will do it daily for a few weeks and then can’t seem to do it at all. I have a very demanding job in the hospital-get up at 5 am daily go to work and usually get home around 8 pm. I am very tired when I get home and sometimes just eat dinner and go to sleep. I don’t want to live like this but have to support myself-I am single and don’t know what else to do. Any thoughts? Thanks so much for your kindness in responding to this comment. Dorothy

  • Hi Dorothy,

    Life can be very demanding sometimes, and there are bound to be times when sitting just isn’t possible. At those times you may have to settle for practicing meditation in action — for example eating your lunch as a meditation and walking as a meditation. Perhaps you could even take two-minute breaks during the day at your office or in a staff-room or rest-room, and just sit and center yourself.

    A wider issue is where we decide (sometimes unconsciously) not to keep up a habit because we can’t do it perfectly. People giving up smoking sometimes do this — if they have one lapse they decide it’s not worth persevering with being smoke-free. And we sometimes do this with good habits like meditation: if we miss a day we decide to give up because we label that as failure and we don’t like to fail. But actually any meditation we do is a success in some sense, because we’re making an effort. And meditating on a less-than-daily basis is better than not meditating at all.

    It’s possible you’ve set yourself an unattainable ideal of daily meditation, given how busy you are. Maybe you could make a promise to yourself to do a full-length meditation on every one of your days off and on working days that you have the time and energy, and a reduced schedule on days when you’re simply too tired or busy. On those days I’d suggest, as above, creating space for some short sits as well as practicing mindfulness throughout the day.

  • Hello Bodhipaksa,

    I have been somewhat confused about what I can only best describe as relating to Buddhist teachings of oneness. It all relates to a book I read by the Dalai llama “How to practice the way to a meaningful life”. In it he said that time being fundamentally eternal in nature, having no beginning or end; he wrote “You have already been and done everything”. Where the concept seems too blur for me is at two intersecting points. Could he have meant, that, I or we have all been in the same positions, the abuser has been the abused the lover the loved and so on. Or is it more straightforward, that I have lived your life and you lived mine; similar to one of my favorite Beatles lines “I am you as you are me and we are all together.”?

    Any insight will be most accepted.

    • Hi, Bass.

      “You have already been and done everything” isn’t an idea that resonates with me at all, I’m afraid. His Holiness takes rebirth in a very literal way, and accepts the teaching that we have all been each others’ mother, father, child. This is not something I personally believe, so I’m not the best person to approach for an interpretation of what he meant. Sorry!

  • I apologize for double posting but I felt compelled to append.
    That Sometimes I wonder why these questions often circulate around my mind. Existence being eternal, the relationship of the observer and the observed being the motif of our lives I feel an overwhelming urge at times to just let go of everything and just embrace the fact that there has always been and always will be something; and to just enjoy the fact that everything just is. Is this the ego playing tricks on me, or more of a fundamental truth.

    Sorry for the overwhelming and staggering questions. I know you must be overworked. Thanks again!

    • The Buddha said that speculative views about whether the universe is eternal or not are a waste of time and effort, spiritually speaking. They’re simply irrelevant to the project the Buddha undertook, and encouraged us to undertake which is discovering how we cause ourselves and others suffering, and learning not to do that.

      So in light of that, I’d say that your urge to “just enjoy the fact that everything just is” is a very wise one!

  • Hey There

    I can’t agree more about just being with the difficulty, instead of pushing it away I am just trying to be with the pain, in particular for me this takes the form of a very pervasive and ruminative ill will.

    This piece has given me some much needed inspiration, the path is difficult at times and the more I am progressing sometimes the harder it seems. I am definitely experiencing a lot of doubt and confusion but feel perhaps this is a sign of moving into new territories.

    I particularly like the the idea of thoughts, feelings and emotions being like the weather, they come and go and you they pass, you just have to kindly be with them and not add another layer of stress and suffering on by responding negatively.

    It seems to be to be that the buddhist path really is about responding more skillfully to thoughts and mental events, not about eradicating or ‘stopping them’. This acceptance is something I am slowly trying to work with and take on board. I cannot change my past conditioning but I can work with what i’ve got, start with exactly where I am :)

    I would like to say thank you for all the amazing work you do, it is quite inspirational to see what you do.

    I have read your book and I would like to kindly ask a question. It seemed to be that ruminative Ill Will was something you also experienced, this persistent, recurring anger and ill will I think is actually covering over a deep insecurity in myself, an Ill Will I hold towards my own being, which is then rooted in ego.

    Do you have any advice for working with this, as letting this go and holding this more lightly (i’ve struggled with this for years), would be a huge step forward in my spiritual life. I will keep just ‘being kindly with it’ but do you have any other advice? :)

    With Metta :)
    Benji Lamb

    • Hi, Benji.

      Yes, I used to have a lot of ill will, and was generally a very critical person. I still have to remind myself to be appreciative, but I’m much kinder than I ever was before.

      One thing I wish I’d discovered earlier is self-compassion, and especially the kind of self-compassion where you notice that there is a moment of hurt before an angry episode. Noticing that hurt and giving it my compassionate attention is the most transformative practice that I’ve stumbled upon in my life. Here’s an article from a few years ago that sums up my approach.

      And generally, lots of metta bhavana!

      All the best,


    This is the piece I have found on emotions being like the weather.

    Just to expand on one thing, what I meant by ego was more of a ‘bruised ego’ I think, not getting a craved for affirmation by someone who perhaps dislikes me is what I am suggesting underlies a sense of ill will, this kind of frustrated craving comes out in anger but I think perhaps underneath it there is a deeper issue with regards to clinging, the ego and craving?

    Any advice would be so greatly appreciated :)

    With Metta :)
    Benji Lamb

  • Thanks so much Bodhipaska for your reply, will practice this with self compassion in mind :)

    I have also really benefited from (and perhaps others will also) from this article you wrote about Self Hatred :)

    You are a good man and I really admire what you do, noticing the critical voice, being kind and mindful of it is a very interesting practice and one which I have not encountered before!

    The idea of giving love to the negative, critical part of the self at first seems odd though!

  • Dear Bodhipaksa, thank you for this article I run into in while searching for meditation tips for beginners…. I’m not exactly beginner I’ve been meditating on and off since almost 10 years… But now I found myself at the point where I doubt everything because aside from few wonderful moments of clarity and revelations and lots and lots of work and progress on the path of self-awarness and just being a good person… right now I feel that all I know is how horrible and messy and chaotic and out of control my mind, how self-involved I am and I feel that there is not a chance that I will ever be able to really sit and meditate.
    I feel like I’ve been doing it wrong all along because instead of relaxed clarity I’ve been mostly wrestling with thoughts and when I wrestled them out I would just end up with cold, bare blank that feels like mind coma.
    I’m lost because neither counting breaths nor mindfulness, not guided meditations etc… nothing works.
    I’ve been reading a lot, following online classes and it just creates more confusion for me (do that, don’t do that, sit like this, control your thoughts, don’t control your thoughts… OMG). I can’t understand how people can fall asleep during meditation, for me that’s as hard as doing mental abs.
    I know deep down that there is a meditation for me and it wants to be found, and the road will be rocky (I guess should be, from what you explain) but right now all I feel is chaos and resistance.

    So I feel like total newbie at the end :)
    If you have any advise I would really appreciate a lot!!!

    Thank you!


    • Hi, Alicja.

      First of all, I’m sorry to hear that you’re experiencing all of this doubt and confusion. 2,500 years ago, the Buddha was talking to people from the Kalama tribe in India, who were confused because they had heard so many contradictory spiritual teachings. And he said to them, “Of course you are uncertain. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born.”

      So it’s not at all surprising that you’re confused. There’s nothing wrong with you. In fact it’s normal to feel this way. You’ve been exposed to contradictory teachings, and that unpleasant feeling of confusion is what happens when your mind is trying to integrate things that can’t be integrated, and to make sense of things that are contradictory. It’s a normal feeling. I’d suggest that you value and accept it.

      For many people doing lots of different kinds of practices (even contradictory ones) isn’t a problem. They’re basically just dabbling. Which is OK. But I get a sense that you’re looking for something deeper. You’re looking for a path. Something to give your life a sense of direction and meaning. And heading a few steps in one direction and then a few steps in another just isn’t going to give you what you need. Instead it brings this confusion.

      You wrote, “Right now I feel that all I know is how horrible and messy and chaotic and out of control my mind, how self-involved I am.” And you know, all of that is OK as well. It’s just a normal part of being human. This is how we all are, except that you can only see the workings of your own mind, while with others you can only see the “edited highlights” that make it to the surface. And in the end the messy, chaotic, out-of-control nature of the mind is a teaching. The Buddha pointed out that the mind not being under our control was an indication that we shouldn’t identify with it. In other words we shouldn’t take it too seriously. We shouldn’t just ourselves by it (“The mind is chaotic therefore I am a bad person”). The mind is chaotic, but so what? It’s not who you are!

      I’d make two suggestions. First, beyond the initial states of trying on different practices for size, it helps to pick a path and stick to it. Find a teacher whose work interests and sometimes excites you, that you broadly find you agree with but who challenges you in ways that turn out to be positive, that nourishes you but also stretches you, that gives you a sense that you’ll be able to go somewhere.

      Second, make sure that that path includes self-compassion. Many teachers’ work is heavy on mindfulness and light on emotional development. That experience you describe of a “cold, bare blank that feels like mind coma” concerns and even worries me. It’s what happens when there’s not enough inner warmth, which is a faculty we all need to develop. I kind of hate to sound like I’m plugging something, but my book, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human” might be helpful. It’s a step-by-step guide to cultivating self-compassion.

      Anyway I wish you well, and I appreciate you asking about these things. I love having the opportunity to talk about practice.

      All the best,


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