Recently I was asked to contribute a couple of paragraphs on top frustrations for beginning meditators (and how to overcome them). The link’s at the bottom of this article. I was in good company, with Tara Brach and Andy Puddicombe, for example. But two paragraphs isn’t enough to do justice to this topic and I thought I’d take the opportunity to come up with my own list.
So here it is: The seven top frustrations for beginning meditators, and how to overcome them.
1. Expecting instant results
A lot of people are looking for a quick fix. They hope that meditation is going to do something to them. Something good, of course. But meditation is actually us working with our own minds. And this takes time. We’ve built up habits of overthinking, reacting, self-judgment and so on over many years. We bring those habits into our meditation practice, and we have to learn first to identify them and then to work with them. It takes time to unlearn old habits. It takes time to develop newer, more helpful habits.
The solution: Understand that meditation is like exercise; you don’t go to the gym and become instantly fit. It’s something that you need to do regularly in order to see the benefits.
2. Realizing that the mind is so busy
It’s a very common experience to sit down to meditate and discover our minds are all over the place, with thinking going on almost non-stop. We sometimes call this “monkey mind” after the image of a monkey swinging from branch to branch, not settling down anywhere but instead always focusing on something new, until that’s abandoned for the next new thing. When we’re beginning it’s often not just hard to find any calmness, but actually impossible.
The solution: Accept that the mind is busy. Even people who have been meditating for years have times when their minds are thinking almost non-stop. The difference is that they don’t bother about it. They don’t see it as a sign that something is wrong. They know to accept that this is what the mind is like, sometimes. So they don’t get frustrated when lots of thoughts arise. They simply let go of the thinking, over and over again, and return to the meditation practice.
3. Physical discomfort
At first we may not know how to sit comfortably for meditation. This may happen when we try to force ourselves to sit in a cross-legged position when we don’t have the flexibility to do so. Or we may not have very good equipment, and we’re sitting on very soft cushions that can’t support our weight. Or even if we have a good posture and the right equipment, but it may just be that we’re not used to sitting that way for very long. The discomfort that comes from sitting in a posture that doesn’t work for us can make a meditation session sheer torture.
The solution: An experienced teacher can help you to find a good posture (and we have an online guide to posture right here on Wildmind. They can also help you choose the right equipment; some people need to use chairs, or special meditation benches, rather than try to sit on cushions. And once you have all that sorted out, your body will learn to be more at ease and you’ll be able to sit for longer without discomfort.
4. Getting bored
Boredom is a common problem for beginning meditators. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Are we there yet?
Boredom happens when we’ve begun to calm the mind down, but haven’t yet learned to appreciate the simply beauty of our experience. A lot of us are in our heads: we spend so much time thinking that we forget how to experience the body. And so when our thinking starts to slow down there’s just not much left for us to appreciate. And it’s hard to stay motivated doing something that we find boring, and so we just give up.
The solution: In the long-term, interoception (the ability to sense what’s going on in the body) is something that we get better at with practice. As we continue meditating we find that our experience of the body becomes richer, more detailed, and more pleasurable. Eventually the body can be a source of source of pleasure in every waking moment. If we just keep going, this will happen. On the way there, it’s helpful for us to let go of the idea of paying attention to the breath, and instead to be aware of the breathing. This opens up the way for us to have a much richer, fuller, and more enjoyable experience in meditation. The breathing involves the entire body in a dance of interwoven sensations. When we begin to experience it this way, we’re no longer bored. And we find that our interoceptive ability improves rapidly, so that we have a fuller and more satisfying experience of the body.
5. Not seeing progress
It’s natural to want your meditation practice to do something for you—to bring you benefits. And you wonder when it’s going to start doing that. Why is my mind still full of thoughts? you might wonder. The thing is that being overly concerned about where you hope meditation might take you actually interferes with your ability to experience and enjoy the present moment. Often people aren’t able to fully experience the degree to which they’re changing; other people may see them becoming calmer and happier, but they themselves don’t. Why? Because we’re so close to ourselves, we don’t see ourselves clearly.
The solution: You’ll make more progress if you aren’t so concerned about progress. Just be present. It’s like a family on a long car ride: the kids in the back are constantly asking how long is it going to be until we get there, while the adults are better able to relax into the journey, without wanting to be elsewhere.
6. Believing your doubts
Placing too much trust in the thoughts that the mind creates is something that affects experienced meditators as well as beginners. They can be a little or not so little voice saying things like, “You’re not very good at this. Other people are, but not you. You’re not really cut out to be a meditator. In fact you’re a terrible meditator. You might as well give up.” If we believe these voices, it can be very hard for us to continue with our practice.
The solution: It’s radical to realize that we don’t have to believe our thoughts. Thoughts are just stories. Sometimes they’re reasonable and helpful stories, but sometimes they’re just rationalizations of our fears. There can actually be parts of us that are afraid of changing in positive ways. And those parts of us can try to derail our practice by telling us how bad we are at it. So learn to step back and to treat your inner storyteller with skepticism. These kinds of negative monologues are what we call the hindrance of doubt. Once we learn to identify this hindrance, we’re less likely to be taken in by it.
7. Setting up a regular practice
It can be very hard indeed to set up a daily meditation practice. This is true even when meditation is going well for us and we’re enjoying it! We can find that we’re just too busy, or that there’s resistance even if we do have the time to sit. Sometimes this causes people to gradually give up meditation. They don’t sit for a few days, then maybe a couple of weeks go by and they forget to even try.
The solution: First, commit to sit, even if it’s just for five minutes a day. It’s better to meditate for a short time daily, than to do longer sits and skip days. It’s much better to do a little meditation than none! Second, try out my mantra: “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.”
Here’s a link to the original article.
Great piece Bodhi. It’s a good reminder for the experienced and inexperienced. I was definitely after instant results, and experience and feel every frustration you detailed here. What I can say is that I find myself noticing the effects of the practice when I think about it the least. The less hard I try the better it works.
I think the question of boredom and desperation for a meditation session to end are the most interesting impediment.
When I started meditating I had never really thought about what boredom is. It’s really a desperate desire to be distracted seemingly from the pain of just being alone with oneself. it’s one of the first things beyond physical discomfort that you can really sit and work with. I guess at first you just have to sit and be with it and notice and question why you feel so uncomfortable and desperate. Ultimately it’s why you should meditate and not why you shouldn’t meditate.
Your advice is very sensible – we have to observe reality as it is, at this moment, with equanimity; and if we lose that, then calmly return to the focus of meditation rather than get agitated. Not always easy! This is where effort and determination come in.
Expecting instant results – well, it all depends. Sitting a course with S N Goenka in Varanasi is rather different from, say, doing a bit of meditation at home. With no background whatsoever, I was convinced on the second evening of my first course with Goenkaji in 1972 that this was the right path and that I would follow it for life. You can’t get much more instant than that. I came with no expectation, no preconceptions, just that the little I’d heard of Goenka appealed to me. When I first saw him, a few hours before the course began, I thought “He looks like a fat, middle-aged businessman.” Well, he was that; but so much more.
Physical discomfort – because of injuries when run down by a car in 1965 and botched remedial surgery in 1968, I’ve never been able to adopt the “more or less comfortable cross-legged position” advised by Goenka, indeed for several years I was often in extreme agony while sitting in the one-hour “sittings of great determination.” But it’s only torture if you can’t observe the sensation with equanimity. The effort I had to make from my first course has proved very valuable.
Many people shouldn’t even try. I sit on a bench. It works just fine!
That position is the “full thistle” as in “Thistle be a lot more comfortable in the long run.”.
Yes, I noted at a one-day sit yesterday that Goenka said “Sit in a more-or-less comfortable position, with the back and neck upright;” he didn’t say “cross-legged,” although I think he did when I started. Of course, then he was teaching only in India, where sitting cross-legged is normal.
Even when I was a young child, and considerably more flexible than I am now, I couldn’t sit cross-legged! Even just a few years of sitting on chairs can make a cross-legged posture impossible for some of us.
It would have been helpful to mention those items that are labeled as hindrances by the Buddha (see MN 39 etc). Staying with the language of the suttas and mixing it with modern language is better than loosing the Buddha and only having modern ways. It also increases your credibility to say that you know what you are talking about. With only modern language you loose the needed credibility. Without sutta references, it is all just hearsay.
Note that you yourself just made a point without quoting the Buddha or using any of the traditional lists, illustrating that even you don’t think it’s necessary to do that all the time.
In fact it’s perfectly possible to give meaningful and helpful instruction in contemporary terms. The idea that this is “hearsay” makes no sense. Hearsay is information received from another person that one can’t verify from one’s own experience. Discussing lessons learned from one’s own experience is quite literally the opposite of hearsay.