frustration

The seven top frustrations for beginning meditators (and how to overcome them)

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.

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The core skill of meditation is showing up

bodhipaksa quote: core skill of meditationOne of the biggest myths about meditation is that it involves experiencing blissful or “spiritual” states of mind. It doesn’t. It’s about experiencing and accepting the very ordinary states that present themselves to us, and working with them, gently and kindly.

Now it is possible to experience beautiful, calm, joyful states of mind in meditation. There are delineated lists of these, complete with traditional accounts of the various factors that constitute those experiences. Those traditional lists correspond closely to the actual experience of contemporary meditators of many spiritual traditions—not just Buddhism. They’re real. They’re attainable.

But if we think that this is what meditation essentially is, then we probably won’t meditate, because most of the time those states don’t arise, even for people who’ve been meditating for a long time. And so we’ll get despondent and give up.

The chances are that when we meditate—especially when we’re first learning—we’re faced with an unruly mind that doesn’t want to experience what’s arising, because it’s unpleasant or boring. The mind assumes that happiness lies elsewhere, and so it keeps creating fantasies into which it tries to disappear. And our task is to keep turning back toward our actual experience again and again, even when that experience doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a source of peace or joy.

The core skill of meditation is showing up. Showing up is not something we do once. It’s something we do over and over again.

It’s not always easy to do this. In fact it rarely is. Many people try meditating, experience the unruliness, and think “I’m obviously not cut out for meditation. I didn’t experience anything special. All I got was frustration.”

And that’s why we need to practice coming back to our experience over and over again. In doing this, we start to develop the capacity to accept our experience, and to accept ourselves. We discover that it’s not the kinds of experiences we have that determine whether we’re happy, or at peace, or content, but the way we relate to those experiences.

So we find that the mind is restless, or that there’s something unpleasant going on in our experience, and instead of reacting to it we find we begin to accept it. The mind is less inclined to run from our core experience. It’s more likely to surround it with mindfulness, kindness, and curiosity.

And although this may not sound radical, it is. It’s radically different from the normal reactive state in which we keeping running from our experience.

And if we keep doing this, we may find that we start to experience some of the special meditative states I mentioned earlier—which are characterized by calmness, joy, and ease. But those states are not the essence of meditation. They result from showing up, over and over again. They result from our continued gentle efforts to experience and accept our ordinary unruly mind.

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Self-compassion for writers (and other tortured souls)

I was talking to a Buddhist friend recently who’s a wonderful writer. She creates amazing blog posts that usually start off deeply personal but go on to teach important and universal lessons about life. I have a lot to learn from her about combining the personal and the instructional, and in many ways I regard her as the better writer. The thing is, she told me she hasn’t been able to write for two years now, because she’s a perfectionist.

And that’s the problem with perfectionism. Perfectionism makes us anything but perfect, because, for one thing, it makes it harder for us to create. Perfectionism is like teaching an animal to do a trick by beating it every time it doesn’t do exactly what you want. What would happen if you tried to do this? You’d end up with an animal that could only cower in terror. If the animal was sensible it would run away. If it was really sensible it would bite you first. And I think this is what happens with the creative parts of ourselves when we’re perfectionists. We end up training our creative energies not to create, and we produce what we call writers’ block, or (more generally) creators’ block. Our creative urges run and hide. They see the blank page, and don’t dare mar it because the critical part of us is sure to step in immediately and say “Not good enough. Who wants to read this crap? YOU SUCK!”

But perfectionism is just another name for “low levels of self-compassion.” We need to recognize this because I think saying “I’m a perfectionist” is a way of humble-bragging: I won’t do anything unless it’s perfect, ergo, anything I do is perfect. I don’t create, but if I did it would be awesome. But while there are some high achievers who are perfectionists, their achievements come at a price. Perfectionism puts us on edge. It makes us rigid. When we’re driven by perfection we’re less likely to learn through play, experimentation, or trial and error. Self-compassion is where we treat ourselves kindly, even when we make mistakes. We recognize that we, just like everyone else, mess up. We recognize that mistakes are not only inevitable, but that they’re a helpful part of the learning process. To do anything meaningful we need to tolerate imperfection

I guess I’m an “imperfectionist.” A saying that I take as my pole star, my guide through life, is “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” So when I’m writing I just plunge in. I ignore my inner critic and allow myself to mar the page. The first effort may be ugly, repetitive, shallow, confused, or whatever. I don’t care. At least I have something to work with. Only after that initial creation do I go back and make improvements. That’s when the inner critic comes in handy. Your inner critic is an invaluable asset if you give it the right job to do — and that job is to tell you what’s not best about your work after you’ve written the first draft. Its job is not to prevent you from getting started. So I review and rewrite my work over and over, and each time I smooth the clunks out of my writing my inner critic has less and less to say. In the end it just shuts up because it’s done its job, and there’s nothing but good feelings when I read the text.

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Beating yourself up just doesn’t work very well as a motivational strategy, and it has wider consequences for your wellbeing as well. Constantly being on edge in case we slip up, and then criticizing ourselves when we inevitably do, is a tough way to live. People who score low for self-compassion are much more prone to being stressed or depressed.

So self-compassion is a great habit. And it is a habit. It’s something that we can train ourselves to have. Just as with my iterative approach to writing, we won’t suddenly produce full-fledged self-compassion out of thin air, so at first we’ll do it badly, as we do with all things worth doing. But we keep practicing, and get better at it as we do.

So, how do we get started? There are three things areas I’d like to focus on: perspectives for self-compassion, mindfulness, and kindness.

1. Perspectives for self-compassion

Everyone suffers. Everyone finds life hard in different ways. We all want to be happy and not to suffer, but happiness is often elusive, and suffering keeps coming along, often unexpectedly. We all mess up. Being human isn’t easy. These perspectives help us to let go of any expectation that life — and our lives in particular — should be free from difficulties. The also help us see that we shouldn’t expect creative work to be easy. As Stephen King said, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.” Suffering — whether at the keyboard or in any other aspect of life — is normal.

Embrace this discomfort, because it’s through building your shit-shoveling muscles that you’re going to create.

2. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of awareness in which we observe our experience almost as if we were watching an external event. Being mindful of our experience — and especially of painful experiences — is a critical component of self-compassion.

First we have to acknowledge that there’s pain present, and this isn’t always easy, because too often we believe the stories that spring up to distract us from our pain. So you sit down to write and it’s emotionally uncomfortable. Instead of just acknowledging the discomfort and starting to write, you decide it’s time for a snack, or time to dust the shelves, or to update Facebook. And off you go; the story has won: it’s prevented you from working through your fear. Being mindful creates a gap between the stimulus of discomfort and our response to it, and this gives us the freedom to choose how to act. I feel restless? It’s uncomfortable, but that’s OK. I’m feeling uncomfortable and I’m going to write.

Mindfulness involves acceptance. In the “gap” that mindfulness opens up, there is peace. It’s OK to suffer. It’s OK to feel frustration, to feel disappointed, sad, frustrated, hurt, despondent. These things are not signs that we’re failing, but that we’re human and engaged in the process of living. And when we’re in the act of creating, and we hear the inner critic saying that our work isn’t good enough, we can be mindful of that critical voice and decide not to believe it. Just keep going.

3. Kindness

Imagine you a friend shows you a draft of a short story, and it’s not very good. What do you say to them? “You idiot! You’re so stupid to try to write! No one’s ever going to want to read this crap!”? Of course not. But that’s the way we often talk to ourselves.

Elizabeth Gilbert says that self-discipline is overrated: “The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you.” It’s by being kind and by forgiving the shortcomings in ourselves and our work that we get better at creating. This doesn’t mean that we recognize that a piece or work is bad, forgive ourselves, and leave it as it is. It just means not judging ourselves as “bad writers” for having written something that’s not yet good. It means treating what’s substandard as a first draft. It means looking at the crap head-on until we can figure our how best to shovel it. We accept imperfection and then go back and rewrite. Then rewrite again. And again.

What’s going on when we’re kind to ourselves is that the most mature and compassionate part of us is showing kindness to the part of us that’s most in pain. Our inner grown-up is comforting our inner child, giving it reassurance. Treating our painful feelings compassionately can be as simple as placing a hand on the part of our body where the hurt is most prominent, and saying “It’s OK.” We can offer reassurance by saying to our discomfort, “I know you’re hurting, but I’m here for you.” That might sound cheesy. That’s OK. I’d rather sound cheesy than be a blocked writer.

So next time you’re stuck on a project, staring at a blank page, or whatever your creative equivalent is, try on for size the perspective that discomfort is an integral — and valuable — part of creating. Have a mindful acceptance of any painful feelings that arise. Stay with the discomfort rather than turning away from it. Offer yourself some kindly reassurance as you shovel the shit.

Creating is hard, and that’s OK. Be an imperfectionist, and just keep doing it badly, at least at first. Because it’s worth doing.

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How to deal with anger

I don’t know if anger, rage, and frustration are getting more common, but it certainly seems like they are.

As we find ourselves snarled in impossibly heavy traffic, overloaded with life’s complexities, dealing with technology that we think should work but sometimes doesn’t, and struggling to survive in a precarious and heartless economic system, it seems a lot of people live with hot coals of irritability burning inside them, and that these hot coals have more than ample opportunity to burst into the flames of anger, or to erupt as emotional explosions of rage.

Techniques from meditation can help us to damp down the flames of our ill will.

Stop, drop, and love

If you find yourself caught up in resentment and anger toward someone, the simple solution is just to stop whatever you’re doing and to start cultivating metta. This definitely works. In my own practice I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve gone from being irritated with someone to feeling appreciative of them — sometimes in the space of just a few minutes — when I’ve cultivated lovingkindness toward them. Many times, of course, the ill will is more entrenched, and the best I’ve been able to do is to soften the anger a little. But even that’s progress.

You can do this when you’re walking, talking, or driving. Just introduce a current of well-wishing: may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.

If anger arises in meditation, just switch over to cultivating metta. Sometimes people think they “shouldn’t” stop the practice they’re doing, based perhaps on a desire to avoid the restlessness that comes from chopping and changing practices. And while changing practices just because your mind is flighty isn’t a good idea, in the case of anger arising, just let go of any notion that you “should” continue with the meditation you’ve been doing. Anger can be a very destructive emotion, and it’s wise to treat is as an emergency situation. So switch to cultivating lovingkindness.

This doesn’t necessarily mean doing the full five-stage metta bhavana practice. If you’re annoyed with someone, you can just call them to mind and wish them well. You can keep doing this for as long as necessary. You may find that after a few minutes you can return to the practice you were doing, or you may end up working on developing lovingkindness for the rest of the sit.

Adjust your attitude

The way we’re looking at the world can set us up for experiences of ill will. For example, when we’re expecting perfection, we’ll get frustrated, because perfection doesn’t exist. Most people who are habitually angry have something like this going on. We often expect perfection from ourselves, from others, and from our technology, which, when you think about it, is both unreasonable and a recipe for misery.

So you can look at your attitudes, and see if you’re inadvertently creating the conditions for irritability to arise. It’s useful to think in terms of accessing qualities playfulness and humor, which you can do via imagery or a memory of having those qualities.

Accentuate the positive

Also along the lines of how our views condition our emotions, when we’re angry with someone we generally focus only on their faults. If you remind yourself of positive things about the person you’re angry with, this helps undercut your irritation with them.

It can also be helpful to remind yourself that you have faults as well.

Guard the gates

Exposing ourselves to unpleasant stimuli also sets us up for experiences of ill will. Hanging out in internet forums where there’s a lot of negativity, or watching a lot of outraged discussion on television may make you more prone to ill will.

The Buddha called this practice “guarding the gates of the senses.” He compared it to posting guards at the gates of a great city. If you want a peaceful city, then keep vagabonds and ruffians out.

This reminds me of the computer programmers’ saying, “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” which means that if you put in nonsensical data, then your computer will output nonsensical data. In this case, it’s our minds that are the computers. We need to be aware of the fact that certain forms of input lead to the output of angry emotions. If you want to reduce the output of anger, then cut back on the input of anger-generating stimuli.

Summon a Super Hero

Superman or Batman won’t swoop down to save you from your anger, but calling to mind a patient friend can help you to act with greater forbearance. One of the problems we face is with having a limited menu of behavioral options to choose from. When you’re prone to anger, it’s because anger is just so damned easy to use as a tool. You’re in a frustrating situation, you reach into your behavioral toolbox, and anger leaps into your hand. Thinking of how someone who is patient and kind might act actually enlarges the range of tools open to you, so that you don’t fly off the handle. A while back I read about an interesting study where some students were asked to think about a professor before taking an exam. Those students who thought about the professor actually performed better on the quiz!

Practice self-compassion

This last technique is the one I find to be the most powerful of all. When you get angry, you’re actually reacting to a sensation of discomfort. There are stages involved in getting angry. First we see, hear, think, or otherwise perceive something. Then our mind categorizes the perception as wrong, bad, threatening, or otherwise unacceptable. This produces an unpleasant feeling, which is often centered in the solar plexus. And that unpleasant feeling acts as a signal, triggering a response of anger. The anger itself is designed to scare away the thing we identify as being the threat to our well-being. This works great if you’re a alpha wolf who’s facing a rival for pack supremacy. Snarl just the right way and your rival will slink off, chastened. It works less well in intimate family relationships or at work, where anger creates bad feelings and resentment, or when you’re frustrated with a slow website, where anger accomplishes nothing useful at all.

The “gut feeling” part of this process is something we often don’t pay attention to, although we should. Our anger, frustration, or rage arises so quickly that we’re immediately caught up in angry thoughts and emotions, and usually we don’t really acknowledge that we’re in pain.

But I’ve found that if I pay attention to the fact that I’m in experiencing discomfort, then the whole superstructure of angry thinking and angry emotions simply collapses. The whole point of anger is to defend you from feelings of pain by removing their source (the angry wolf snarls at its rival, and the rival backs down). But if you mindfully and compassionately pay attention to your discomfort, then there’s no need to get angry. The pain is being dealt with creatively.

Having paid attention mindfully and compassionately to my discomfort, I find not only that my anger subsides entirely, but that I often feel compassion to anyone who may have done something I felt annoyed by — like my children clamoring for my attention when I’m busy, or a driver who’s cut me off.

As I pay attention to them, the embers of hurt remind me that just as I suffer and want to find happiness, so others suffer and want to find happiness. I find that the slow burn of hurt, while it lasts, becomes fuel for kindness, rather than for anger.

Anger is nothing more than a strategy for finding happiness in the midst of a challenging world, but it’s not a very effective strategy. Mindfulness and compassion work much, much better.

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