And then never forget!
One of the things we learn in meditation is how untrained our minds are.
~ Joseph Goldstein
I have been meditating daily for a little over a year now and it’s become an integral part of my life. I look forward to the time I spend meditating everyday and I can feel its powerful, positive effects in my life. That being said, it took me about 5 years of on-and-off meditation to begin to do it daily. For me, the road has been long and filled with obstacles.
If you’re thinking about starting to meditate or want to develop a more sustained routine, this post is for you! Below I describe two of the main obstacles I’ve encountered in my journey and useful ways of overcoming them.
Obstacle #1: the Monkey Mind
When you sit down to meditate, your mind will literally be assaulted by thoughts. Those thoughts will lead you down rabbit holes of thinking, they will try to convince you (sometimes successfully) to do something else, and they will cause you to feel all kinds of distracting emotions.
You might feel like your consciousness is a medieval castle under siege by an invading army. You will be unable to ignore your thoughts just like you would be unable to ignore the thundering reverberations of the catapult volleys.
This onslaught of (often random) thoughts is sometimes referred to as the monkey mind.
My first piece of advice of this: don’t try to ignore your thoughts or try to make them go away. That isn’t a helpful strategy. Trying to strongarm your thinking in this way has the negative consequence of inserting even more confusion and chaos into your mind.
Instead, try to be dispassionate about your thoughts. Allow them to come and allow them to go without judgment.
Eventually, you will see that your thoughts are like a river constantly moving through your consciousness. There are two positions from which you can perceive this river: either stuck in the middle of it or standing on its bank. When you are in the river, it is impossible to separate yourself from your thoughts and you will feel suffocated and controlled by them. If you remove yourself from the river and observe your thoughts from a bit of a distance, you start to see your thoughts as objects flowing by. Taking this stance will allow you to see that you don’t have to cling to your thoughts — you can simply let them go.
This isn’t a perspective that will be immediately intuitive to you, but it’s one worth knowing exists. Our thoughts can be infuriating, and it’s important to know that this is normal and won’t last forever.
Remember: your brain has never been trained to do this kind of activity. It will act like a child — it will kick and scream until it gets your attention. And it will get your attention. If you go into meditation thinking that you can force your brain to focus without any trouble, you are in for a quite a shock.
Obstacle #2: dealing with failure
My second piece of advice has to do with how we perceive success or failure when it comes to meditation. Although many of us sit down to meditate with the goal of blanking out our minds, this isn’t the point of meditation. We cannot blank out our minds — our brains don’t work like that. All we can do, as meditators, is to try to be mindful of the chaos.
How you deal with a chaotic mind is simple (but not easy): when your mind wanders from your breath (or whatever you’re focusing on) you will eventually notice that it has wandered, and this is when you bring it back to the breath. The truth is, you will probably spend more time noticing that your mind has wandered than you do focused on your breath. But, it’s important to know that this does not constitute failure.
A useful (and truthful) way of thinking about this is that you have actually succeeded each time you notice that your mind has wandered. It’s a bit like doing a workout at the gym: every time you bring your attention back to your breath is the equivalent of doing a rep or an exercise. It’s this small action, repeated consistently over time, that strengthens your practice.
As you orient your mind away from the expectation of thoughtlessness and complete focus, the challenge of meditation becomes less irritating and you will feel less like a failure.
If you’ve ever potty-trained a child or taught a pet a trick, you will know that changing a behavior takes patience and compassion. Patience because nothing changes in an instant and compassion because who you are training needs to trust that you have their best interest at heart.
So, when your mind is inundated with thoughts and you feel like an absolute failure (both of which are inevitable) have patience with, and compassion for, yourself. Remember that they call meditation a ‘practice’ because it takes time (years, decades, a lifetime?) to do it well. And remember that you are asking your mind to do something out of the ordinary — something it’s not good at — so be compassionate with it.
I wish you the best of luck and hope that it becomes an enduring practice for you! It’s certainly had a profound impact on my life and I’m certain it will have a similar impact on yours.
Please feel free to leave questions or comments below!