Learning to meditate isn’t easy. I spent much of my first meditation retreat—which consisted primarily of seated meditation from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. for seven days—convinced I must be doing something wrong and attempting to conceal my physical discomfort. Sitting can be painful, and the mind can be wily and difficult to tame. When we experience such obstacles, many of us are tempted to conclude that we're just simply bad at it and give up. So, if you find meditation difficult, that’s a great start because it means you’re trying.
Obstacles to meditation are so common that they are addressed in ancient yogic texts, such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Buddhist tradition identifies five hindrances, and much attention is given to learning to deal with them explicitly.
(More on these ancient texts in The Foundation of the Yoga Sutras.)
That first retreat is now decades past, but it taught me, eventually, a lot about meditation. Here are three reliable methods I suggest to help ease common frustrations in order to bring more joy and consistency to your meditation practice.
Be Patient and Accepting
Often, the very form of suffering that brings us to meditation is the one that makes meditation difficult for us. For example, a student of mine was experiencing unrelenting mental activity, which made it difficult for her to focus, to relax, or to sleep. But, when she sat down to meditate, her mind behaved in the very same way as usual—leaping from one thing to the next, going places she didn’t want it to, completely outside of her control.
This behavior of mind is often called "monkey mind." It isn’t a behavior of you, it is a natural behavior of untrained minds. Just as an untrained monkey leaps about getting into all sorts of mischief, so does an untrained mind.
If you are experiencing monkey mind in your meditation, here is one of the most important shifts to make: don’t be mad at monkey mind. It won’t help. It isn’t possible to lecture or punish monkey mind into submission. Instead, cultivate a gentle, loving, unconditional friendliness. When monkey mind appears in meditation, gently say, “Hello, monkey mind. I’m busy right now, but I’ll give you my full attention after meditation.” To begin, mentally say these words to yourself. Eventually, you will feel the sense of friendliness without words. Your mind will settle down and become less inclined to panic or believe that you’ve left it to manage your busy life alone.
Let the object of your time on the cushion be to cultivate unconditional friendliness. When it becomes your default reaction to monkey mind, you will likely be ready to include another object of meditation, such as breath or a mantra. Eventually, you will even be able to examine monkey mind itself. First, however, you need to learn to be in the same room with it without it driving you bonkers or dictating your attention. Developing unconditional friendliness won’t end the chatter, but it will provide you with the tools you need to begin to work with it instead of against it.
(More on this technique in Befriend Your Chattering, Manic Mind & Meditate Through the Running Commentary.)
Start Where You Are
When we sit in meditation, we are asking our minds to give their complete, undivided attention. This is something most of us don’t often do.
I learned to meditate by doing the dishes. Until that time, I’d hated doing the dishes. My mother could get me to do almost any chore if it meant avoiding doing the dishes. By a stroke of grace, I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s delightful book, "Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life." All too often, our mental conceptions interfere with our ability to experience what is happening right now. My aversion to doing dishes prevented me from feeling the pleasant sensation of warm water, from observing the satisfaction of bringing the dishes to cleanliness and order. By learning to pay attention to the physical sensations of doing the dishes, I got my first introduction to going around mental conception to direct experience.
There are hundreds of forms of meditation. Most of them won’t be right for you at any given time. Forcefulness is not the right tool. If it is difficult to focus while seated, you might explore walking meditation, yoga nidra, or chanting. For most people, learning to meditate is a lifelong project, and rushing to a mentally desired outcome won’t help. Instead, find a form of meditative focus that enables you to experience the profound pleasure of giving your full attention to the present moment. Then, from that place of connection to joyfulness, take another step.
There is no ladder and no race. Your path is entirely your own, and what works for one person may not work for another. This brings us to a third way to deepen and sweeten your experience of meditation.
Find a Respected Teacher
Many of us begin by learning from books and websites. As you may have discovered, this can be difficult. It is like having many maps, all chopped up into pieces, only some of which include our desired destination. We don’t know which practices to do, or how to overcome the obstacles we experience. We might bounce around from practice to practice, or obstinately stick to one that is not suitable to us, all while feeling like we aren’t getting what we were seeking.
Find a living teacher. There are many sincere, experienced teachers in the world. The right teacher for you will be someone it is a joy for you to be near and someone you trust and admire. He or she will have more experience to give you personalized instruction fit for your history, your temperament and your current situation.
Then, even on your most difficult day on the cushion, you have faith. A person you trust is helping you. And when unconditional friendliness doesn’t come easily to mind, you can think of your teacher. If you've found the right teacher, a feeling of love will arise naturally.
(To assist in your search, here's The Guru Guide: What to Watch Out for When Seeking Your Spiritual Master.)
Give Roots to Kindness
Meditation is among the most rewarding and most joyful activities of my life. The teachings don’t exaggerate; blissful equanimity is right here all the time. Be reasonable and kind with yourself. Each of us has a lifetime (or many lifetimes) of patterns, or samskaras, and most of them don’t make meditation easier. It is a form of ahimsa to develop steady, committed gentleness with yourself in your practice. It will reward you, I promise.
(Continue reading in Ahimsa: The Number One Yama of the First Limb of Yoga.)