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How to deal with frustration and self-criticism in meditation

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

The single most common problem for beginner meditators is thinking they "can't do it", and then getting frustrated and self-critical about not being able to do it.

This happens because they believe that “meditate” means “focus perfectly upon the breath while silencing thoughts and experiencing great calm”. So, when they find themselves lost in a vortex of uncontrollable thought, they think that they’re doing it wrong, or that it doesn’t work, and they get upset.

What they need to know is that no one can do it, and that’s okay. In order to get a steady focus on your breath while meditating, you would have to meditate for many hours a day for several days in a row, without any of the usual distractions of life. People do this on meditation retreats, and monks and hermits in certain religious traditions do it as a way of life. But for those of us who are meditating in the course of ordinary, busy lives, we are always liable to get distracted in meditation. Concentration will improve somewhat with practice, but not that much.

And this is all fine, because the first and most important benefit that you will get from meditation is not improved concentration, but rather learning to notice when you are distracted and come back to the here-and-now. So, if your mind wanders 100 times during a 10-minute meditation, then that is 100 opportunities to practice noticing that it wandered. Which, hopefully, will translate into benefits outside the meditation: as you go about your business in daily life, you might find that you start to notice a little more often when you're lost in thought, and return more often to the here-and-now. Which is to say, you might find that you have a little more mindfulness. And even if you only notice that you are distracted once during your 10-minute meditation, and the rest of the time you are entirely lost in mind-wandering, then that is still one moment in which you practised mindfulness – and maybe next time you’ll notice twice.

Which brings us to the second early-stage benefit of meditation: learning how to bring the most helpful and productive attitude to goals, achievement, and progress, in both meditation and the rest of your life.

When you begin to meditate, you are likely to relate to it in terms of goals, achievement, and progress. Because you have been given a job to do: focus on the breath. But it turns out that the job is impossible – you can't seem to focus on the breath, no matter how hard you try.

So, how are you going to respond? Are you going to try harder? Berate yourself? Give up? And if you struggle with frustration and self-criticism in meditation, what do you do outside of meditation? Is this response perhaps characteristic of how you relate to goals and achievement in other areas of life? Might you do the same in your job, your relationship, or your hobbies, when you’re not making the kind of progress that you want to?

In meditation, you get a chance to see, in microcosm, how well those strategies work for you. And you are likely to find that they don’t work too well. Trying to force your attention onto the breath doesn’t work for long, and will tire you out. Berating yourself is just another distraction, and makes the whole experience so unpleasant that you won’t want to keep going. Which leads to giving up, which obviously isn’t the way to get where you’re trying to go.

So, what does work? I humbly submit that what’s needed is an attitude of gentleness and patience, but also persistence. You need to keep on going, no matter how many times the mind wanders, and that will be much easier to do if you are gentle with yourself, and patient with the process. With this kind of attitude, you can keep on going, day in, day out, through good moods and bad, through “better” meditations and “worse” ones. Little by little, you can build your mindfulness, while also building your capacity for gentle, patient, persistence, in the face of a never-ending challenge. And perhaps you’ll find yourself drawing on that capacity elsewhere in your life: perhaps you’ll find you have a new way of facing challenges, and pursuing goals.

So, if your mind tells you that you “Can’t do it”, or “It doesn’t work”, then you don’t need to believe it. Remember that what you’re really trying to do is to keep on going, noticing distraction, noticing frustration, and returning again and again to the meditation, with gentle, patient persistence.

If you'd like to explore this for yourself, try this guided meditation:


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