When I first started meditating, I thought I had to get it “right”. I thought that somehow I could completely focus and then I would have a startling epiphany – a moment of “enlightenment”. Many of us start out with these sorts of ideas.
First, some would argue that “enlightenment” is not an instant insight at all. Stephen Batchelor in “After Buddhism : Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age” argues that the Buddha saw enlightenment as a practice to alleviate suffering and not a mental epiphany that allows one to “break” with corporeal existence. I would say there are some merits to this view. One of the many difficulties I had with the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine) was that after the Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he continued his existence for another 40+ years. This makes sense if enlightenment is a process, rather than a flash of insight. So, I have come to see meditation not as some mystical experience leading to immediate release, but rather as a practice, which takes effort and whose goal is release from suffering through this practice.
Second, in my straining to focus, I didn’t realise that the simple act of returning to my breath is the purpose of meditation. Rather than beating myself up over my inability to focus, I realised that simply realising my mind was drifting and returning my focus to the breath was itself meditating. I was not “failing” by wandering, I was “succeeding” by noticing and returning to the breath. How did this help? Rather than scolding myself when my mind wandered, I felt good at noticing and returning my concentration to my breathing. This self-encouragement has had remarkable effects on my meditation practice (including my excitement, rather than dreading or putting off my practice).
When your mind wanders, gently notice and return to the breath, over and over again. Each time being gentle with yourself and realising that this is actually meditation. You are not doing it wrong. You are not failing. You are taking the same path we all take. The “monkey mind” will calm, over time. Frustration will not help. Frustration will not motivate you. Being kind to yourself will encourage you. You are brave to explore the mind. Many live their whole lives without looking inside. You are an explorer. Be kind to yourself and keep going.