So You Think You Can’t Meditate?

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A client we’ll call “Jim” came to me interested in reducing his level of stress and anxiety.

“I’ve tried meditation,” he said. “It doesn’t work for me. I can’t do it. I think too much and I can’t clear my mind.”

I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard a similar speech from a client. At least, I’d be able to have quite a night out on the town from the proceeds!

The majority of people who learn to meditate experience frustration doing so.  You wouldn’t bother with learning to meditate if you weren’t looking to get something out of it.  You want to be calmer, to have a more relaxed, less stressful life, perhaps experience less anger, worry, or depression, and experience more joy, peacefulness, and motivation.

So like Jim, you go to a class and learn the basics of mindfulness meditation, let’s say: Sit in a dignified posture, bring your attention to your breath, return the attention to the breath every time it wanders to your thoughts or other “distractions.”

If you’re anything like me, or Jim, or most of us in this culture, you will experience your mind wandering frequently–maybe even constantly.  Perhaps you decide to increase your efforts, and “try really hard” to “clear your mind.”  Very likely, you do so hoping that this effort will pay off, in terms of a quieter mind, a more relaxed body, a happier mood, inner peace.

Soon, however, you are disappointed: none of these sought-after states of mind are coming.  Instead, you find yourself growing more and more frustrated by the “difficulty” of having constantly distracting thoughts.  Thoughts that stubbornly won’t cooperate with your agenda of having a peaceful meditative experience.

Maybe you try a few more times. “If I find a quieter place to meditate, with less noise, I’ll be able to do it better,” you think, and you carve out the ideal time and place, when you will not be disturbed by the phone, kids, or the loud jackhammers at the construction site across the street.

Still, you soon discover that you are up against the very same obstacle: a mind that just will not slow down, will not shut up, will not leave you alone no matter how hard you try.  Soon you give up, saying “this meditation stuff just isn’t for me.”

If this story describes your experience, rest assured you are not alone.  Not only do most people who learn to meditate go through a stage of believing they can’t do it “well,” if at all, most people who become lifelong meditators and reap the many benefits of a daily meditation practice also have had just that sort of experience in their early weeks, months, or even years of meditation practice.

The problem you are facing is that you have–or, better put, your mind has–preconceived notions about what the experience of meditation should be like. “Calm,” “Peaceful,” “Tranquil,” “Zen-like,” and so forth.

In fact, meditation can be all these things, but it can also be just about any other state of mind that is possible for the human mind to enter, including “rageful,” “agitated,” “depressed,” “frightened” and “utterly frustrated!”

Meditation is not about achieving any particular state. Rather, it is about learning to be more present to one’s experience–whether one’s experience is pleasant or unpleasant. Meditation is about learning to be less picky and rigid about one’s experience, more flexible and able to be psychologically present in any circumstances.

So, if you, or Jim, or anyone else experiencing meditation as a frustrating slog through annoying thoughts and feelings, were to continue meditation practice despite that slog, you would begin to learn some very interesting things. First, you would begin to discover that no matter how harshly you judge (i.e., your mind judges) your meditation, no matter how convinced you are that you “failed” or “did badly” at meditating, the benefits of meditation would inevitably follow periods of concerted, diligent practice. You would not necessarily gain all the “good stuff” that you were hoping for, just as someone who visits a gym a few times would probably not suddenly develop the sveldt body of a swimmer. However, you would find that you were more and more able to be psychologically present to your life, just the way it is.

You would become more able to pay attention to what other people are saying, spending a little less time thinking about your own response while the other is talking.  You would likely learn in time to take your own thinking mind less seriously, and not to let negative thinking stand in the way of doing the things that matter to you.

You might, over time, have fewer thoughts while meditating, or you might not.  I usually have millions of thoughts while meditating!  That fact has not reduced by one iota the value of my meditation practice, the impact that it has had on my life, in terms of my ability to be present, live passionately, feel satisfied with my life, and occasionally experience something like peace.

Here is all you need to know to have a successful meditation practice:

1. Whatever thoughts you have about your ability to meditate are baloney, only unlike baloney, they serve no purpose whatsoever. Don’t believe your mind when it tells you how good or bad your meditation is. Ever.

2. Scale back your meditation practice to a schedule that is realistic for you.  I usually suggest my clients begin with 5 minutes a day. On days that your mind is convinced that you don’t have 5 minutes, do 1 minute, or just 3 mindful breaths!  But no matter how long or short, practice every day.

3. As you begin your meditation session, notice what your mind is saying to you about meditating.  Is your mind saying it’s going to be hard, or unpleasant? Be aware of your thoughts about the meditation and put them aside, knowing they will often arise whether you want them or not.

4. Cultivate a sense of self-compassion while meditating.  Remember that you are a human being, and the nature of the human mind is to wander from topic to topic.  If there were no wandering mind, there would be little or no point to mindfulness meditation!

5. Consider each time you return attention to the breath to be like a “rep” in the gym.  Each time you return your attention to the present moment, you are practicing perfect meditation.  Each time you return your attention to the breath, you are making contact once again with reality, with what is happening in the present moment, rather than what you are thinking.  This is meditation.

6. Make a long-term commitment to keep meditating daily for a span of time before judging whether it’s worth continuing.  I would suggest a year, but even a month or a week will do.  As with exercise, it’s basically impossible to gauge the impact of the meditation on your life without putting in enough time on the cushion to give it a chance to have an impact.

7. Check your expectations of what meditation should do–are they realistic?  Many people have meditated daily for a decade or more, and even completed numerous day-long, weekend-long or week-long intensive retreats, and failed to achieve the kind of grandiose outcomes our minds like to envision. Actually, being calm all the time isn’t even a worthwhile goal, and neither is being happy all the time.  The goal of meditation is to be more present to our lives, more intimate with and accepting toward our experiences; when we are more present to our lives, we do experience some greater degree of peace, some greater degree of satisfaction with life.

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