If you’ve tried meditation and hated it, there’s good news: You’re normal. Many people find that their experience with meditation doesn’t match the blissed-out expressions of the meditating models on magazine covers. Many of the people I’ve treated in my clinical practice wanted the benefits of a regular meditation practice but found it to be so unpleasant that they couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
Common negative reactions to meditation include:
- I hate doing nothing.
- It feels pointless.
- It’s not relaxing.
- I’m really bad at it.
- It doesn’t help me in the rest of my life.
To be honest, it took me a long time to warm up to the practice. I still find it a bit painful at times. But I can tell you from personal experience that we can grow to enjoy and benefit from meditation, even if we tried it and hated it.
The key for most of us is to understand what meditation is and what it isn’t. I like to think of it as a circle with three phases:
- You set an intention to focus your attention -- most often on the breath, but it could be anything, like a mantra (a short phrase you repeat to yourself) or a visual point of focus (a candle’s flame, for example).
- Something distracts you, and you lose your focus. Maybe it’s a noise outside or someone talking, but usually it’s a thought: What should I have for lunch? Why did that person say that to me?I should send that email.
- At some point, after a few seconds or minutes, you realize that your mind has wandered. So you return to step 1, and the cycle continues.
Notice from this description that at no point does your mind stop having thoughts. It’s what minds do. So if you think of meditation as “clearing your mind,” you’re going to be extremely frustrated, and you’ll probably blame yourself as you vow that “meditation isn’t for me.”
If you’ve struggled with meditation but would like to give it another try, here are some approaches that can make the practice more engaging.
Experiment with different types.
There are countless forms of meditation, some guided, some unguided; some body-focused, others breath-focused; eyes open, eyes closed. Find a variation that seems like it might be a good fit for you. Just be sure to practice it enough times to really explore it before trying a different type, so you have a good sense of whether it’s right for you.
You don’t have to sit on the floor with your legs crossed to meditate. You can sit on a chair or a couch, or anywhere you can be comfortable for a few minutes -- but not so comfortable that you’re slouching or likely to fall asleep. Choose a posture that embodies a sense of alertness without being tense or rigid. Let your hands rest where they naturally fall.
Keep it short.
It only takes a moment to find mindful awareness. Begin with brief sessions. Three to 5 minutes is a good starting point.
Let go of expectations.
When we expect meditation to produce some desired result -- relaxation, peace, focus -- we’re bound to be disappointed. We can’t really focus on our intention when we’re measuring it against a goal: Am I relaxed yet? What about now? Why don’t I feel more at ease? Instead, let each meditation session be what it is.
Don’t try to clear your mind.
As described above, it’s pointless to try to stop thinking. Instead, see the thoughts clearly when they come. Keep your perspective on them, knowing the thoughts are there without getting lost in them. Let your breath be the music on stage and your thoughts the restless rustlings of the audience. Keep coming back to the music.
Keep it light.
Mindful presence isn’t a heavy obligation or an overly serious pursuit. Bring a light touch. Let a slight smile grace your lips.
Do it with a partner.
In the past couple years, I’ve enjoying doing “medidates” with my wife, where we sit in silence together or follow a guided meditation. Some people find it more meaningful to practice with a partner, and committing together to regular practice can provide a helpful measure of accountability.
Expect that you won’t feel like doing it.
You might really want to meditate, and yet somehow you keep not finding time for it. How can I not find 5 minutes a day to meditate? you ask yourself. I waste way more time than that on Instagram every day.
The obstacle might very well be that your ego doesn’t want you to meditate. “Ego” here means the part of ourselves that’s overly attached to its identity as a separate being, distinct from everything else. The ego constantly wants to enlarge its small self by dividing everything in the world into “for me” or “against me.” It’s the doing, striving, judging part of ourselves that we usually think of as “me.”
While meditation is an expansion of awareness and a spiritually enriching practice, it’s also a painful death for the ego. Meditation requires a pause in the constant activity of the ego mind, and the ego doesn’t easily give up its throne. So expect a part of you to put up some resistance. It will probably offer plenty of reasons why now isn’t the right time to meditate: Let me just do these dishes. Or send this email. Or make this phone call.
Try to consciously side with the part of yourself that’s drawn to meditation. Perhaps more than anything, a meditation practice allows you to discover a “you” that’s deeper and truer than the superficial ego -- one that knows connection, and love, and peace. Use the time to come home to yourself: body, breath, spirit.
See what happens when you approach it from a different angle. And remember that meditation isn’t about getting good at it. It’s all observation and learning. Be very friendly with yourself. Find the stillness within you that doesn’t hate meditation, or anything else that’s part of your experience. Make room for all of it.