When I tell people I’m a mindfulness teacher, I can’t tell you how many respond, “I’m so bad at meditation,” or “I just can’t meditate.” It kills me. There’s so much misinformation about mindfulness and meditation out there, and that’s a big problem. People think there’s something wrong with them, or that they’re just not “made” for meditation, when they aren’t able to evacuate all of the thoughts from their mind on their very first try. Discouraged, they quit before they’ve been able to really see the profound growth that meditation practice can yield.
Here’s the truth: even if you can’t sit still and your mind won’t quiet down, you can experience the benefits of meditation. Here’re seven tips on how to overcome common obstacles.
1. Smash Meditation Stereotypes: Go Ahead and Think
The tradition of meditation is dates back thousands of years—far before modern civilization, and over the past few decades it has become a common American practice. And that’s great. What’s not so great, however, are the stereotypes that are attached. Especially the idea that meditating means stopping yourself from thinking.
I wish I could erase this idea from our collective consciousness. It’s both unrealistic and unhelpful to imagine that anyone would be able to sit down and, through sheer force of will, stop all thoughts. Plus, that’s not what mindfulness is about: Through mindfulness, you can learn a tremendous amount about how you think. You can observe patterns in your thought processes. You can observe how thoughts and emotions interact with one another. You can see that thoughts are not “you” or “yours,” but rather sensations that come and go.
So, don’t sit down to meditate and try to force yourself into a thoughtless state. Instead, decide what you’d like to focus on for that meditation practice period (thoughts, emotions, sounds, the breath, how sensations change over time, all sensations—there are so many possibilities). Get curious about what you’re observing. When you notice your attention has moved away from the focus range you’ve chosen, give yourself some kudos for noticing and kindly bring your attention back. If lots of thoughts arise during your meditation practice, know there’s nothing wrong with you or with your practice! Think of it as an opportunity to learn, either by observing the thoughts as sensations or allowing them to arise and pass in the background.
2. Meditate In Motion
Another common stereotype about meditation is that it’s something you do with your eyes closed, sitting cross-legged and still. The truth is, you can meditate at any time.
In the Unified Mindfulness school of meditation, which I teach and practice, mindfulness is defined as three skills working together: concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity. Concentration is the ability to choose what you want to focus on and keep your attention there until you intentionally decide to focus on something else. Sensory clarity is the ability to track what’s going on in your senses from moment to moment, separating out the different sensory strands and learning to detect increasingly subtle sensations. Equanimity is the capacity to let sensations come and go, expand and contract, without fighting with them to stay longer or leave faster.
These skills take practice.
You can practice them sitting down with your eyes closed and your body still, or while walking, dancing, doing the dishes, having a conversation. You can bring meditation into your life whenever you want. What’s important is to have some time each day in which you’re focused on placing your attention in an intentional way, getting clear about what sensations are arising, and allowing those sensations to do their dance as they want to with as little resistance as possible.
3. Set Manageable Goals
Establishing a daily meditation practice can be a gamechanger for wellbeing. Researchers have found a strong dose-response relationship with meditation (for more, Drs. Goleman and Davidson’s excellent book Altered Traits dives deep into this research). In plain English: the more you meditate, the more benefit you’ll experience.
The suggestion in Unified Mindfulness is to meditate at least 10 minutes a day. The more you do, the better. Paradoxically, the path to developing a strong daily practice is to set small, manageable goals you feel confident you can achieve. I first started with five minutes a day, and now sit 45. What worked for me was to incrementally tack on more time as I was ready—o rush.
As my teacher Shinzen Young likes to say, zero minutes of meditation is infinitely better than no minutes of meditation.
See if you can feel good about every minute of meditation you do, rather than setting unrealistically ambitious goals, feeling bad about yourself for not meeting them, and associating meditation with a feeling of guilt and obligation.
Every minute you practice deserves celebrating.
4. Remember Why You Care
It’s much easier to take time to meditate when you feel clear about why you’re doing it. Remember: This is something you’ve decided is a priority for you, not an onerous obligation to someone else or to the abstraction that is being an adult.
So, get clear about why you want to meditate. Do some writing about it. Watch how you feel and how these goals are impacted when you do and don’t meditate, keeping in mind that you’ll see change in some areas over the course of month and years rather than days.
When you feel resistant to practicing, reflect on these authentic reasons why you care about committing to mediation.
5. Do it Together
It’s much easier to meditate with other people than on your own.
This “together” can take a lot of different forms. It could be going to a meditation class and practicing in the same room with others. For instance, I regularly lead five-hour retreats. One of the most common pieces of feedback is how surprisingly easy it is to meditate for this long with the support of the group, and how much harder it would be (or would never happen) without that communal support. The same is true for shorter evening classes. Bonus: If you regularly go to the same class, you can make friends with people doing similar work.
Sharing with each other can help normalize your experience and motivate you to stick with it. And you might find yourself particularly encouraged by a peer accountability buddy. This could be as simple as texting each other when you meditate, checking in on the phone about what’s going on in your meditation practice, or getting together periodically to talk about practice and enjoy each other’s company.
“Together” can also mean forming a relationship with a meditation teacher. Most meditation classes offer time for Q+A, or you can grab the teacher after. Many meditation teachers also offer one-on-one guidance. Talking one-on-one regularly with a teacher can help motivate you to practice, and provide critical personal direction for how you, in particular, can use practice to grow, meet your goals, and move through life’s inevitable challenges with as much peace as possible.
6. Put the Resistance to Work
One of the most important perspectives I’ve learned from my practice is that no sensation is a problem. Every sensation can be investigated through mindfulness.
This holds true for resistance to meditation. Feel like you don’t want to do it? Feel restless during your practice? Let these experiences be your object of meditation. Observe the emotional and physical sensations that arise in your body. Observe the thoughts that arise. Observe how these interact with each other.
You’ll learn so much about yourself and what works for you when you’re feeling resistant—an inevitable part of the human experience.
7. If You Can’t Be Disciplined, Then Be Clever
This is another one of my favorite Shinzen sayings. It’s ideal to have a daily meditation practice and go on a silent meditation retreat at least one weekend per month or one to two weeks per year.
Not having luck building a daily practice? Sign up for some extra retreat practice. In one week you’ll experience the meditation time that you would accumulate little-by-little in a daily practice. Plus, you’ll have the benefit of a highly supported environment and the exponential impact of practicing these hours consecutively. There’s a psychological phenomenon called the approach/avoidance conflict. When something is far away, we see what we like about it; when it’s up close, we see all the things we feel ambivalent or negative about.
If you’re feeling resistant to going on retreat, sign up for one three to six months from now. Pay for it in advance. That’s Future You’s problem. And I promise—future you will thank you for finagling it into experiencing a meditation retreat.
You Might Be Surprised, but Even You Can Meditate
All of these tips boil down to a few themes: Forget what you think meditation is supposed to look like. Meditate in a way that works for you. Whatever comes up, get curious about it. Do your best to allow every sensation to be exactly the way it is. And there’s no need to go it alone. Give and get support from other students. Find teachers you trust. Learn from their experience by asking questions and working one-on-one with them. And remember: There’s no such thing as a bad meditator.