Help! I can’t meditate! Have you ever felt this way when you tried to start a meditation practice? Common feelings beginning meditators experience are:
- I’m too anxious to sit with my thoughts.
- I don’t have time.
- I can’t remember to meditate, by the time I remember it’s too late and I just go to sleep.
- I get too bored.
But by far the most common:
- I just can’t clear my head and stop my thoughts!
One or more of these thoughts seem to always go through beginning meditators’ minds. Isn’t it ironic that something so simple as just sitting without distraction can feel and seem so hard?
Let’s start with the anxious mind. It often seems our thoughts are spinning and roiling at a fast pace, especially when we’re anxious. When you sit down to meditate without distraction you become much more aware of what the Buddhists call our “monkey mind.” The nature of anxiety is that we want to avoid the feeling so we try to hide from it with distractions (hello, smart phone!). When we sit and meditate it can seem overwhelming to be with these thoughts and we want to compulsively flee as always into some hiding place.
Ironically by meditating we begin to develop a different relationship with these anxious thoughts: they start to become less “sticky,” and we start to not need to compulsively avoid them as much. It’s a new experience to be able to watch the anxious thought arise and float away like a wave (as all our thoughts do) without attaching to it.
This experience of “surfing” on the top of our thoughts (as author and psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it) is very liberating, but just as with ocean surfing it takes a bit of practice before one successfully “gets up on the board.” When you undertake to begin a meditation practice with a highly anxious mind, you may need to do it in very small doses, as in five minutes or less to begin with. This is akin to the psychotherapeutic technique of “exposure therapy,” where the anxious person gradually exposes herself to the feared stimulus in manageable doses.
At the start of a meditation practice, more important than “quantity” is “quality”, meaning that it is advisable to try to start a daily routine of even five or so minutes and then gradually work your way up to more minutes. Not only does this help to ease you into the experience of sitting with your thoughts, it also helps you to begin to develop it into a daily ritual.
The more we develop a daily habit of even five minutes, the more likely we will follow through with developing our practice. It also helps us to counteract the notion that we don’t have time for meditation, and that it’s just too boring.
Meditation is mind training, and we can imagine it to be like starting a fitness training program. We won’t be running marathons or lifting 100-plus pounds on a barbell at the outset, this is something we have to work up to; but the small rewards of noticing our thoughts beginning to slow down and becoming less attached to them becomes motivating to us to expand our practice. A sense of increased focus and inner calm begins to develop with time, like noticing our muscles beginning to get more definition. This is not an immediate reward, and some meditation sessions will feel harder than others. If we stay focused on the process of meditation rather than the immediate rewards of any particular meditation session, we will likely be more successful in making it a daily habit.
If you find that you run out of time at the end of the day to meditate, or that you fall asleep at the end of the day during meditation, you may want to try to make it the first thing you do in the morning. This can be a lovely way to set the tone for your day: the first thing you are doing is taking an active step in caring for yourself and not immediately getting swept up by the whirlwind of your thoughts and emotions. Also, you won’t be having the nagging background thought of “I should meditate later” all day long. If you can’t do it in the morning, consider another consistently quiet time throughout your day.
Some people find it helpful to have external structure, such as attending a meditation group or class, and/or following along with a guided meditation. There are a number of such classes and apps/websites available without much effort needed to find them. If one doesn’t seem to work for you simply keep looking until you find the right fit.
Regarding the “I just can’t stop my thoughts!” thought, it is important to remember that removing thoughts is an unrealistic goal. Even seasoned meditators have thoughts arise during meditation. The goal is more to develop a different relationship to these thoughts and to observe the arising and falling rather than attaching to their content. With time these thoughts do begin to slow down and you can develop more ability to direct your attention to the space between these thoughts.
Having some instruction in “how to meditate” is important to your successful ability to maintain a meditation practice. The most common practice in the West has become the technique known as “mindfulness meditation,” wherein one follows ones’ breath (such as noticing the breath at the nostrils or the arising and falling of the stomach), and as thoughts arise you simply observe them without attaching to them and gently (and without negative judgments of what a bad meditator you are) return your focus to your breath. This is a process that happens time and time again in the early stages of meditation practice.
When you tell yourself that you can’t meditate, recognize that this is simply another thought that you have given power to dictate your behavior. No matter what thoughts you bring to the meditation session, just be with them without acting upon them. This is the essence of starting and maintaining a successful meditation practice.
Andrew has been a licensed clinical psychologist since 1997. He brings a solid grounding of traditional psychotherapeutic practices, including cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, and family systems therapies. He combines these with an exploration of Buddhist philosophy and meditative practices to assist people in achieving a stronger sense of peace and well-being along their life path.