It seems that meditation is very hip these days. Science now even validates that this ancient practice is “good” for us—so why isn’t everyone doing it?
I have been practicing meditation for more than 20 years and teaching the practice for the last 10, and I have heard all the reasons why many say it is too difficult to meditate consistently. When I mention to people that I teach meditation, I often get a disinterested wave of the hand, an instant dismissal that they have already tried it and failed. I was a single, working mom when I started to meditate, so I can relate to the struggle to integrate a consistent practice into an already over-busy life; however, I know it can be done, and I know it is worth the effort.
To demonstrate this, I have built an arsenal of tools that can enable anyone to give it a try and have some early success—and hopefully that encourages people to stick with it long enough to experience greater benefits. First, it is vitally important to confront the common myths about meditation, debunk those myths, and then take baby steps to get started. Here is a laundry list of the usual defenses I have heard about why daily meditation cannot be done—and the reasons why these explanations are no excuse.
1 “I have to sit first thing in the morning, and I’m too tired/busy/agitated/etc.”
Before even considering a sitting practice, start with the simplest definition of meditation: Meditation is nothing more than creating a gap between stimulus and response. Practice taking a deep breath right now, before you continue reading. That’s meditation! One deep breath slows down our habitual reaction patterns, which gives us time (and some helpful oxygen to the brain) to explore alternative ways to respond to whatever arises in life—thoughts, emotions, sensations, situations. Any stimulus can be a clarion call to take a deep breath before proceeding—or reacting. This may seem so simple, yet most people do not do it. In fact, many of us are oxygen-deprived because we breathe in a very shallow way, so much so that our bodies do not get enough oxygen to function properly; that lack of oxygen makes us tired and cranky. Every day, you will have numerous opportunities to practice this simple breathing exercise. Think of your most frustrating moment yesterday; then imagine how the situation might have unfolded differently by creating a gap between stimulus and response, with the help of one deep breath. This small tool—deep breathing—is the first step toward a lifetime of meditative moments.
2 “I have to sit for long hours to get any benefit from meditation.”
Although research shows that short spurts (5 to 10 minutes) of meditation practiced consistently for as little as eight weeks can have a positive impact on your brain, I encourage newbies to start with something even simpler: the meditative warm-up called single-tasking. I call it “Five Moments” practice. Each day, choose five moments to commit to being fully aware and present as you do one thing at a time. For instance, when you get out of bed, be aware of how it feels when your feet first touch the floor. Our minds too often race ahead to the tasks of the day, so we miss that moment altogether. Or, try single-tasking with that first sip of coffee/tea/water in the morning; notice how the liquid feels as it passes through your lips. Finding these five moments throughout the day can train our brains to do one thing at a time—and research from Stanford University shows that single-tasking creates higher productivity.
3 “I have to stop my thoughts during meditation.”
If you have ever tried to stop thinking completely during meditation, you probably discovered that it makes the whir of mental noise worsen. Wherever you are, you can take a deep breath and simply be aware of the tiny sensations of breathing in and breathing out. It won’t take long for thoughts, feelings, sounds, and other sensations to arise. Incorporate them all into the meditative experience! Practice not hanging on to any particular thought or feeling while simultaneously not pushing any of them away. Find the balance of simply being aware of them all, as if all those thoughts are just clouds floating by in the sky. Then, continue to focus on the tiny sensations of breathing in and breathing out. You don’t even have to close your eyes, so you can practice this exercise at your desk, in your car, or on a walk. Incorporate all of life into the meditative experience by simply being more aware of each moment. After you master this technique, sitting meditation will become easier as well.
4 “I have to sit in the pretzel position.”
If you can sit with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed, you are in the “right” position. Most of the people I teach actually meditate in chairs—that makes your office or your favorite lunchtime hangout a great place to practice! If you feel relaxed (but not sleepy) when you lie down, you could try that position as well. Other types of meditation may call for different postures and hand positions, but I have found that those are often unnecessary and overly burdensome to someone who is just starting out.
5 “I can’t stay focused for very long—I get distracted so I can’t do meditation.”
Everyone gets distracted. It’s part of the process. One moment you are focused on your breathing, and then suddenly you start thinking about what you want for dinner, or you replay the argument you had with your sister, or you notice how painful your leg feels. A myriad of distractions can creep in, but I encourage meditators to celebrate each moment of distraction because those moments are ones in which you are aware and present. It can happen dozens of times in even the shortest meditation. Not to worry—just return again and again, as many times as needed, to focusing on breathing in and breathing out.
6 “I get bored/restless/agitated/angry/resentful/guilty just sitting quietly.”
Many people label their meditations as “good” or “bad” based on the amount of difficulty they have. But we all have a mountain of different thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arise while meditating, and, luckily, any attempt at meditation is good! In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson tried out a technique he called “The Relaxation Response”—because “meditation” was too progressive of a term for both doctors and patients at that time. He took people’s vital signs then asked them to try a simple 15-minute practice. He found that it didn’t matter whether patients interpreted their experience as successful or not—the attempt alone had a positive physiological impact. Moreover, some neuroscience studies show that getting through a “difficult” meditation is often more likely to rewire the brain if the meditator sticks with it. It is in the midst of wanting to bail, and choosing instead to stay, that we create a new neural network for tolerating uncomfortable sensations.
7 “I’ve tried to meditate, but it didn’t make me feel peaceful at all.”
Although most people try meditation because they want more peace in their lives, not all meditations will result in a sense of peacefulness. Knowing this upfront will reduce the sense of failure that many have felt. Peace comes as a by-product of a consistent meditation practice. When we focus on learning to be neutrally aware of whatever arises, we learn to tolerate difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations. When we can tolerate these difficulties, we will find that we are more often at peace—both while meditating and during our daily routines.
If you still seek a little more motivation, a helpful tool for newbies is the use of guided meditations. Having someone else lead you through the practice may help you focus more. In addition, flexing the muscles of our imagination with positive imagery gives our ever-busy brains something good to focus on: love, kindness, etc. Meditating with a group may also help support your practice. Most people are less likely to stop in the middle of a meditation if they are practicing with others. Find some friends who are also interested and make a meditation date!
Janet Nima Taylor is a meditation teacher and the author of Meditation for Non-Meditators: Learn to Meditate in Five Minutes.