Why Meditation Feels Impossible (And How To Do It Anyway)

A redheaded woman sits cross -legged in the grass demonstrating a meditation how to

You’ve managed to carve out a sliver of precious time amidst the chaos of your day. The lights are dimmed. Your phone is on “do not disturb.” The sound of gentle ocean waves plays softly in the background. You close your eyes and focus on your breath.

In . . . Out . . .

One.

In . . . Out . . .

Two.

In . . . Out . . .

SHIT, your mind screams. I forgot Allison’s birthday. I saw the reminder on my calendar every day for the last week and still forgot to call yesterday. Ohmygod I’m the worst friend. The absolute WORST. I have to call her right now. No. Wait. I’m supposed to be breathing…

In . . . Out . . .

…ok just as soon as this is over with. I just can’t forget. Again. I’ll take her out to lunch. She’ll forgive me. I mean, she will. Will she? She was furious FOREVER with Olivia for not coming to Thanksgiving last year. I never really understood that. She has a bit of a temper sometimes. She should probably try meditating. Oh. Wait . . . 

Sound familiar?

People tell me all the time that they don’t know how to meditate. But I think the truth is that they tried it once or twice and they sucked at it. So they quit.

I get it.

As human beings, we are conditioned by social shame, whether real or perceived, to avoid doing the things we’re bad at. In prehistoric clans, social shame meant the risk of being ostracized. Facing all those saber-toothed tigers alone was far too scary a prospect, so if you sucked at skinning wooly mammoths, best to leave that job to Grog and go back to making rock tools.

In modern times, there exists another factor even more influential than social shame: self-reproach. It’s the bullying voices in our heads that tell us we’re not good enough, smart enough or successful enough. These inner critics tell us that meditation isn’t rocket science, you don’t need an advanced degree for it. It’s not like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Scoff.

It’s just sitting there, any idiot could do it. It’s easy.

Meditation Isn’t Easy

Let me put this falsehood to bed right away.

Meditation. Is. Not. Easy.

People who think a meditation practice is a simple thing to acquire are doomed to fail. And by fail, I simply mean, to not meditate.

For one thing, there’s a lot more to meditation than just sitting. If you happen to be in a sitting posture, the goal is to keep your spine as straight as possible, like “a perpendicular column of Chinese brass coins.” This can become strangely uncomfortable to maintain for extended periods of time. Finding a comfortable position for your legs can be equally challenging. Lotus pose doesn’t work for all (or most) body types and even cross-legged starts to cut off your circulation after a while.

You can also try meditating lying down. The challenge then becomes not falling asleep. This is incomprehensibly difficult to do if you like to nap during the day or don’t get enough sleep at night. To say it another way, almost everyone will struggle with this.

Some people utilize a walking meditation practice. I don’t, personally, because I think staying present is about a billion times more challenging when my eyes are open and distracting things are happening all around me.

The Monkey Mind

Buddhists use the term “monkey mind” to describe the feeling of being mentally unsettled, restless or confused. Monkeys chatter and screech and generally drown one another out in a cacophony of sound — and often, our minds behave this way too. Overwhelm is just one of these primate-rampant mindstates.

Other times, our thoughts relentlessly flit from one topic to the next like monkeys swinging from branch to branch. They only hold onto one thought branch as long as it takes to leap to the next thought branch. We might recognize these monkeys in our distracted partner, unfocused boss or hyperactive child.

The monkey mind is the part of our brains most connected to the ego, and the ego has the ability to create false thoughts, like fear. Contemplating our fears is essentially obsessing over an illusion; there’s no immediate threat of physical danger or of losing something dear to us, so there is actually nothing scary there at all. And yet Fear Monkey says,

Boyfriend didn’t text last night OR this morning. Why wouldn’t he do that if he knows how much it means to me? What if he wasn’t alone? He said he went out with work friends, but OHMYGOD, what IF? He HAS been weirdly secretive with his phone lately. And Bob said that skank from the office has been hanging all over him since her bf dumped her…

(Note: I am not crazy. My monkeys are).

The monkey mind insists on being heard, and it takes a lot of willpower to shut it down. It’s futile to fight the monkeys because, as Jung points out, “what you resist not only persists but grows in size.”

I, for one, can tell you that the quickest way to “fail” at meditating is to have the thought, I am totally failing at meditating!

Queue the circus.

So what should you do if you’ve heard about the many benefits of meditating but are convinced you suck at it?

Start Small

When considering how to quiet your mind, try to sit still for a minute and think about what calms you. Contemplate how you can incorporate these activities into your daily life. Even just a few minutes of walking meditation or mindful breathing can bring you into the present moment.

Set an Alarm

One way to build a meditation habit is to set an alarm and three times a day for one minute, take a breathing break. Create a focus statement, such as “renew” (on the inhale) and “relax” (on the exhale). As you begin to experience the sensations taking place in your nose, chest and belly, notice when tensions begin to relax. Notice how this makes you feel better.

This is called Focused Attention meditation, and the aim is to focus on a specific thing to train your attention. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. Rinse and repeat. FA meditation is typically easier for beginners because the practice isn’t about sitting with a blank mind. Rather, it’s about bringing the focus back to its object — in this case, the breath — over and over again.

Do this practice daily. Remind yourself that 3 minutes a day is a totally attainable goal that promises benefits that far outweigh the time required. Resist the urge to skip your practice in a moment when things are hectic and you have a lot to do. That is precisely when you need to center yourself the most.

Natural Sounds

When you’re ready to graduate from the breath-focused attention practice, try natural sound meditation. When you tune into what exists in the background — from the sounds of rain and wind to the twitter of birdsong — an internal shift occurs. You experience yourself in relation to the larger world, which gives you an inherent sense of connectedness that you often miss as you speed through your days.

Even city sounds can be sublime if you surrender to them instead of letting them fade into the background. Stop and listen deeply, and if your mind wanders, keep returning to the sounds. Resist the temptation to name them in your mind — raindrops on a tin roof, commuter train, radiator — instead, just witness them.

One of my meditation teachers likens this “not naming” to a dog cocking his head at something you’ve said. The dog’s awareness is there, but he lacks the verbal understanding that could describe it. Focus on the sounds like the dog does, as an aural imprint rather than a word. Let that be your 15 minutes a day.

Guided Meditations

I find guided meditations to be sort of meditation lite. They seem easier because I can focus on the words being said which gives my mind something to chew on, rather than the ceaseless meanderings that plague my silent meditations. YouTube has many to choose from that will suit whatever desired outcome you seek at the moment. Banishing anxiety, cultivating gratitude and deep relaxation are just a few examples.

A word of caution: I don’t recommend doing guided practices solely. It’s important to be able to cultivate quieting the mind for its own sake, but they are a great entrée into building a meditation habit.

Here are two of my favorites:

The Seat
Mountain Meditation

Don’t Quit

I’ve had a meditation practice for over a decade, and I still have to remind myself that it is a practice. In spite of the adage that “practice makes perfect,” I’m not sure I’ll ever get there.

And I’m okay with that.

A violinist striving to master his trade is still not good enough (he is still effectively practicing) until he becomes a master. And you know how many hours it takes to master something?

10,000. 1

Just to put that into perspective, if you practiced meditating for an hour every day, it would take you more than 27 years to gain mastery.

I still come out of meditation sometimes (lots of times) and think, that was terrible! What a waste of time. But then I call to mind the bodhicitta — which, at its core, is the intention to practice meditation for the good of all sentient beings. I strive to get 1% better every day, and meditation is one of the actions that gets me there. In this case, let’s say I become 1% more empathetic and compassionate each time I practice. That tiny shift is undoubtedly beneficial to other sentient beings. And that is decidedly not a waste of time.

Strive to benefit yourself — and others — by committing to 15 minutes a day. You’re going to suck at it but persevere anyway. 1% better is still better.

And the world needs all the empathy and compassion it can get.

Listen to the companion episode

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