This is not a post to convince you that meditation is good for you. It's now common knowledge that the practice of meditation is another important pillar of wellness, along with good sleep, regular exercise, and healthy eating.
Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D. is a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include research articles and book chapters on the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety and depression, how CBT works, and the use of brain imaging to study psychiatric disorders. Dr. Gillihan maintains a clinical practice in Haverford, PA.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
But why is it so hard to get ourselves to spend a few minutes each day meditating?
Even as someone who practices mindfulness-based therapy, leads others in guided meditations, and has found the practice invaluable at many crucial points in my life, I include myself in the group of people who resist meditation.
Maybe you've had a similar experience. Perhaps you were drawn to the teachings of mindfulness, were introduced to meditation, and even enjoyed the practice. You might have found it relaxing, grounding, even liberating—and yet you've struggled to make it a regular part of your day.
It's not that you have hangups about the concept of mindfulness or believe any of the myths about it (as I've written about before). It's not that you don't know that meditation is good for you. It's not that you find it aversive once you're actually meditating. It's just that for some reason there's a block between you and the practice.
I've found this to be common among people I treat in my clinical practice, as well as among my fellow clinicians. And it can't be completely explained by obstacles like, "I don't have enough time." Even people with too much time on their hands have encountered the same resistance.
There seems to be something else going on. If we have the motive, the time, and the desire to meditate, what's getting in the way?
I believe that it's one major factor: When we start meditating, something has to stop.
What has to stop is the mode of mind that keeps us striving, judging, clinging, rejecting, narrowly focusing on "for me or against me," and so forth. That state of mind is resistant to meditating because it dies (temporarily) when we enter into meditation.
So, if it feels like something is fighting for its life to keep you from meditation, it's probably true. It's the ego-driven frame of mind that causes you to feel like "I" don't want to meditate. If it announced itself—"Your ego doesn't want to be put on hold"—you'd probably say, "Too bad, I'm going to meditate." But the ego is subtle and manipulative, and can trick us into serving it rather than our own best interests. By recognizing the mind's resistance to giving up its habitual mode of activity, we can successfully break through it.
I once worked with a woman who was new to the practice of meditation; she quickly saw what her mind was up to. She realized that meditation takes a willingness to step away from the mind's preoccupation with itself and its narrowly defined concerns. And as soon as we exercise our will in that direction—as soon as we decide to meditate—we've stepped away from the ego-driven mind. As she put it so clearly: "Meditation starts when you decide to meditate."
How can we make it easier to make that decision? There are many ways to remove barriers to meditation (in addition to recognizing our own resistance for what it is). Five important ones that I've found are:
- Find a regular time. When we build meditation practice into our routine, we avoid having to ask ourselves, "Should I meditate now?" Even if it's hard to find a time that always works, finding a time that often works will raise the odds of doing it.
- Keep it brief. There is no minimum number of minutes you must meditate. One conscious breath is better than none. One minute is better than none. You can check in with yourself and see if the length of your practice feels more like an opportunity or a sentence. If it's the latter, consider making it shorter.
- Find a comfortable posture. Being terribly uncomfortable while meditating isn't going to increase you desire to do it. For example, if sitting on the floor doesn't work for you, try sitting on a chair. I used to sit on the floor and often had a lot of discomfort in my back. I found that sitting on a low yoga block felt much friendlier.
- Choose a form you enjoy. There are many ways to meditate; the important thing is to find one that works for you. Maybe you prefer a more active form like tai chi to a sitting breath-focused meditation. We can benefit from varying our practice at times. Most of my practice involves a sitting eyes-open meditation on the breath, which I've found I like. When it feels right for you, it's more appealing to return over and over.
- Release expectations. If we're not careful we can bring our ego-driven goals to meditation: "I hope I'm able to focus." "I want to do this right." "I want to have an experience like I had the last time." These kinds of goals can lead us to evaluate our meditation session as "good" or "bad," and to feel pressure as we consider meditating. We can practice bringing a "beginner's mind" to each practice, being open and curious about what will happen this time.
When we're able to meditate on a regular basis, we find that it's easier to do. Each time we sit and come back to the breath, it might start feeling like returning to an old friend: "Ah, there you are—you're still here, so I must be, too." It can feel like coming home.
If you've set an intention to regularly meditate and have run into resistance, how can you make it easier to practice today—maybe even right now?