Have you made this mistake and stopped meditating?

Do you feel like your meditation practice isn’t really getting traction? Do you have a hard time making yourself do it even though you know how good it is for you and you want to make it part of your life? Have you made this mistake and stopped meditating?

It’s not looking good

Will came to talk to me about his meditation practice. He sighed and looked frustrated. It wasn’t going well. He was under a lot of work stress and struggled with the 15min he had committed to do every day as his new year’s resolution. In fact, he barely did it once a week. His resistance to sitting down and meditating truly puzzled him. Sure, his life was full and busy, but he knew that he could find the time to make it happen.

Being a science geek, he gobbled up all the research articles on mindfulness and meditation, particularly the ones on brain images. He could cite who did which study much better than I. His whole face lit up when he talked about this research.

But he couldn’t get himself to sit down and actually meditate. He always found a good excuse to not do it right this minute.

Of course he knew only too well that in order to get all the fabulous changes the research was holding in front of him like a juicy carrot he had to practice.

Regularly. Period.

Which was frustrating him even more.

 What are your meditations like?

“What are your meditations like when you do it?” I asked him. “Dry and boring on a good day, but most often excruciating. Then I flip-flop between being super restless and pretty much unconscious.”

“What do you do when it’s excruciating?” I asked. “Oh, I get down on myself for being such a bad meditator and sometimes I’m so frustrated that I just stop. Which makes me feel even more like an epic meditation failure.”

pretty skull cutWhy are you meditating?

I asked Will a bigger picture question: Why do you meditate? Not surprisingly he answered in science terms: “Because it’s good to meditate. I want to rewire my brain for more happiness and resiliency. I want to lower my stress hormones and boost the anti-inflammatory cytokines. I want to…” I politely interrupted him. “Have you ever felt more at ease, more peaceful or more spacious during a meditation?” He shook his head.

He always found it hard. His mind was just so busy, his body started itching and it was hard to not move. So he applied what he knew to do to make things happen: he tried even harder, to “accept” the situation, to not be so f*&^% judgmental!

Yeah, we know where that goes, forcing yourself to relax…

So instead of moving closer to peace and ease he moved more and more away from it. And he wasn’t even aware of doing it. No wonder his unconscious was boycotting his best intentions to practice.

Oh, I know that place. I don’t like to be there, either. Who does? But what makes one person come back the next day and start over and the other person quit?

You will keep practicing if you know from your own experience that every meditation is a new one and that the struggle won’t be there all the time. Every meditator goes through phases in their practice. Some are inspiring and beautiful, others are boring and dry and others are emotionally taxing. What attitude are we cultivating toward them? You’ll keep practicing if you practice meeting those boring, dry, emotionally taxing moments with kindness. After all if you’re kind to yourself when a meditation isn’t the way you want it to be, you’re more likely to be kind when life or others aren’t the way you want them to be.

If you don’t feel it, you won’t do it

If you don’t feel the benefits of meditation, you won’t do it. (Which is of course true for many other things, too).

Let’s focus on two time-windows of meditation:

  1. How does it make you feel while you do it and
  2. How does it make you feel after meditating as you go about your day? Or: how does your life change because you meditate?

The latter is what the studies report about: you need to do it in order to feel a difference. But to feel this difference, you need to meditate. And the more, the better.

And to motivate ourselves to meditate, we need to experience the sweet taste of it while we do it – at least at times. And we can’t experience the sweetness unless we let ourselves experience all the rest. So we need to start with what happens – and how it feels – while we do it.

We need to experience first hand that the “not doing”, the letting ourselves “receive the moment” does the magic, regardless of external circumstances. We need to get a feel of what “not doing” feels like and how we can invite that. White-knuckling just doesn’t work in meditation.

For a lot of people this kind of “not doing” happens pretty much from the beginning. For others, like Will, more guidance and structure is needed. Because if you don’t feel it, you will stop meditating.

What’s the remedy?

What’s the remedy? Often it’s practicing for longer time periods and do so with the support of an experienced teacher, ideally in a group. The longer periods give you the opportunity to receive a fuller range of moments and responses. The teacher can help guide you through the dryness, restlessness, and emotional intensity. And the group will help you to see all different kind of experiences, to normalize them and will inspire you to keep practicing.

In Will’s case I recommended he do a full eight week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) class with me. That means eight weekly meetings of 2.5 hours plus a whole practice day in silence (!). Oh yes, and home meditations of 30-45min with guided audios – daily.

Will moaned, called me a sadist (in friendlier terms) and went home.

He came back a week later, after he was done feeling sorry for himself, because he really believed that meditation could make a difference in his life.

Will had never done a formal class, only short workshops and practiced with online guided meditations.

Who helps you develop a more curious and kind attitude?

Will had never done a formal class, only short workshops and practiced with online guided meditations. While self-study might work for many people, it didn’t for him because he had nobody to help him develop a curious and kind attitude toward his practice. His “white knuckling” was making his meditations less rather than more enjoyable. And because his sittings were very short, just 10 or 15min, he never got to a point where he experienced the “letting go”, or rather “giving up” of his resistance.

So Will started his MBSR class. He was willing to commit to the 8 weeks without a constantly evaluating how he was doing, if it was going good or bad.

Relief for him came fast. Just after a couple of weeks, he came to class with a big smile on his face. “Now I get what people are talking about when they gush over their meditation. Wow. And it happened all by itself, when I was just too tired to fight and question myself all the time. It was beautiful.”

Are all his meditations great now? Of course they are not. But Will has experienced “letting go” or “letting be.” And he can recognize and cultivate that experience. And so far it occurs often enough to make him stick to a regular practice.

Give yourself time

Jon Kabat-Zinn said that if you meditate only short periods of time you might never get to the boredom and restlessness. In Will’s case it was exactly the opposite. He never meditated long enough the get to the moments of joy, peace and spaciousness.


And you?

Now I want to hear from you in the comments below: What makes you come back to your cushion or chair – or why don’t you? Or are you still stuck in the mistake to not meditate long enough?

Please share this blog with people you think might benefit from it. Thanks!


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8 Responses to “Have you made this mistake and stopped meditating?”

  1. Vicki October 13, 2014 at 4:47 am #

    I keep coming back like my life depends on it. Sometimes I feel a little something during the practice. A lot of the time I see a difference later in the day. Like suddenly noticing the sound of a water fountain or the smell of my broccoli cheddar soup or the taste of water as it sits in my mouth. To me practicing is like therapy, except that I give it to myself. Instead of trying to figure things out, I just am.

    • Christiane Wolf October 16, 2014 at 10:31 pm #

      Yes, anchoring oneself back into the present moment can be like anchoring back into sanity. The simplicity of cheddar soup – this moment.

  2. lala November 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

    I did a 10 day silent retreat, not an easy task meditating 10+ hours a day, but I did it and I did it well. However after leaving all these fears cropped up and I started to feel disconnected. I feared If I continued I would lose myself somehow, this was exasperated by reading peoples comments online which I knew was a mistake. So I stopped. For a year. What a mistake. I realized those fears were all untrue and now I am starting again but now I am angry that I have to start from the beginning to heighten my awareness again. So while I am meditating I can feel the anger fuming inside , “you worked so hard for ten days and now look, you have to start all over! what a waste!”. Did I just waste all that time? How do I get over my anger at myself for not continuing?

    • Christiane Wolf November 12, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

      Thank you so much for sharing this. What you describe happens pretty regularly. People go on retreat, go all in, open up, have deep insights – and then go back home. And especially if there is no meditating community and/or teacher to come back to, this kind of backlash happens easily. And so it feels the safest to stop meditating. Please don’t be hard on yourself for stopping. You did the best you could at that point – and it helped you to calm down again, didn’t it? And as to the starting over, i understand what you mean, but we all loose this intensity of practice, that ease of sitting after a 10 day retreat (even after a one day retreat). It doesn’t stay because the conditions off retreat are so different. So that happens to everybody. That is one reason why we need to keep sitting retreats over and over – because we forget and we are not monastics. You did not waste all that time at all. But the theme of forgiving oneself for something is a big topic, which would take too much time to address here. But isn’t that what the practice is all about? Starting over? With beginner’s mind? Learning to hold all of our experience with kindness.

      • lala November 12, 2014 at 10:42 pm #

        Thank you, that really helped. I feel much better about where I am and know I shouldn’t cling to decisions of the past and fret over the what-ifs. It all happens as it should and to learn a lesson I could only learn in that way. Thanks again!

        • Christiane Wolf November 18, 2014 at 6:36 pm #

          So glad to hear my reply was helpful. We all start over and over and over.

          • Centrino August 29, 2015 at 11:46 am #

            Welcome to the reality of impermanence 🙂
            PS : very inspiring blog BTW ~ Greetings from Brussels

  3. Dennis August 20, 2018 at 9:52 am #

    Probably most of us match Will. We need the result as immediate as possible but we do not focus on what we should be followed. Thank you for sharing the reasons behind our failure and what we should be focussing to avail the benefits of meditation.

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