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.
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.”
Why 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:
- How does it make you feel while you do it and
- 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.
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!