Why can't I meditate?
February 8, 2011 7:39 AM   Subscribe

Why can't I meditate? What do I just not get about meditation?

For many years now I have wanted to be able to meditate largely due to the great benefits I have read/been told people experience through meditation. At times I have tried and then given up because I just got almost nothing out of it.

Most recently I decided to give it another go. I purchased and read two books - Buddhism without Beliefs and Mindfulness in Plain English (both of which I found to be very good). I then meditated (or tried) each day for a few months. At first (for the majority of the time I tried) I would set an alarm (15 minutes or so) and just try to make it that long but without any requirement of myself to do so. What I found is that I could barely make it five minutes without finding myself literally hating just sitting there. So, I would stop and then try again in the evening or the next day with the same results. Quite frankly, even though I wasn't forcing myself to sit there for any length of time I really began to dread my meditation time each day. Towards the end of the period I decided I needed to force myself to sit for longer periods and did 15 minutes at first and then 30 hoping I would find the peace of mind, etc. that friends of mine have experienced. Same result - only I dreaded the mediation even more.

So am I just not capable of meditating? Has anyone else had this much trouble learning to meditate? Unfortunately I am not in an area where I can take a class on mediation.
posted by tr45vbyt to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
You know, there are a lot of different styles—you may have to find one that works for you: different breathing techniques, visualizations, koans, empty-mind, etc. etc. Check out everything from pranayama to all the different types of zen to Tibetan meditation to...etc.

The thing is, a lot of it is exactly about getting out of the mindset you're complaining about. Maybe next time you try, as soon as you start hating sitting there, start questioning that. Ask yourself why you are hating it? Examine that feeling, watch that feeling. That's one strategy.

Also, maybe it's not your thing, ya know? Maybe you need "active meditation" of some sort?
posted by dubitable at 7:48 AM on February 8, 2011

This is what I learned about meditating:

Breathe in. Count as you go. If you have a thought, let the thought go.

Breathe out to the same count.

You start at one. If you get to ten, you start over at one.

So it goes like this for me:

Inhale slowly, "One, two, need to buy diapers." Pause. Exhale, "One, two."
Inhale slowly, "One, two, three hope the [willfully stop the thought and let it go]." Pause. Exhale, "One, two three."

I also find keeping my eyes half closed and focused down at a point on the floor helps better than keeping my eyes completely closed. Counting my breath helps give me something else to focus on, too.
posted by zizzle at 7:51 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The key is not to stop when you are hating sitting there. Just examine the hate: why do you hate sitting there? where is the hate coming from? what are you getting from feeling that hate? etc. Anything except stopping - just continue to sit until the timer goes off.
posted by hworth at 7:51 AM on February 8, 2011 [9 favorites]

What I found is that I could barely make it five minutes without finding myself literally hating just sitting there.

People don't meditate because it's a blast. The hate is a perfectly reasonable thing to feel.

Have you tried starting at five minutes, then going up by thirty seconds per week?
posted by Greg Nog at 7:53 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You should start with a much shorter amount of time.

When I first started meditating, it was in the context of yoga classes. We did guided deep relaxation exercises for 15 minutes, but when it was just "look at this pretty mandala and clear your mind" time, we would do that for more like 2-3 minutes.

Lately I have been doing more meditation via my therapist - we call it "checking in" and it's basically a mindfulness thing. We never do it for more than 5 minutes, and even at that length I need a little more than "OK, stfu now and be mindful for 5 minutes while I check my blackberry".

It's only with intense practice that people develop the ability to meditate for 20+ minutes. Unless what they really mean is "sit quietly for 20+ minutes" or "just kinda zone out for 20+ minutes" - which are not really the same thing as meditation.
posted by Sara C. at 7:54 AM on February 8, 2011

Books about meditation really don't show you anything. Find a nice zen center where you can sit with a group.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:55 AM on February 8, 2011

No, you're doing it exactly right. The whole "augh I hate this I can't sit still for thirty seconds what's on TV I should check my email" bit is what you're sitting there to destroy, and it takes some practice to get past it. Think of it like learning to play the violin -- you're just going to make a lot of awful noise for the first month or two before you get the basics of how to control your instrument (or your mind). Just keep it at, reread the books, maybe experiment with a new posture if you're physically uncomfortable (which was a big problem for me).
posted by theodolite at 7:56 AM on February 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oh yeah, other folks are talking about the time you're taking and I agree—take a shorter amount of time. As Sara C says, it's really hard to sit there for a while and really be solidly meditating. I've sat for long periods of time, but it's not like I was ever (so far) totally there; I was fighting the whole damn time (other than the times when I was, in fact, zoning out...).

Maybe part of your problem is that you are thinking meditation is something that it's not. The struggle is actually a big part of that. But it does get easier, it's like anything, you have good days and bad days and it gets easier and feels more productive, I suppose, over time.
posted by dubitable at 7:57 AM on February 8, 2011

Meditation is called a "practice" for a reason. It takes time to explore it and figure out how to make it work for you.

I think you just have to ease in more slowly. Try this -- set an alarm for five minutes, and practice five minutes of motionlessness. Don't worry about where your mind should be at -- just focus on being relaxed and motionless. Pretend to be a statue.

When you can do five minutes easily (I bet you already can) then try ten. Keep increasing the increments. Remember, this is just about motionlessness, it doesn't matter what your mind is doing as long as you are relaxed and motionless.

When you can finally do 20 minutes of motionlessness (without falling asleep), THEN move on to the mental aspects of meditation. Right now you are feeling too much pressure to think or feel or know something, and I think that's putting the cart ahead of the horse. Develop the actual practice of making time and just sitting still, and let that be the glass that you pour your more focused efforts into later on.
posted by hermitosis at 7:57 AM on February 8, 2011

Books about meditation really don't show you anything. Find a nice zen center where you can sit with a group.

Burhanistan I was going to suggest that sort of thing too, but seems like the OP may be without that option: "Unfortunately I am not in an area where I can take a class on mediation."
posted by dubitable at 7:58 AM on February 8, 2011

> Burhanistan I was going to suggest that sort of thing too

Indeed, I missed that bit. Off to refine mindfulness.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:02 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about using guided meditation CDs, or online stuff? Perhaps someone else here can recommend some good ones.
posted by mareli at 8:07 AM on February 8, 2011

I gave up on meditating years ago. I blame the ADHD. I absolutely cannot quiet my mind. Not even with Adderall.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:08 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are a few very different flavors of meditation. Something very different than what you've tried:

(just sitting, zazen, shikantaza)

Also, this is a muddled book, but it talks about how meditation instructions interact with meditation

You said you hate and dread sitting. That's an excellent observation. When distractions are minimized, what is now so intolerable? What is the proper relationship to what's left when you run out of distractions? You're on the right track. :)

Another perspective,
(discussions of willingness/acceptance and the reality of suffering and unpleasantness--a western perspective in the context of values and action in the world)

(This is an extremely challenging book with deep, dangerous insights. Talks about the relationship between "being" and "mind" and different ways to think about the relationship between you and everything else.)

Another thing to think about is, how meditation different from living your life? What do they have in common? How is meditation in the service of living your life?
posted by zeek321 at 8:08 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I can't meditate with any success unless I take my stimulant medication. (ADHD) So there's that. I end up horrendously unhappy and twitchy all day.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:08 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Part of practicing meditation is realizing that you can't 'clear' your mind in a literal sense. Random thoughts and images are going to come in no matter what. It's like saying "don't think of a pink elephant." Bam. It's there.

When those things show up, people think they are 'doing it wrong' and get frustrated. What helps is not to try not to fight the appearance of such things, just lets those things arrive and go unheeded. Let them pass you by.

In a short time you'll see the stress of trying to 'stop' is half the battle. There is an outside world, and nothing you do will truly isolate yourself from that. What is the difference between hearing a babbling stream out in some peaceful forest and hearing your refrigerator running in your apartment? Nothing, really. It's just vibrating air in your environment.
posted by chambers at 8:13 AM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

Try meditating in the mornings, preferably after awakening or following your first cup of coffee. A large part of the restless you're experiencing may be due to an active, engaged brain--precisely the brain you'll find yourself encountering mid-day, or in the evening. You can "short circuit" this problem by meditating before your mind has become caught up with the flow and requirements of day-to-day life.

Don't worry about the length of your meditation sessions, at first. Worry about completing one session per day, first thing in the day. Meditate at a precise time each morning, and turn this into a daily routine.
posted by Gordion Knott at 8:14 AM on February 8, 2011

You're doing it too long. Start with 5 minutes. Don't go looking for peace of mind - it's not something out there that you will find. Meditation is like letting a pond settle until you can see the bottom. You cannot force it.

Remember this is all made up - nothing exists in meditation except your ass on that cushion and your breath. All of the "this sucks" is 100% created by your mind. If you find yourself making judgments ("I'm doing this wrong," "I suck at this") just be mindful of those, and let them pass through you, like clouds in the sky or trains through a station. Your mind will still of its own accord.

My mantra is "don't fight." Every time that resistance comes up, I tell myself, don't fight. I give myself complete freedom to feel whatever I like. However, I consciously choose what actions to take. For example, I give myself freedom to feel resentful and miserable, but I choose to sit until the bell rings. It's OK to feel miserable, really. Don't fight it. Miserableness LOVES resistance; given complete freedom, it wanders off on its own.
posted by desjardins at 8:17 AM on February 8, 2011 [10 favorites]

Sometimes if I can't keep my mind on sitting meditation, I try walking meditation. Just strolling very slowly, focusing on the feel of my feet on the ground. Or I'll alternate between the two for five minutes apiece.
posted by rosa at 8:18 AM on February 8, 2011

I've never found sitting to meditate to be compelling for the same reasons you describe. What I find works for me at this point is trying to bring a mindfulness to activity (like really focusing on what I'm doing, say, chopping vegetables for dinner). I also really like yoga for getting my overactive chatterbox brain to STFU for a while. I find that physical activity or tasks afford me the opportunity to be with my breath and in my body.

Sometimes I've felt really down on myself for not "getting" meditation, but I don't think that's a useful way to help me get there, you know?

So, my suggestion is to try non-meditating meditating. Take three deep breaths, do one thing at a time, etc.
posted by hansbrough at 8:18 AM on February 8, 2011

And, what rosa said!!
posted by hansbrough at 8:19 AM on February 8, 2011

I've had trouble with meditation as well, and I have hypotheses as to why. The psychological makeup of the modern Western mind is not conducive to a centuries-old method of achieving a meditative state. This doesn't mean it can't be done, it just has to be done differently. For me, I feel most meditative when I'm engrossed in solving a problem, or fixing something (motorcycle maintenance, anyone?). But the most recent and surprising method for me was when I re-discovered that just watching ants, or the behavior of yellow jackets at the entrance to their nest, could absorb me for hours. I'd been doing it almost all throughout my childhood and teenage years, but I had forgotten how clear my head felt, and how present in the moment my existence seemed to be. The busy processing of my everyday life disappeared. Time lost its relevance. My thoughts were free to roam. I've tried the traditional methods, too, but I always found it too distracting, as well as frustrating, which obviously isn't the point of the whole thing.

So, without getting too long-winded, I think you are indeed capable. You certainly have the desire. It may just take some experimentation with methods. If it frustrates or causes dread, it probably belongs in the reject pile. I believe now is indeed a good time to rethink meditation, and the ways in which it can be done. I encourage you to be creative with your experimentation: think aloud about the things and places that brought you closest to mindfulness in the past. Try non-traditional approaches (airports and doctor's offices are strangely conducive to meditation for me, for some reason). I know it's a lot of weird stuff to throw at you, but the weird--almost whimsical--stuff is finally what worked for me.

Good luck!
posted by malaprohibita at 8:25 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Two things helped me:
1. A meditation timer for my smartphone. I love the gentle bell chime. And I get chuffed looking at the sitting log as it grows with sitting entries. The meditation is the reward, but seeing all those entries is like looking at little gold stars next to my name in first grade. I showed up! Yay!
2. This course by zencast.org. I have a personal predeliction towards Zen, though, so ymmv. There are other podcasts, too, in their archives about meditation that are great. I find that though I live in an area where courses on meditation (Zen in particular) are nonexistent this podcast really helps!
posted by hecho de la basura at 8:27 AM on February 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Active meditation is an equally old tradition, where one engages in some form of manual, repetitive labor in order to free and quiet the mind. (Monks don't tend gardens just for the food, you know! It has spiritual benefits!)

People can find meditative states in lawnmowing, dishwashing by hand, stuffing envelopes, many handcrafts (embroidery works very well for me) ... any task that is enough to occupy a portion of your mind without requiring attention from ALL of it. You may find this a better way to induce a meditative state and get the peaceful mind you're seeking. Such a practice can help you grow into the ability to meditate mindfully (i.e., what you're trying now); it can be combined with mindful meditation; or it can just be itself and give you all the benefits you require.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:33 AM on February 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

The famous yogi Sivananda has a quote that I can't find but it goes something like "Meditation is always painful at first but will lead to bliss with time." You are supposed to hate it at first. Meditation, after all, is one of the most unnatural things you can do.

However, most people don't hate it quite so much as you seem to. This might suggest that there's too much tension in your body and when you sit down to meditate, you become more aware of it (while normally it's easier to ignore). You can try taking a long warm shower, then doing a few simple asanas (that's partly what asanas were invented for), and then meditate. Breath exercises might help you even better than asanas (or in addition to asanas).

A longer meditation does tend to work better. It's an individual thing, but for perspective, I've often felt a very distinct euphoric calmness after about 40-45 minutes. On the other hand, some days it's just not there. However, even when meditation itself sucks, I've always felt better and clearer afterwards, as long as meditation was 40-ish minutes long or more.

I've often seen advice to meditate for 5 minutes and not worry about longer meditation, but I think the downside is that we tend to forget about any practice if it doesn't seem to work after a month or so, and with 5-minute mini-meditations it will likely take many months to matter.

That's not to say that a short meditation is useless - our sensitivity is just not fine-tuned enough to tell. Fortunately, if you keep up with meditation, it will also improve your sensitivity to its effects. In short, meditation is Catch-22: you don't do it because it doesn't seem to do anything; you need to invest a large chunk of time (e.g. many dozens of hours) just to convince yourself it works - but how to justify that time if you're not getting anything out of it?
posted by rainy at 8:58 AM on February 8, 2011

Wow lots of great advice here - I appreciate it. I feel like I will give it another try.

Eyebrows McGee - I do find that with exercise I am able to get into a pretty good meditative state just focusing on my breathing/counting. In fact it's one of the reasons I really enjoy exercise. I've just never understood why I couldn't do it while sitting.
posted by tr45vbyt at 9:01 AM on February 8, 2011

I'm the same way. I just feel very uncomfortable sitting still. The tradition of labyrinths would seem to indicate that we're not alone.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:03 AM on February 8, 2011

Every few years, I try to learn how to meditate. And every single time, I give up in frustration. I don't have any advice on how to get better at it, but I can assure you that you're not the only one.
posted by honeydew at 11:19 AM on February 8, 2011

Perhaps if you have the opportunity to take a few days or a week off, you can find a retreat or meditation center to go to for some in-person learning, too. There are many that are inexpensive if you don't mind living monkishly. There are thousands of people who have made it their life's work to help people like us learn this. For such an apparently solitary activity, it's odd that it's so much harder to teach it to yourself. Being with others, including a decent teacher, makes it much easier.
posted by Corvid at 11:50 AM on February 8, 2011

Technically speaking (I had a weird school) I've been meditating off and on since kindergarten. I've taken classes in it, and am going back to class again tomorrow. And I still don't LIKE meditation. Given that I am probably an ADHD sort... yeah. It feels like I'm trying to kill my brain to sit there idle.

I do second the "doing some kind of activity that keeps you active while your brain is relatively still" thing as being far more enjoyable, though I don't know if it counts, exactly. I've tried walking meditation but it's still incredibly slow, so it's not much of an improvement if that is what makes you nuts.

Really, I don't know, I haven't solved this either. I used to set a timer for ten minutes and do it during breaks from work. I'd do it outside because if I sit indoors I keep thinking, "but there's a computer! there are books! there are far more interesting things to do than this!." I managed to keep that up for over 100 days before I finally hit my limit.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:18 PM on February 8, 2011

Have you considered that maybe meditating is just not for you? Sure, it can have benefits for a lot of people, but where is it written that everyone must benefit, or can benefit? I doubt anyone has proven that - human beings are incredibly complex, and you should immediately be skeptical of such absolutist claims. People are different. Millions of people have lived happy productive distinguished lives without the benefits of meditation. Maybe you are just not built for meditation. Are you sure you are missing something in your life without meditation? Maybe you'll be better off/happier without it. Jack LaLanne live to 96 while exercising for hours every single day for decades and decades - there were plenty of 100 year olds who didn't exercise a day in their lives, smoked, drank and were healthy until the very end. Does it mean exercise is useless? No, but it may not be for everyone - it is actually speculated that up to 20% of people don't have the physiology to benefit from exercise. Who knows, you may be better off without meditation. This is not to say it's necessarily so - only that others here can tell you how to persist and they can do a very good job... I'm just providing the perspective, that maybe you are just fine the way you are.
posted by VikingSword at 1:19 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Try laying on your back as opposed to sitting. or a differnt position if that doesn't work.
posted by WeekendJen at 2:47 PM on February 8, 2011

It's this simple:

Sit down
Breath in and out, naturally
Each time you breath in acknowledge that you're "breathing in"
Each time you breathe out, "breathing out"
When thoughts arise in your head, like "I hate this" or "what ma I doing" or "why don't i feel peaceful", acknowledge it's a "thought" and then just...
Go back to breathing in an out, naturally.

Whenever a thought of any kind arises in your head, just acknowledge it: "Oh, there's a thought, ok, that was a thought, now, back to breathing" and go back to breathing. Don't fight these thoughts arising, don't struggle to sit perfectly, don't struggle to make anything happen. The first task is simply to learn how to be right where you are and how to focus the mind on one task, in this case sitting and breathing. The incredible benefit of this, as you'll see if you do just this one simple thing, is that you learn that you can have thoughts without acting on them. For example, you can think "i'm hating this meditation" without standing up and stopping. Later, you can explore more.
posted by jardinier at 8:20 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to meditate on a word, over and over and over again. I didn't get much out of it though I persistently kept trying on and off for years. Finally I read this site about Vispassna meditation. It's like a manual about the subject, written in plain English.
What I think I am doing now is a form of concentration, but instead of concentrating on the thought of the moment, I'm concentrating on my breathing and being in the moment. It's relaxing, energizing and gives a kind of global awareness...better not to typify it too much. The website explains it all well enough. Eventually during the meditation, the thoughts fall away and one becomes more and more just being in the moment. At least that's the ideal. Thoughts still come and go but eventually they just stop being so persistently dominant in the awareness. It's important to understand the basic pattern of how to sit, how to focus on the breathing as this becomes the foundation of the practice.
posted by diode at 9:01 PM on February 8, 2011

You ask whether anyone else has had this problem. Yes. Me. I can't do it either. I've tried several times, and revisited it when I was older. Can't do it. I can't concentrate, can't relax, can't switch off. I fuss, bother and itch. If I try to slow my breathing and visualise whatever I'm supposed to be visualising my brain just won't let me. It always cracks a joke or makes me think of something else.

I honestly believe some of us just don't have the necessary mental make-up for this. The things that relax me are working out, massage and drinking. Different strokes. One size does not fit all.
posted by Decani at 4:13 AM on February 9, 2011

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