How to maximise the benefits of meditation?
September 3, 2018 5:21 AM   Subscribe

Do you have any tips which boost the benefits of meditation? I've meditated on and off for years, for periods of up to 6 months daily. I read the same articles and quotes about it as anyone, I know the supposed benefits, but I just don't get that much from it. I do also recognise it's wrong to meditate FOR a goal, but it's kind of demotivating to keep doing something only to experience no benefit. When I stop, nothing changes besides getting 10-20 mins of my day back. I'd really appreciate some insight and guidance.

I've tried various styles, including non-guided, guided, visualisation, binaurals, TM, metta and moving meditations. It hasn't really changed my POV, made me calmer, less anxious, generally all the things people (including me) start meditating for. I cannot believe there is not something more to this than I am experiencing. It's boring. It's time consuming. It promises inner peace, a wider perspective, calmness. Despite trying pretty much every way I can think of, it remains more of an annoyance than a help!
posted by tzb to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Kundalini yoga is where I ended up with my meditation practice and I know it’s what I was missing.

Basically, it is exercise + directed breathing + some chanting + deep meditation. The formula works a charm. Your thoughts are in your body, so anything that oxygenates you + primes your muscular system to relax helps you meditate deeper.

I accidentally did a form of this a long time ago that was 1/2 hr of a yoga video I liked + binaural beats meditation on headphones afterwards. Then a few years later I was hiking a small mountain in my neighborhood, doing a guided meditation over headphones at the top (sometimes chanting, sometimes binaural beats) and then hiking back down. They were both effective, but very ad hoc and self-directed. Eventually my schedule changed both times and I just stopped doing what worked.

Kundalini is all that and a bag of chips. I like having a teacher and being in class with other people, it helps to be in the room with folks doing the same thing you are. That said, strenuous exercise before any meditation is key, and I suggest that you add 15 to 20 min of stretching and physical exertion before your preferred meditation practice and see what that does for you.
posted by jbenben at 5:37 AM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Have you tried labeling meditation? This is where you label every thought that arises during the meditation. You can do it simply by saying 'anxiety', 'fear' etc. or you can use labels based upon any deeper self discovery you may have done e.g. 'i'm not good enough narrative', 'nobody likes me narrative'. This is really only helpful if you find your thoughts very overwhelming, if you find yourself 'stuck' emotionally etc. If you are generally okay then I guess there's no need to. I find it hard to believe any human being is so aware of themselves that they cannot benefit from this sort of meditation. If I were you I would get a journal and write your discoveries in it. What were your most frequent thoughts about? What is your mind constantly trying to convince you is important etc.? Maybe your mind does not intrigue you.

I would pay close attention to you saying "it's boring" and "annoying" though as that sounds as if you are looking to be entertained or moved by meditation rather than letting those thoughts pass you by. There is a stage past boredom. If you're not reaching it then I would suggest you try Vipassana or something where you go away for a week or two to meditate in a group and can't escape.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:52 AM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

I mean, if calm and reduced anxiety are the goals, there are any number of routes to get there. Meditation isn't for everyone (I personally cannot stand it.) You can try jogging, or swimming, or choral singing, or flotation tanks, or prayer or cooking or dog walking or hiking or....

There is absolutely no compelling reason to keep doing something you don't enjoy that has no benefit to you. They are not handing out free pumpkin spice lattes to people who hit motivational poster #goals on Instagram :)
posted by DarlingBri at 5:52 AM on September 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hi, I just re-read your question.

The 3x’s my meditation practice was/is most effective were the times that I included exercise, this is true. But the feature I left out was that each one of those times I was more serious about meditation in general because it was something I was doing to help me reach a goal. I always thought having the goal in mind was part of how I hit upon combinations of exercise + mediation that worked for me.

Self-improvement is the only reason to do this type of work. I think you may be confusing the mental state of relaxation and completely letting go with a concept of not having a goal? It’s fine to have a goal. IMHE your intention is the magic that makes meditation effective. Ditto being in a room with other practitioners holding similar intentions. It really helps, overall.

Have a goal! Of course!
posted by jbenben at 5:59 AM on September 3, 2018

Best answer: What stage of meditation have you reached? Have you read about this concept at all? Before I took a class involving the stages, I would say that I basically at best bounced around stages 1-3. Once I studied this concept and started paying attention to the quality of my meditations, I found that getting to regular stage 4-5ish was a lot more meaningful than the outcomes from the earlier stages.

I also feel like at 6 months in to a daily practice I said basically the same things you're saying: I don't really see clearly the benefits. I do think I've seen more benefits over time, but I know that I get out of it what I put into it, so when I have weeks or months of practice that is just rote sitting (I'm in one of those periods right now) it's not noticeably more useful than going for a long walk to clear my head. I maintain the habit every day because I want the habit to be there for me when I need to use it to get through the next mental block, breakdown, period of suffering.

I don't think it's quite right to say that meditation shouldn't have a goal; it's ok to understand the practice as being a skill that you're working on and hopefully improving generally. It's just that it's more like weight loss in that some weeks the scale doesn't move or goes up despite your best efforts, and then at some point all you're really doing is trying to maintain where you are by regularly practicing the things that got you there.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:46 AM on September 3, 2018 [9 favorites]

Have you read anything that goes beyond articles and quotes (not snarky, genuine query)? If you're meditating in the hope of being calmer and less anxious, there's a whole load of stuff you can read that explains how and why this is supposed to work, how you extend your practice beyond the cushion, so to speak. One of the most popular texts seems to be this one - I've not read it but I've done a course based on it. It explored, among other things, the idea that mindfulness meditation is about noticing what's going on inside you, physically and mentally, and how to use that to your benefit in every day life.

For example, one of the big things I learned was about what often happens when our emotions (such as anxiety) become problematic: We have an initial emotional impulse, which is no big deal. But before we're even aware of what's going on, we have a response to that first impulse, which is bigger, then a response to that, and it's the start of a massive spiral that takes place before we've even noticed it happening:

Anxious thought -> OMG I'm anxious, this is awful -> Oh God, things are awful, I can't cope -> OMG, I can't cope, this is unbearable -> I'M REEEEALLLY ANXIOUS -> etc.etc.

So one of the outcomes of mindfulness meditation can be that, as a result of your meditation practice, you become better at spotting what's going on inside you in every day life. You spot it happening earlier on in the spiral, and you can gently interrupt it. And because you've been meditating, you're better at gently directing your attention to where you want it to be, rather than just letting it go wherever it wants and dragging you along behind it. So you direct it away from your anxiety spiral (or whatever) and back to something else.

When this happens hundreds of times a day, and you learn to step away from the spiral, gently but repeatedly, it makes a genuine difference to your frame of mind.

I don't know if that's the kind of thing you're after - it's not necessarily the only point of mindfulness, and mindfulness is only one kind of meditation. But it's the big thing that motivates me to keep meditating - the fact that it helps me really do things differently with my brain in the real world.
posted by penguin pie at 6:59 AM on September 3, 2018

Oh - and if you like the sound of doing a course rather than reading a book, I did an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, which is the standard, I think (that's 8 evening sessions, one a week, plus one full day session).
posted by penguin pie at 7:00 AM on September 3, 2018

You're doing something wrong and that something just might simply be a lack of noticing the differences caused by your meditating.

The reason I say this is because even without actual meditation. Just the physical practice of sitting upright and still (relaxed- not stiff or holding yourself up) for a few minutes will cause a shift in your energy levels. Even people I know who are insomniacs, I tell them- Ok well instead of telling yourself you're going to try to sleep- Don't. Just tell yourself you're going to lie down and completely 'die' inside your body. As in completely relax all your muscles and don't move at all. Rest completely and totally INSIDE the case that is your body. You may still not fall asleep, but when you do decide to get up you'll have the energy level of someone who actually had a restful sleep equivalent to half the time you stayed there or more. So if you lie like that for 40 minutes you'll get up with the same refreshing level of energy of having fully napped for 20 of those minutes or more. It's a great substitute.
People without insomnia can do this sitting up during the day and get similar benefits of energy. That's NOT even meditation. That's just keeping your body still and that alone causes changes and benefits. Meditation goes even beyond that by including your mind into that stillness as well. So if you meditate for a few minutes a day there are going to be subtle differences. There just are. You're probably just not really observing them or perhaps you're too stiff during your practice. (expectations can also cause a stiffness and stress to develop).

I would recommend that you try to simply practice keeping the body still. Completely still- for a few minutes a day. And do this while being totally comfortable. Not stiffing up. You may notice that you haven't mastered this yet. Once you get this down then move on to mental stillness. - But here's the rub. ;) They're kind of connected in a way. Because if you're totally still and relaxed and you suddenly think of someone that pissed you off one day you may find your body tensing up or you might even jump right up in anger... haha. So it's almost cyclical the way the stillness of the mind and body are connected. But still just try to focus on the body for now. You should begin to find benefits in energy levels from that and then it will be easier to move to mental stillness.

Another note- Bad Diet and lack of sleep affect your levels of concentration and therefore can make it difficult for beginners to meditate.
posted by fantasticness at 7:46 AM on September 3, 2018

Nthing take a class, preferably in person with someone who has years (if not decades) of experience meditating, where the class is structured in a way where you can ask questions and get specific guidance to help you progress. Also, it takes many people a lot longer than six months to see noticeable progress. So I encourage you to stick with it.
posted by jazzbaby at 7:47 AM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not all meditation traditions or teachers think it's wrong to have a goal, FWIW. There are teachers who would say "That's nonsense, the whole point is that there are elevated states of consciousness you can reach this way, and we're sitting here because we're trying to reach them."
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:01 AM on September 3, 2018

I can't help but wonder if you're doing it right; that is, trying to force calmness and breathing while essentially skipping practical steps.

Since it seems like something's not clicking, I would essentially chuck it all and start over again with an app like Headspace. I personally like Headspace, and people I've shared it with also believe it has helped them. It's meditation for people who say they can't meditate. He doesn't force it, he gives you time to let your mind wander and it's helpful when you just feel like you can't get your brain to work, or you're feeling nothing from trying.

From their website: It’s about training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective. You’re not trying to turn off your thoughts or feelings. You’re learning to observe them without judgment. So maybe it won't help with meditation but it will definitely help with perspective and self-judgment.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 8:31 AM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do you have any tips which boost the benefits of meditation?

For me, the turning point was taking a month-long retreat at a temple teaching Vipassana. My understanding and approach changed in all aspects of my life. They ask you to commit to at least 21 days, if possible, and this gives you the time to access benefits that might otherwise be inaccessible to you. So it might be worth considering investigating which practice suits you and finding a place that will give you the time, space and guidance to learn it.
posted by mkdirusername at 9:23 AM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Others have amply addressed your question about meditation goals, but I think there is an underlying issue you need to address, namely committing to one method amid the smorgasbord you've sampled. This is something I've struggled with myself; we in the West have so many options for spiritual growth that it's easier to change paths than to work through difficult parts of any one technique. Last night I was reading Jack Kornfield's A Path with Heart, and thought of the following passage when I read your question:
"Many experienced students have come to the Insight Meditation retreats I teach without having made a commitment to any practice. Instead they have sampled the numerous traditions that are now available in the West. They have been initiated by lamas, done Sufi dancing in the mountains, sat a Zen retreat or two, and participated in shamanic rituals, and yet they ask: Why am I still unhappy? Why am I caught in the same old struggles? Why haven't my years of practice changed anything? Why hasn't my spiritual practice progressed? And I ask them: What is your spiritual practice? Do you have a committed relationship of trust with your teacher and a specific form of practice? [...] Until a person chooses one discipline and commits to it, how can a deep understanding of themselves and the world be revealed to them? Spiritual work requires sustained practice and a commitment to look very deeply into ourselves and the world around us to discover what has created human suffering and what will free us from any manner of conflict. We must look at ourselves over and over again in order to learn to love, to discover what has kept our hearts closed, and what it means to allow our hearts to open. If we do a little of one kind of practice and a little of another, the work we have done in one often doesn't continue to build as we change to the next. It is as if we were to dig many shallow wells instead of one deep one. In continually moving from one approach to another, we are never forced to face our own boredom, impatience, and fears. We are never brought face to face with ourselves."
posted by Atrahasis at 10:19 AM on September 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Meditation is definitely supposed to have a goal. MBSR is for stress reduction, Buddhist meditation is to develop different mind states (compassion, equanimity, etc) and eventually liberation, guided visualizations all have goals, etc.

If you’ve tried metta, moving meditation, awareness of breath and so forth, and you’ve tried them all for a couple months apiece with no sense of benefit, maybe you can ask yourself what your goal in doing meditation is, and see if you can find another activity that might get you there (like volunteering instead of metta, reading deep and complex literature instead of concentration practice, walking in nature or gardening in place of contemplation of interconnection, dancing instead of yoga).

Also, have you seen the meditation app Insight Timer? It’s free on Android and iOS, it has millions of users and very active in-app forums, if I were you I might take this question there.
posted by hungrytiger at 11:21 AM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

How is your mind outside of meditation? If it is uncontrolled and not mindful, and if the meditation isn't reaching any particular depth, then I could understand your experience.

Pay attention to your mind outside of meditation, see where your thoughts, feelings, judgements and expectations go. Cultivate an inner landscape and use meditation as an anchor reference point for when you see the unpleasant states arising, so that you can return to presence and peace.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:23 PM on September 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

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