Wandering thoughts, unable to sit still, not enough time? There are many reasons why people give up – or feel that they can’t begin – practising meditation. Here we tackle some of the most common barriers so you might feel encouraged to give it another chance.
I can’t make my mind go blank or empty, however much I try
You’ll be glad to know you can stop trying right now because meditation isn’t about emptying your mind or making it go blank (it’s pretty impossible to do this). When you meditate you can focus on one thing, such as the breath or repeating a mantra, or you can shift attention intentionally from one sense to another. You’re not thinking of everything at the same time, you’re being intentional and focusing on one thing at a time. I find the simplest focus for meditation is the breath because it’s always with you.
My mind won’t stay on one thing. A million thoughts pop into my head, which lead to another and another…
While the intention is to focus attention on one thing, the mind is going to wander off to other thoughts over and over again. It just will so there’s no need to get annoyed with yourself or think you’re bad at meditating or that you’re doing it wrong. It’s called meditation practice for a reason. In time and with practice, the mind is trained to stay focused for longer. Noticing your mind has wandered off to other thoughts is part of meditating and shows you’re increasing your awareness because you’ve noticed your mind drifting. Every time you realise you’re distracted, bring your attention back to whatever is the focus of the meditation. You can gain a little distance from your mind’s wanderings by labelling them each time you realise your mind has meandered, as ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’. Don’t judge or get cross with yourself. Simply say ‘oh, thinking’ or ‘ah, feeling’ and then bring your attention back to the focus of the meditation. Do this every time your mind wanders. It doesn’t matter how many times your thoughts drift off – what is important is that you notice and come back to what you’re focusing on for the meditation.
Meditation makes me sleepy (when I don’t want to sleep)
One reason could be that you need more sleep, but there are other factors why you feel like nodding off when meditating. The time of day can have an impact on how you feel. Many people feel more awake in the morning and find it easier to meditate then rather than in the afternoon when you can have an energy slump. A relaxed sitting posture can contribute to an urge to nod off, too, so have a look at how you sit when you meditate. Ideally you want to be in a firm chair, with both feet flat on the ground and your back a little away from the seatback, so it’s self-supporting but not stiff. Work with the furniture you have and what feels comfortable for you, and aim for an alert, wakeful posture. You can also try mindful movement, which we’ll explore in the next point, rather than sitting meditation.
Sitting still in silence makes me anxious. Is there a way to meditate while moving?
When being busy is your norm and there’s lots going on around you, it can feel alien, uncomfortable even, to be in silence and not moving for meditation. First of all, rather than closing your eyes, you can simply lower your gaze to a spot on the ground in front of you. Listening to a guided meditation, where a voice is talking you through the meditation step by step, can help with the issue of silence and make it feel like you’re with a friend (as long as you like the person’s voice of course). If being still is an issue, you could try mindful movement as a meditation instead. Chi kung (qi gong) is an ancient Chinese healing exercise that integrates movement, breathing and intention. It’s a simple sequence of movements that allow you to focus on your breath while moving your body. A quick search online will produce lots of videos to follow if this appeals.
If I could meditate without having to schedule extra time in my day I’d be more likely to try it
While formal meditation practice in a peaceful place where you’re unlikely to be disturbed for a period of time is more beneficial, you could practise a more informal mindful form of meditation on the go. For example, when you’re on a train or bus, you could bring your attention to your breath, where you feel it most clearly as you inhale and exhale. Or you could take a few moments at work to focus on an object on the desk, noticing its colour, shape and texture. As you walk down the street or through a park you could focus on the sounds you hear or the sensation of each foot as it makes contact with the ground. What’s important is that you take your experience for what it is, without judging or making up a story. You’re in that moment, focusing on the form of an object, the feel of your breath or your feet on the ground just as it is, there and then.
Focusing on my breath makes me self-conscious and uncomfortable
There are several different ways to meditate – focusing on the breath is only one of them. It’s popular because your breath is always with you. Alternatively, you could do a body scan where you bring your attention to your feet and slowly work your way up your body, focusing on each part (not judging or trying to change it) one at a time, until you reach the top of your head.
Or you could try a sitting meditation where you focus on how your body feels sitting in the chair, then the sounds you can hear, then the feelings you’re experiencing and then noticing thoughts come and go in your mind. There’s loving-kindness meditation where you repeat a series of words to send compassion to yourself and others. Choiceless awareness meditation involves observing your mind wandering where it pleases from your breath to thoughts to feelings to sound and noticing each movement and its flow from one to the next. Mindful movement, as we’ve already discussed, is also beneficial. All meditation asks you to be in the moment, without judgement, just as you are. Try out the different forms of meditation to see what you feel comfortable with and perhaps even mix up your practice so that you don’t get bored.
Meditation takes up too much time – I’m too busy for it
Meditation isn’t something to which you need to devote great chunks of your day (or night). More is better, but you could meditate in just a few minutes when you’re at work or out and about, as well as sitting in a more formal practice. But even this could be five or 10 minutes – work with however much time is available. There’s a wealth of research that shows how beneficial meditating each day is for your wellbeing and mental health, so you might discover that scheduling a few minutes in your diary to slow your body and mind, focus your attention on one thing and take a few breaths is very much worth it for the feeling of calm you gain. Meditating isn’t all or nothing. If you meditate every day that’s great and if you do it once in a while that’s good, too. Just as we have a new day every 24 hours, so we have a fresh opportunity to meditate every time we make that decision.
- Words: Gabrielle Treanor. Gabrielle is a writer, designer and avid researcher and practitioner on the subject of how we can all worry less and enjoy life more.
- Illustration: dieKleinert / Alamy Stock Photo
- Article extract from Breathe Issue 8. Buy the digital edition here. Find available back issues here.