Tips for Meditation Challenges
You know it’s good for you. Many studies have shown the benefits of including meditation in your life. But, whether you already meditate regularly or just wish you could, you’re probably aware of challenges to establishing it as a regular practice. You may feel bored, restless, or impatient. Or start to feel physically uncomfortable. Maybe you can’t reign your thoughts back from wandering to worries or to the sound of a dripping faucet. Meditation challenges can interfere with your progress.
There are many kinds of meditation. I’ll be focusing on mindfulness meditation here, as research shows its benefits go far beyond relaxation. With mindfulness, a person learns to focus attention on the present moment, without judging or evaluating thoughts or feelings (see Mindfulness Training: Introduction, Attention, and the Present Moment for a full discussion on mindfulness and its benefits).
Let’s look at three common problems for all kinds of meditation—boredom, restlessness, and impatience—and some suggestions for managing them.
Your mind starts to wander. “I’ve got so much to do…” “When will this be over…” Boredom may allow your thoughts to focus on the past—and ruminations about past disappointments—or on the future—and anxieties about what’s in store next. Or it may just disengage you from the present moment. How can you bring your mind back, fully engaged with the present?
First, be kind to yourself. Acknowledge the feelings—accept that they’ve occurred and let them be. Boredom is a common problem and an opportunity to practice refocusing on the present.
Become aware of the thoughts related to boredom. “What’s the point of doing this?” “When will it be over?” “I can’t be bothered.” “This is a waste of time.” Allow them to be and then to pass on.
Attend to the sensations with curiosity. Where did the boredom come from? Where is it going? Where is it felt in the body? Where is it leading you—are you wanting to fall asleep?
Take a third party perspective and simply observe the boredom within you, as separate from yourself. You are not the boredom. It is simply an experience that will come and go. Do not judge it, just allow it to be.
Now, focus back on the breath, in the present moment. Observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they come and go.
You are likely to find that feelings, thoughts, and sensations really do pass with time—this itself may be interesting. And it’s an important lesson to remember, next time you feel overwhelmed by any of them in other areas of your life.
“I can’t stand laying here for one more minute…” Restlessness is similar to boredom, but with more energy. You may be feeling fidgety.
If you’re struggling with settling into meditating, begin with something more active. Mindful activities, in which you are fully focused on the present moment, can be beneficial in and of themselves. They may also help calm the mind and prepare it for meditation. You may wish to begin your meditation time with mindful walking or mindful yoga. Mindfulness Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices presents more ideas for informal mindfulness practices.
As with boredom, if restlessness occurs during meditation, observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, without reaction. Just notice what the mind wants but continue to sit or lay. This is an opportunity to discipline the mind. You are in control of your mind, not the other way around.
“Why am I not feeling better? I’ve been meditating every day for a week now!” Many beginning meditators expect to get immediate results from meditation. Meditation takes time, effort, and practice for results. It requires a great deal of patience.
The good news is that patience is something that can be built—it is strengthened with work and practice.
If impatience arises during meditation, simply observe the impatience without reacting. As with most feelings and thoughts, the impatience is likely to pass. Each time you are able to allow it to be, without reaction, you are building patience as a skill.
To reap its benefits, it’s important to schedule meditation into your daily routine and practice it for at least a month. If you’re ready to give up on it, ask yourself how long a period you could tolerate for now—15 minutes? 10 minutes? 5 minutes? Even if it’s only for 1 minute, start with that. Continue to practice it, as scheduled, gently increasing the time as you can.
With regular practice, you’ll notice your impatience lessening. And the patience you’re building is likely to translate to other areas of your life.
It’s Worth the Effort
The goal of mindfulness interventions is to teach participants to become aware of body sensations, thoughts, and emotions and to relate to them with an open, nonjudgmental attitude (e.g., Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005). Such an open state of mind can be cultivated by repeated practice.
Studies show that mindfulness meditation engages many underlying mechanisms, including regulating impulsivity and building self-control (e.g., Fetterman, Robinson, Ode, & Gordon, 2010). It helps build skills that can translate into success in other areas of your life. Academic performance, interpersonal relationships, and life satisfaction have all been found to benefit from regular mindfulness exercises.
Every challenge to meditation presents an opportunity to strengthen your control over your mind.
Mindfulness Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices provides more meditation tips as well as discussion and demonstrations on the body scan meditation and informal mindfulness practices.
See Facing Dreaded Projects (How to Make a Mole Hill Out of a Mountain) for more ideas on approaching tasks that seem insurmountable.
Learning about the theory behind mindfulness and research findings on its benefits may also be helpful—see Mindfulness Training: Introduction, Attention, and the Present Moment.
Fetterman, A. K., Robinson, M. D., Ode, S., et al. (2010). Neuroticism as a risk factor for behavioral dysregulation: A mindfulness mediation perspective. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29, 301-321. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2010.29.3.301
Shapiro, S. L., Astin, J. A., Bishop, S. R., & Cordova, M. (2005). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for health care professionals: Results from a randomized trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12, 164-176. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/00a3/f4a4906373dff0a0290f1354d7bd0f2bd016.pdf