What To Do When Meditation Gets “Hard”

Many people have told me they’d like to meditate more regularly, but they just find it “too hard.” The reasons people see meditation as difficult vary.  For instance, perhaps they find themselves getting easily bored while sitting alone.  Or maybe anxious thoughts race through their minds, and they have trouble relaxing.

If you’re having a tough time keeping up your meditation practice, I want to offer a perspective that may help your motivation and focus.  The perspective is this:  meditation isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s actually a technique for noticing the patterns of thinking and acting that are blocking you from reaching your full potential.

In other words, when meditating feels difficult, that’s because it’s helping you see the places where you have room to grow.  As meditation teacher S.N. Goenka wrote, meditation “takes you to the deepest level of the mind and allows you to cut the roots of past conditioning.”

Letting The Discomfort Be

When uncomfortable thoughts and sensations arise in meditation, our immediate urge is to run away—perhaps by getting up and checking e-mail, trying to focus on something else, and so on.  However, we can grow as human beings by continuing to breathe and allowing those thoughts and sensations to be, just as they are.  When we let them flow through us and discover they can’t really hurt us, they no longer seem so scary.  And when we expand the range of sensations we can tolerate, we get more freedom to pursue our goals in life.

I’ll talk about a few issues people commonly face in meditation, and how just allowing those concerns to arise, without doing anything about them, can help us expand our horizons and lead more fulfilling lives.

1. I’m Doing It Wrong. Many of us meditate expecting specific results—maybe we imagine meditating will bring us peace, for instance, or help us come up with great ideas.  When we don’t get the results we want, we often blame ourselves.  “I’m not feeling any calmer or wiser—I must be doing this wrong,” we think.

If you find yourself thinking this way, consider this question:  where else do you get that feeling in your life?  Where else do you run into the nagging anxiety that you’re “doing it wrong”—in your career, relationships, exercise routine, and so on?  How do you react when you feel this way—do you try to achieve perfection and get trapped in “analysis paralysis,” get frustrated and give up, or something else?

Meditation offers you the opportunity to fully experience that feeling of “I’m not doing it right,” without fleeing or pushing it away.  When you let yourself get more comfortable and familiar with that feeling, you may find your behavior out in the world changing as well.  For instance, you may find yourself hopelessly striving for perfection less often, and learning to accept that you can only do your best.

2.  This Is Boring. Many of us have difficulty keeping up our meditation routine because, quite simply, we find meditation dull.  We wish there were something more interesting or stimulating going on, and the frustration of that desire can be almost physically painful.

Again, if this feeling comes up for you, look at other parts of your life and notice where you find yourself having the same experience.  For instance, do you find yourself quickly getting bored with projects and failing to finish them?  Do you get easily impatient with people, and lash out in anger more often than you’d like?

Meditation offers you a great opportunity to move beyond these unwanted behaviors.  The next time you start getting bored while meditating, I invite you to keep breathing, relax your body, and just let that frustration and discomfort wash over you.  As you do this over time, and you discover that letting yourself get a little bored won’t kill you, you may find yourself becoming more able to tolerate situations that felt painfully dull before.

3.  I’m Scared. For some of us, the experience of sitting quietly with our eyes closed is frightening.  Perhaps we start to feel alone, as if there’s no one around to care for and protect us.  Or maybe we find ourselves worrying that some problem will arise while we’re meditating.  Maybe a burglar will break into the house, or the stock market will crash, and we won’t be aware enough to deal with the situation.

If you have this kind of experience, a useful question to ask yourself is:  do you ever fully relax?  Are you ever able to just let your muscles hang limp, and allow all your wants and obligations to slip out of your mind?  Or do you experience life as a mad dash, frantically racing from place to place and from task to task?

The next time this anxiety comes up as you meditate, see if you can allow it to flow through you and pass away, without frantically getting up to check the front door or the headlines.  Notice that this anxiety, like any other thought or emotion, is fleeting, and can’t really threaten you.  When you recognize this, you may find yourself becoming able to unwind more easily.

So, in a nutshell:  meditation isn’t easy, but that’s the point—it helps you come to grips with, and move beyond, thoughts and behaviors that hold you back.

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