Urban Mindfulness

Finding peace in the middle of it all.

Why You Can't Meditate (And What to Do About It)

The first in a series, this post is for those of us who don't have enough time.

You know it’s good for you. You have a friend who swears about the incredible difference that it has made in his/her life. You even tried it yourself a few times, and liked it (mostly). Yet, the stark reality is that you can’t seem to keep it up.

Well, you’re not alone. Many of us struggle to establish and maintain a meditation practice. Despite its simplicity, it’s actually hard work to sit down and pay attention. And, it’s an incredibly important skill to develop. As you might know, research has shown that meditation can lower stress, improve immune functioning, promote fertility, decrease pain, increase concentration, and provide relief from various psychological disorders. You might also be familiar with neuroplasticity and the fact that meditation can change the functioning and structure of the brain. And, it’s difficult to do, especially in the beginning.

Having taught (and practiced) meditation for over 13 years, I’ve come to identify several types of difficulties, and found various ways to address them. Here’s the beginning of my series on the obstacles to meditation. I’ll review what people say when they can’t meditate, an explanation of what’s really happening, and--most importantly--what to do about it. You might recognize yourself in one of these descriptions. If not, you can either wait until my next post and/or add a comment about what you experience (which I’ll try to address later).

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Obstacle: I don’t have enough time.

You’re really, really busy. Sometimes, you don’t even have time to think, let alone spend some quiet time meditating. You’re probably waiting for things to calm down, and then you’ll start meditating. And, you’re likely to have been waiting for this to happen for a long time. Sound familiar?

The first part of reconciling this problem is to recognize that your life is not too busy, but your mind tells you that it is. Yes, I am saying that you do--objectively--have the time to meditate. Each day, you have 24 hours available to meditate, and you choose to do something else instead. What? Are you arguing with me? You don’t even have 5 minutes in your day to meditate? Really? Did you spend time on Facebook today? Did you watch TV? Did you eat something? Drink tea? Take a shower? Commute by bus, train, or subway? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you have some time. See? You do technically have the time, so stop believing your mind when it says that you’re too busy.

The second part in reconciling this problem is allowing yourself to (a) start slowly with (b) a practice that is most conducive to your schedule. Both of these issues are likely going to be challenging for you. Typically, if you’re too “too busy,” you’re also likely to be overachieving, perfectionistic, or a New Yorker, so the idea of “starting slowly” is anathema to you. However, simple math comes to the rescue: 5 minutes is more than zero minutes. Even one minute spent meditating is more than none. “But I need to do more [in order for it to count]!” your mind protests. Nope. Not in the beginning. Thank your mind for its opinion, and start with just five minutes a day.

Now, what should you do exactly? Here, you need to be creative with what works best for your schedule and state of mind. You might practice a traditional seated meditation (e.g., focusing on the breath) or do a walking meditation. Alternatively, you might consider doing a routine activity mindfully. For example, you might approach eating a meal with mindfulness. You stop multitasking and spend several minutes appreciating the sight, aroma, and taste of your food. The Center for Mindful Eating has some tips on how to practice. You can be mindful of about anything, so take your pick. (Indeed, mindfulness is best appreciated as an adverb (i.e., mindfully).) In my book, Urban Mindfulness, I discuss how to apply mindfulness to waiting in line, drinking your morning coffee, and riding the subway. It makes the perfect holiday gift for that special someone! (Sorry, my publisher would have wanted me to say that...)

So, why not “commit to sit” for a little while? What have you got to lose? Time? Stress? Anxiety? Your self?

Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D., has been practicing, teaching, and writing about mindfulness for over a decade. He maintains a private practice in New York City.

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