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Why Is It So Hard to Meditate?

You know it's good for you—you've read the science—so why aren't you doing it?

Key points

  • The benefits of meditating are well-proven.
  • The number of people who have meditated has increased, but there are fewer stats about how often people practice.
  • Certain factors may act as barriers for meditating, but there are ways to address them.

Well, it’s about that time of the year when those fresh and shiny New Year’s resolutions begin to fade and fail. Maybe some of yours included exercising more, practicing gratitude every morning … and meditating.

If practicing meditation/mindfulness made it onto your 2022 goals list (I'm not a fan of resolutions but I am a big advocate for goal-setting), chances are you’ve tried it in the past and it’s helped. Either that or you’ve read about the many mental and physical health benefits of meditating and you’re intrigued: Why not bring something into your life that can help with basically everything? The point is, you know it’s good for you—and yet, you have such a hard time practicing it. You are not alone. A lot of people (myself at times included) feel this way. Why is that?

SamuelTheoManat/Pexels
Source: SamuelTheoManat/Pexels

Mindfulness and meditation have been much talked about and studied concepts in the Western world for several decades now. There has been fascinating research on the multifaceted benefits of meditating—from helping people cope with chronic pain and illness to helping individuals manage anxiety or depression and improve focus, attention, and efficiency (among many more benefits). At this point, most of us are, if not acutely, at least somewhat aware of the benefits of meditating.

While there are studies that show that there has been an increase in the number of people who say they have meditated (in results published in 2017, the Center for Health Statistics found that the number of people who had meditated in the last year increased from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017), statistics for how many people maintain a regular meditation practice are harder to come by.

Anecdotally, speaking from my own experience and that of my colleagues and fellow meditators, having and sticking to a regular meditation practice is more than a bit of a challenge. I know since I started meditating in 2014, I have had times where I had a regular practice and where I fell away from consistent practice, despite me fully knowing and having experienced firsthand its benefit on my well-being.

So here comes the conundrum. We know it’s good for us. Science corroborates. We may have even felt the benefit of meditating in our own lives (I know I have in a very big way). Why, then, aren’t more of us meditating regularly? Why do we find it so hard and what can we do to address those barriers?

I recently polled my Instagram followers, asking them if they have a regular meditation practice and what gets in their way of practicing. In response, 37% said they did have a regular practice, which is higher than I expected. There were a lot of responses—many of them repeated by several people—as to what is acting as a barrier. Here is a sampling of what people said gets in their way of meditating: “anxiety, impatience, life, to-do list, it just doesn’t work for me, lack of time, falling asleep, all the thoughts of things undone.”

Why are we having such a hard time doing something shown to be so good for us? And how can we address those barriers to get our tushy on the cushy, so to speak.

1. Meditating is hard

Sitting with ourselves without distraction is not an easy task, especially for those of us dealing with physical or emotional pain (which, when taken together, is a significant proportion of the population). It takes bravery to meditate. Sitting for meditation involves a willingness to be present for the emotional pain that may surface- difficult thoughts, beliefs, memories, as well as noticing, with far fewer distractions, any physical pain that may be present.

The antidote? Mental preparation and an underpinning of gentleness with ourselves. Mentally preparing ourselves in advance that meditating can and often does feel quite hard may be what helps us overcome this barrier. If we set up realistic expectations ahead of time—that meditating isn’t meant to be a conduit to relaxation or sleep, but is actually hard work—we may be more likely to create a sustainable practice. We do this when we want to attack other hard or taxing projects, such as exercising or preparing for a big work project. We don’t tell ourselves that we are about to levitate and relax. Rather, we gear up for the sustained effort.

Similarly, we've got to do this to set up realistic ideas of meditation, but always with gentleness as a cushion. Remind yourself that you don’t need to formally sit to meditate, and it doesn’t have to be for long. You can bring mindfulness to literally anything and everything you are already doing- by participating in a different, more present kind of way. Try using the word “mindfulness” if the word “meditation” feels too daunting or repelling.

Part of the gentle mental preparation is reassuring yourself and giving yourself permission to take care of yourself should anything too painful surface. Remind yourself that you will not be rigid with yourself (this will inevitably act as a barrier towards meditating). While there is little right or wrong in meditating (it's not prescribed in that way), acting with self-compassion is always right.

2. Competing demands on your time

We have many competing demands on our time that, if we're honest with ourselves, are way more enticing. For those of us who have meditated, inevitably, during our practice, we will find ourselves immersed in all the thoughts of what we must get done as soon as we’re done practicing. The laundry, booking that getaway, and returning those emails are just a few examples of the to-do list that popped up for me just this morning. This can be a frustrating experience, sitting and feeling like we are doing nothing as we acknowledge how much is waiting for us.

Jeshoots/Pexels
Source: Jeshoots/Pexels

In an increasingly busy life, justifying and allowing ourselves to take precious time to sit and be and not do can act as a barrier. Not only that but contrary to many popular ideas about meditation leading us to enlightenment, sometimes it can be incredibly boring. Though I can have interesting insights while I’m meditating, I often find myself wondering, “When will this damn meditation be over?” at least once per meditation session (even the short ones), followed by a relieved mental “hallelujah!” when the timer goes off.

So what’s the antidote?

Read about the benefits of meditating. Connect to podcasts or science journals that discuss its many benefits (I do both). I know when I listen to my favorite podcast, the 10% Happier Podcast, on a more regular basis, hearing about all the interesting and scientific benefits of meditating, I am definitely more likely to meditate.

3. Lots of misinformation

They are still out there all around us—the numerous falsehoods that exist about meditating. Here are a few that I often hear: I’m not the meditating type. I can’t meditate because I have ADHD. I just don’t have the time. I can’t sit for that long. You name it, the false belief is out there. You may have even had these thoughts yourself at some time or another.

As a fix, not that anything is a quick fix but to give you accurate information about meditation, let me debunk some of them for you: Anyone can meditate. For any period of time. You don’t have to sit, and you can practice informally as well as formally. You can practice mindfulness as you are kneading the dough for the bread or going for a walk. Though the best way is to find a balance between formal meditation and informal meditation, they are both valid and helpful ways to meditate.

When we pay attention to what is holding us back, we are more likely to move forward. Read that sentence one more time and let it sink in. We can apply this not just to meditation, but to anything. But that's a post for another time.

Pause here for a second and ask yourself: Why are you having a hard time with a consistent practice? And what can you do about it? This isn’t to say meditation is for everyone or you need to meditate. But it may very well be worthwhile to spend a moment pondering—meditating, if you will—about what is getting in your way. And what will you do to address those barriers?

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