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Want to Meditate? The REAL Reasons You're Having Trouble

You probably already know about the benefits of meditation. Maybe you’ve downloaded an app, or attended a workshop. After several days or weeks of practice, perhaps your enthusiasm began to fade. Who has time for this? Is this even working? Maybe you think you’re just not “wired” to meditate.  

Many who try to meditate struggle to maintain a long-term practice. In this article, Randall Paulsen, MD, a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), a psychoanalyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute (BPSI), and a Mind-Body consultant at the BWH Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, discusses how to incorporate meditation into your life and ways to work through the common barriers.  

Find a three-minute breathing space  

One barrier to maintaining a meditation practice is finding time. Many people set their expectations too high, says Dr. Paulsen. They may think it’s not worth meditating if they can’t find 30 minutes.   

Set a timer for three minutes. Sit on a chair or cushion, watch your breath and your thoughts. Three minutes can be refreshing. And it won’t make you late for anything.  

“You don’t have to meditate for a half-hour, or even ten minutes every day. Just do something daily that makes space for stillness. If you’re busy, three minutes is enough,” says Dr. Paulsen.

He recommends setting a timer for three minutes. Sit on a chair or cushion, watch your breath and your thoughts. Three minutes can be refreshing. And it won’t make you late for anything.  

Take advantage of downtime, too. Notice your breath in line at the grocery store. If you’re in traffic, take the opportunity to focus on your breathing.  

Overcome a results-focused mindset  

“Many people fail to establish a long-term meditation practice, because they are overly focused on results. They’re frustrated that their mind is still as wild as ever,” says Dr. Paulsen.   

While meditation has been shown to improve health, cognition and emotional well-being, results come with time and can fade without continual practice. 

Consider looking at your practice like a career. There are up and downs. Some days it’s working, other days it can feel like a struggle.   

Find a tribe

A powerful way to sustain a meditation practice is to find a community of people that meditates together. 2,500 years ago, the Buddha discovered the importance of sustaining mediation practice within a group. One Buddhist teaching is to take refuge in a “sangha,” which in Sanskrit means community

Dr. Paulsen is a veteran teacher of the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. The structure of an MBSR course accommodates a group setting, where people can share their struggles. 

A powerful way to sustain a meditation practice is to find a community of people that meditates together. 

“During an MBSR course, we ask people to keep a diary each week,” explains Dr. Paulsen. “Some people choose to read entries aloud to the group. This creates a sense of being visible in one’s struggle. It’s comforting to discover that other people are dealing with similar problems.”

Why don’t you want to meditate? Get curious. 

Let’s face it, it’s not always easy or enjoyable to observe the activity of your mind. Dr. Paulsen suggests examining this resistance.

“Cultivate awareness about your inner dialogue. Be curious about your desire for pleasant events and resistance to unpleasant events,” he says.  

Why don’t you want to mediate? Are you trying to suppress this resistance and move on? Are you critical of yourself? Do you feel guilty? Do you punish yourself? Notice your reactions.  

‘This too shall pass’

If you experience unpleasant emotions during your practice, such as anger or sadness, remind yourself that they are temporary. Both disappointment and elation are fleeting.  

If you experience unpleasant emotions during your practice, such as anger or sadness, remind yourself that they are temporary. Both disappointment and elation are fleeting.  

This includes pain as well. For example, if your back aches during a meditation session, it may seem like it will last forever, but it always passes. As the Buddha said, “Nothing is permanent. Everything is change. Being is always becoming.”  

Sitting down to face yourself

Looking inward can sometimes force you to notice thoughts that you might be trying to consciously avoid. This may include trauma, conflict, or tragedy. 

A former patient of Dr. Paulsen’s had experienced severe childhood trauma. She was disconnected from her body and was prone to accidents. She might repeatedly stub her toe on a piece of furniture, or fail to feel a subtle neck ache until the sensation became intense.

“She signed up for an MBSR course based on my recommendation. Twenty minutes into the guided body scan meditation, she ran out of the room and yelled, ‘What were you thinking? I’m not ready to be in my body!’”  

If you’re not ready to begin a meditation practice, try a meditative body-based therapy, such as tai chi or yoga, which can help you become more connected with your body.  

It’s not uncommon for people to experience uncomfortable sensations, feelings and thoughts during meditation. Meditation isn’t about working through trauma or ‘dark thoughts.’ This is the role of psychotherapy. If you’re new to meditation, Dr. Paulsen often suggests working with a therapist.

If you’re not ready to begin a meditation practice, try a meditative body-based therapy, such as tai chi or yoga, which can help you become more connected with your body.  

Forget theory, just do it

Don’t overthink meditation. You will learn the most about meditation – and yourself – through practice, even if it’s only a few minutes at a time. 

For over a decade, Dr. Paulsen has been the Mind-Body consultant at the Osher Center. Patients have been referred to him to discuss meditation and how it might benefit them. 

"I make various recommendations based on our conversation, but I realized a few years ago that these discussions lacked an experiential component. I started asking patients if they would be comfortable meditating for three minutes. We tried it together. Afterward, we anchored our conversation to that experience," says Dr. Paulsen. 

If you miss a few days or weeks of meditation, it isn’t the end of the world. Let yourself off the hook. Be compassionate with yourself.

Become a teacher  

Sharing what you know can help maintain your own practice, so notice opportunities to pass on what you’ve learned.    

“If someone is struggling, share a story or lesson that helped you. And remember, everyone comes to mediation on their own terms, so don’t push ideas on someone if they’re not interested,” says Dr. Paulsen.

Let yourself off the hook

If you miss a few days or weeks of meditation, it isn’t the end of the world. Let yourself off the hook. Be compassionate with yourself.

If you’re giving yourself a hard time for not meditating enough, examine this critical mindset. Are you feeling disappointed or guilty? What does this mean? Stay curious. And remember, you’re going to be okay.     

- Dustin G.