You’ve read about meditation. You know about its benefits: on health, happiness, vitality, empathy, focus, and success. Every day you hear yet another rhapsody about the wonders of mindfulness exercise. Every day you come across a new scientific study about yet another way in which meditation positively affects your brain and body. Every day twenty new generic blog posts are written to te… You get the picture.
Maybe you’re already zealously telling others about meditation, and about how you do it “basically every day.” Yet when you sincerely look at your past month, you find that you haven’t been quite consistent with it.
This was me. In fact, this has been me several times ever since 2011 when I decided to take a small but firm step toward
enlightenment nothingness every single day. Based on this experience, I can give you eight reasons why you’re still not meditating regularly, and practical advice for what you can do about it.
1. Meditation is a tough-ass activity
There’s no advice to give on this one but I find it helpful to be aware of it—in order to adopt a powerful mindset right from the beginning: Meditation trains, and requires, mental toughness.
It may not look like it because you’re not running around with an M16 trying to kill and survive behind enemy lines, with UFC gloves fighting in a cage, or with a fancy sword battling fire-spitting dragons. All you do, or try to do, is to sit still with only your breath.
But… you start to feel itchy and uncomfortable. You want to move. Thoughts arise. They distract you. More thoughts arise. More and ever more. Now you’re trapped. Maybe you don’t even realize it yet. You will though. And then you need to be tough: Keep going (sitting still)!
With “tough” I don’t mean you should be hard on yourself, or put in more effort, far from it! Mental toughness in meditation has a form like this: 🙂 —a smile, a delightful gratitude, and an inner laughter at your mind’s tomfoolery and licentiousness. Your toughness laughs at your mind: “Hah, look who’s busily wandering around again… but now, back to breathing.”
If you’re anything like me, you’ll quickly learn to see the toughness aspect of meditation as an exciting challenge, not an aggravating obstacle.
2. You take too much pride in your racing mind
We’re culturally conditioned to think highly of thinking, of thinking a lot, but we think too much. Still, we welcome our thought storms and praise them as signs of intelligence. When someone tells me about their first meditation attempt, they usually don’t hesitate to defend their failure by pointing out how special their mind is because it’s thinking so much.
For whatever reason, many people assume by default that they have more thoughts than others, and since they consider this to be a sign of superior intelligence and imagination, they take pride in it and conclude, “you know, I think meditation just isn’t for me.”
A second mindset shift may help. You have two options:
- Either you stop regarding all thinking as an intellectual gift and disassociate it from cognitive virtues like intelligence, imagination, creativity, etc.
- Or you find a meditation-related virtue that you can value higher than these thinking-related ones—toughness, for example.
Furthermore, learn to realize that you’re not actually failing at meditation when your mind gets distracted and you get lost in thoughts—that’s part of the process of meditation, that’s why you do it. If your muscles would never fail and you could lift any weight you want, would you be in the gym strengthening your body? No.
Muscle failure is part of the process of getting physically stronger, just like failing at meditation is part of the process of getting mentally stronger. The only difference is that physical strength gains are easy to measure: You simply write down how much you’ve been lifting. But actually can also objectively measure your mental strength gains and track the progress you make in meditation by using Muse: The Brain Sensing Headband.
3. You think you have “too much vitality” to sit still
As long as you don’t meditate regularly, sitting still without having anything to do but observing your breath will be uncomfortable. When you’re not already lost in a maze of your thoughts, you’ll soon feel the urge to move. This doesn’t mean that you’re too energetic or vitalized for meditation. Rather, it is a test of your mental toughness. Is your will strong enough to beat through the discomfort?
To mitigate the excuse of being too vital, try to schedule your meditation session right after your daily physical exercise. Then you should’ve gotten at least so much desire for movement out of your system that you can sit motionlessly for 20 minutes.
If you still feel you need to move your hands, head, or hips, try to shift you focus on inner movement. As a living organism, you can never stop moving entirely. There’s always movement going on. If you want to move, don’t move, but focus on what’s already moving inside you: bodily sensations, warmth, pain, feelings, and the air you’re breathing.
Another approach would be to replace seated breath meditation by moving meditation. Walking meditation, yoga, tai chi, karate katas, etc. are all legitimate mindfulness exercises. I practice moving meditation myself. However, since it takes time to learn and internalize novel movement patterns, your focus will be on external rather than internal body motion for most of your initial practice. Also, I personally feel that seated meditation is superior to all other methods as far as raw mental strength is concerned.
4. You’re attempting meditation marathons
If you haven’t been meditating every single day for a few weeks, don’t even think about meditating for longer than 20 minutes per session (unless you have nothing else to do in your life). Because:
- You don’t have enough mental (or “amental” if you will) endurance yet.
- You’re setting yourself up for disappointment: If you don’t complete your meditation marathon, you’ll feel like a failure, which undermines the habit creation; and if you sit through a marathon while being constantly trapped in thoughts, the entire undertaking will seem like a big waste of time.
- You’re setting the bar too high: As soon as your life becomes more stressful or difficult again (meditation won’t fully shield you from that), you’ll either feel bad about having to devote less time to meditation or drop the habit altogether.
So if you think you can meditate for 30-45 minutes, set your timer to 15 or 22. If you think you can do 15 minutes, set your timer to 7. It’s also totally fine to start with 2 minutes a day for your first week. There’s nothing to lose, give this tip a chance.
5. You lack emotional attachment to the benefits of meditation
The articles you read, the facts and stories you hear, the knowledge your gather—it’s all just information. You know how good meditation is for you, but knowledge doesn’t drive actions. Emotions drive actions. If you don’t have any emotions attached to meditation or its benefits, you’ll likely have a hard time getting your ass up—to sit down and meditate.
Look at all the people who go to the gym. Are they motivated by their knowledge about the scientifically well-documented (“proven”) health and longevity benefits of physical exercise? No they aren’t. Most people, if they’re honest, are driven to work out because they feel ugly or insecure, and it haunts them, or because they would feel ugly and insecure if they didn’t work out. Others work out because it makes them feel powerful, and because they’ve experienced the actual health and vitality benefits. They’re emotionally involved.
Don’t get me wrong. Meditation isn’t about reaping the benefits. Meditation is purely process-oriented, not a goal-oriented process, but let’s be real: “The path is the goal” is an insight one can only gain when already walking the path—it’ll motivate no one to get started. (However, if the only reason you want to meditate is to reduce stress, anxiety, or depression, you may to try an alternative method instead.)
How can you get emotionally attached to meditation?
There are plenty of methods. One would be to read personal success stories of people who meditate regularly and share their experiences online, for example, here.
Another method, which worked very well for me, is to schedule your daily meditation practice in such a way that you can experience its immediate positive effects. When I started meditation in 2010, I used to meditate before going to bed. It made me sleep like a log; no sexual release required. I kept doing this for a while because I liked the subtle post-meditative bliss, and I noticed that whenever I didn’t do it, it took me longer to fall asleep, and I felt less refreshed upon waking up. Cognitive bias or actual consequence of meditation?—doesn’t matter. What matters is that my mind’s association between nocturnal meditation and better sleep, together with the reward of mild bliss, built enough emotional reinforcement that I kept meditating. At least until the day another typical excuse set in…
6. You have too much other, “more important” shit to do
Bringing balance to your life is—yes, you got it—a matter of toughness. People love to rave about passionate obsession as the royal (or only) road to success. If you don’t dedicate 100% of your time, attention, and energy to that one thing that is your life’s purpose, you won’t be the best, you won’t be a winner, right? Who isn’t afraid of mediocrity?
Well, these are not questions to discuss here, but since you’ve found this article, I assume that you already are aware of how meditation won’t subtract from your 100%; rather, it will multiply it!
Hence, my advice here is, again, to adopt a supportive mindset:
- Meditation never distracts you from your “more important” shit; rather, it enhances your productivity, effectiveness, and quality time.
- Integrating meditation into your ambition-driven life requires mental toughness, while working harder and harder with mindless obsession is, in truth, the easier way because a unidirectional focus requires less control.
Be cautious though: Meditating too much may be harmful to your ambition. For it might make you realize how your ambition is fueled by your caring way too much about what other people think of you.
7. You don’t feel enough external pressure
I’m not saying you need or should have external pressure, not at all! Nevertheless, this might be a valid reason to consider.
Let’s compare mindfulness training to athletic training. Athletes constantly experience external pressure: They have their coaches and training partners waiting for them in the gym. They have the support of their fans, friends, family, and maybe even country they don’t want to disappoint. They’re often monetarily involved. They may even have an internalized external pressure (“daddy issues”). And, of course, today every clown has their Instagram pics and Facebook check-ins.
With meditation, on the other hand, nobody notices when you don’t show up. Nobody cares. This complete lack of social pressure makes it hard for many people to stay motivated.
Now, when you’re done telling yourself for the seventieth time how you “don’t give a fuck about what others think,” you may want to take a minute to consider the drives behind your everyday actions. If you find, in a moment of truth, that you do respond well to social pressure, let me reveal to you a (quite counterintuitive) trick for turning your craving for social validation (or whatever it is) into an advantage.
Relocate your meditation sessions to a place where strangers might see you, for example,
- your balcony (if you live in an apartment complex),
- a public bench,
- a nice spot in a park, or
- wherever you can sit quietly while there are other people around.
Before my first time doing this, I was worried that I might look weird, or that there would be way too much distraction (for I did this in a large city, sometimes in most crowded areas), but long story short, it worked for me. I even managed to reach deeper levels of consciousness doing this despite the external stimuli (maybe, in an intricate way, even because of it).
Besides, meditation retreats serve, in part, the same purpose. They not only provide you with a stress-free zone, but also with enough social pressure to help you sit still and meditate.
Anyways, the more you meditate, the more you learn to appease your desire for external recognition, and the less you need to rely on such “tricks.”
8. Meditation needs to be a solid habit
This last point is obvious, but it’s also the most crucial one. Meditating just whenever you feel like it won’t work if you want to stay consistent. There’s no way around solidifying it into a firm habit. Here are three tested approaches you may try to organize your daily meditation habit:
- Pick a specific time of the day, and always use that time for meditation. This could be in the morning right after you wake up, before you go to sleep, or at any specific time for which you should set yourself an alarm on your phone.
- Tie your meditative practice to a daily activity. For example, meditate always before you leave the house, or when you enter your home. Personally, I’ve currently connected my daily practice to physical exercise. Since I train every morning, I’ll simply meditate for 30 minutes right after I’m done lifting weights (or doing yoga). This works great for me because it also integrates my advice from #3 above.
- Generate your personal trigger. This will take some time to develop, but it’s worth giving a try. For example, I used to take 3 deep, focused breaths whenever I saw someone using a phone in public. Living in downtown, you can imagine that this was overkill. It was still a great practice though, as it allowed me to meditate briefly multiple times during the day. Use your imagination to find a trigger that works best for you: a red traffic light, a bird’s song, a random laughter, someone yelling, or the vibration of your phone. The options for self-conditioned instant meditation are limitless. But I recommend using this approach as an addition to, not a substitute for, seated meditation.
Once you’ve decided to get your meditation habit engrained in your nervous system, see to it that you stay rigorously committed. No exceptions. No excuses.