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Learning How to Meditate, Even If You Think You Can't

Overcoming Obstacles in Meditation

Meditation isn't as easy as it looks. Like most things, it takes practice.

We are taught to see our successes in terms of concrete results.

Meditation is not a thing; it’s a process that has several benefits.

You can benefit by observing the unfolding of your experiences.

The key is to learn to enjoy the process and accept some frustration.

Here is what some of my students have said :

My mind wanders all the time; I can't focus- my thoughts won't stop; I can't sit still;

I fall asleep; I just don't have the time; I'm not good at it; I'm impatient; It's boring.

Sound familiar?

What can you do to stick with your meditation practice?

Set realistic goals that are right for you. Don't compare yourself to others.

Five minutes a day is better than not trying at all.

And don't be too hard on yourself!

Thoughts and doubts will always arise, but keep coming back to your object of focus in a kind and gentle way, and over time it will become easier.

Here are five obstacles that have been in people’s way for thousands of years and the antidotes to get over them.

1. Doubt – The uncertainty about whether something will “work” or not often plagues many people at the beginning of their practice. The thought is, “this can work for others, but it won’t work for me.” Sometimes doubt is healthy, teaching us to look closely at things before we buy them. But the unhealthy doubt takes us away from experience before it teaches us anything.

Antidote: We have to remember that thoughts are just thoughts; they’re not facts (even the ones that say they are). When we notice this doubt slipping in, just take note of it, perhaps even notice the fear that is often underneath it, and then gently return back to the practice.

2. Restlessness – Let’s face it, it’s hard to sit still for a period of time when the mind can be so busy. We’re trained from a young age to do, do and do some more. The mind may rebel a bit when learning how “to be.” You might catch it running through a million to-do lists and try and count the minutes until the end of the practice. This is all completely natural.

Antidote: It’s important to recognize that restlessness and boredom are just sensations like any other. If you look deeply at restlessness or boredom, underneath it is often some form of anxiety or fear. But you don’t need to investigate it to reduce its impact, just naming it as you recognize it can really reduce its impact. You might even try adopting a beginner’s mind and getting curious about the sensation of restlessness. This is how you get back in the driver’s seat.

3. Irritation – Getting irritated occurs for many reasons. Maybe we don’t feel like we’re having a good meditation experience or there’s an annoying noise in the room or it’s a secondary emotion that comes after feeling restless. In other words, we’re irritated that we’re so restless in the practice. Antidote: While our urge is to resist the irritation, we have to remember the old adage “what we resist persists.” The work here is to include it as part of the mindful experience. As the saying goes, “It is what it is, while it is.”

Our work is to recognize the irritation, allow it to be there and we can either investigate it deeper or watch as it naturally comes and goes.

4. Sleepiness – Being the sleep-deprived nation that we are, it’s easy to feel a bit sleepy when we come down from our busy minds. Our body does what it naturally wants to do, go to rest. We also feel sleepy sometimes when an experience is overwhelming, so it’s good to be curious whether the tiredness is telling you that you need more rest or that there’s a feeling that needs to be expressed.

Antidote: If from time to time you fall asleep when meditating, consider it a good nap that you needed. However, if this is happening often you might try sitting in a more upright posture, standing up, having your eyes slightly open, or maybe splashing

some water on your face before starting.

5. Wanting – You’ll notice when you practice that your mind may fall into a state of wanting to be somewhere else than where you are. Or maybe it’s even more innocent of just wanting to get a bite to eat and so the mind starts drifting onto different food topics. Or before you even get to practice your mind wants conditions to be different than they are so you don’t even get to practice. This state of mind can either stop us from practicing or ignite restlessness, irritation, and others.

Antidote: If you notice this state of mind before you practice, you might consider what you can practice instead of what you can’t practice. If the mind is busy wanting to be somewhere else during the practice, see if you can be easy on yourself, simply continuing to notice the thoughts straying and gently bringing your attention back. If it continues to be a strong pull, maybe intentionally shift your practice to being aware of thoughts. Ultimately, having a regular mindfulness meditation practice seems so simple, but the practice isn’t always easy.

We have our brains to contend with that throws up all these obstacles. Even if you just made it your intention to be on the lookout for these obstacles and apply the antidotes as best you can, that would be an extremely beneficial practice.

Be forgiving of yourself as you go and remember you can always begin again!

With Permission: Mindfulness and Psychotherapy,
Elisha Goldstein,


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