Why meditation is not working (for you)

Hard to empty your mind? Don't have enough time? Think again

Why meditation is not working (for you)
Disclaimer: I'm not an expert. I'm a beginner like most of you. This is my take on meditating.
To those who have known me for a long time, I tend to overthink, a lot. Sometimes I overthink out of the desire to please others, and sometimes I overthink out of anxiety. But that's a separate story. Because my anxiety stems from worrying about the past and the future, I'm rarely in the present sometimes. It's not easy to be present when we have so many worries and thoughts running through our heads on a daily basis. But meditating is one step to help reduce a bit of stress, overthinking, and be more present. I know how beneficial meditating can be, so that's why I meditate.
I did a small poll recently on Twitter. I asked people who had tried meditation why it didn't work for them. (A lot of people also just want to see the results lol) It turned out that many people believe it's hard to meditate because they can't calm their mind. However, we shouldn't let this be the first thing to master when beginning to meditate. The truth is it's not going to be possible when you first get started. It's going to take years of practice, but that's okay. There's this expectation that meditation can cure a lot of things in our lives — it'll help us be more present, mindful, focus at work, reduce stress, feel more grateful, achieve enlightenment (you got a long way to go) — while this may ring true, we should always take things with a grain of salt. If we place too high of a value on something and it fails to meet our expectations, we'll unlikely to continue. Let's get into the three points about why meditation doesn't work. I will try to address them here:
  • It's hard to calm my mind
  • I don't have time to meditate
  • It takes too long to benefit from meditation

It's hard to calm my mind

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Föhn (1939) - Karl Wiener
What's the point of meditation if you can't even do that, right? No, not really, at least when you're starting. It's like saying you have to know how to do yoga before you go for a yoga class. In my case a few years back, I had never done yoga before but I went ahead for a class anyway — to learn and get better at it. That's what a beginner's class is for. The keyword is *hard*. Try not to be so hard on yourself. There is no right or wrong when it comes to meditation, especially when you're just starting out. As I put it earlier, it's not going to be easy for you to empty your mind if you're relatively new to meditation. What if, on the other hand, you just let them in? What if you let your thoughts come and go as they will? What if you welcome them in and let them go as if you were observing passing cars on the road? There will always be distractions. Let the mind wander and run. That's the nature of the mind. So, be kind to yourself. We have no control over the thoughts that enter our minds, and that's okay. But how do you do that? The key is to return your attention to your breathing and be gentle with yourself. Pause and notice for a moment when a thought comes in. Acknowledge and embrace the thought, before gently releasing it. Then slowly bring your focus back to the body, to the breath. Once you have that, it'll be easier to 'calm the mind'. Even if you don't at first, that's fine. Don't fight your thoughts. It's easy to get lost in them, but don't let that bother you. There is no judgement. Just start again. If you need to delve deeper into your thoughts, you can do that after your meditation. And the best way to do that is to journal. TLDR:
It's the nature of the mind for thoughts to run about. So, be kind to yourself. Notice your thoughts that enter and let them go. Whenever you can, just bring your focus back to your breathing.

Extra practice

If you have the time, you could try journaling your thoughts first to get them out of the way. You can do this either before and/or after you meditate.
  • Set your intention before the practice to clear your mind, or for the day
  • How do you feel at the moment?
  • What are your plans after the meditation?

I don't have enough time to meditate

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Leisure Time - August Borckmann This was my biggest problem. I tried to convince myself that I could use the time better elsewhere. Something that is more productive, something that is more tangible. But you don't need 1 hour to start. Just like everything else (e.g. reading, exercising), it's a process. Start small. Make a plan that is nearly impossible to fail. While it's good to have a deeper meditation of 15-30 minutes, 5 minutes is a good place to start. Don't feel bad if you're first starting out small. We start from somewhere. Also, it's better to start small than to start big at times. You may become discouraged and give up meditating entirely if it's too heavy. And don't worry about missing a day. If you do, just start again the following day. I'm sure many of us spend hours in front of our devices already. Why not take some time off to meditate instead? Who knows, once you get the hang of meditating, you might gain a better understanding of what's more important in your life. Most importantly, you don't have to wait for the right moment to start. We don't have to sit cross-legged on the floor to meditate. We can always sit up straight, close our eyes, and meditate wherever we are. Tip:
What works for me is incorporating a short practice into my existing morning or night routine. For example, right before I get out of bed in the morning, I sit and meditate (with guidance) for 10 minutes. It only takes 10 minutes. Start with the basics and work your way up.
I set my intentions for the day ahead when I meditate in the mornings. If it's before bedtime, I meditate to wind down and do a quick review of the day. Find out what works best for you. Experiment and iterate. We may romanticise silent retreats and hours of meditation, but if you're just starting (like me), I can tell you already that I'm not patient enough to sit for an hour. At least not yet. It takes time and effort to develop this skill. I know I sound like a broken record, but really - compound every small bit every day and stay consistent, as James Clear's Atomic Habits has taught us. Then gradually add more minutes into your practice. From 5 minutes to 10 minutes, from 10 minutes to 15 minutes, half an hour. You get the idea. We will not see immediate results but when we do, it will most likely come all at once. TLDR:
Start small and be consistent. It's better to do 5 minutes every day than 1 hour once in a while. We have to start somewhere, so don't feel bad about starting small at first.

It takes too long to benefit from meditation

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Winter Landscape, Fort Lee NJ (1923) - James P. Knox
We suffer from instant gratification and expect to see results almost immediately. We become impatient if we don't. We see no progress in our practice and decide that it isn't worth the time. We expect a certain outcome. I mean, I could use this time to do things that are more productive right? It's unfair to compare ourselves to Buddhist monks (or even meditation practitioners) who have been trained and practised meditation for almost their entire lives, for hours on end. Also, meditation won't solve everything if that's what you're looking for. But it will help you in becoming more mindful, identifying the things that matter, and bringing more peace into your life. Consider this: we do achieve some immediate benefits from our daily practice. How do you feel at the end of each session? Do you find yourself a little bit more at ease and less worried than you did before? Do you feel more present and mindful? Isn't that already a small win? Just like everything else, we can't expect every session to be perfect. Some sessions might make us feel a bit better, while others may not. There will be times after a session when we are still overthinking or worried about something. It's different for every session. It's a practice. With practice, it becomes easier to bring your attention and mind back to the focus of your breath. After all, our best looks different at different times every day. TLDR:
We can already achieve small benefits after each session. We'll feel a bit less anxious, less stressed, and a bit more focused. However, each session might feel different from others, but that's okay.

The Why

It'll be harder for you to meditate if you don't understand why you're doing it in the first place. Almost everything comes down to your 'why'. Why do you meditate? Don't do it just because someone or an article (such as this one) told you to. Don't do it if you expect it to solve all of your problems. You will experience times when you feel impatient, bored or unmotivated to meditate. This is why you should have a reason to meditate to which you can return. A reason. Whatever the reason may be, it's a good idea to remind yourself from time to time again so you don't forget. It also helps to remind yourself of this purpose at the start of every meditation, and it's even better if you can set a positive intention for each practice. I want to gain more clarity in this task. I want to reduce my stress in this task. And so on. Above all else, start small and have fun with the process.