What To Do When Meditation Gets “Hard”

What To Do When Meditation Gets “Hard”

Many people have told me they’d like to meditate more regularly, but they just find it “too hard.” The reasons people see meditation as difficult vary.  For instance, perhaps they find themselves getting easily bored while sitting alone.  Or maybe anxious thoughts race through their minds, and they have trouble relaxing.

If you’re having a tough time keeping up your meditation practice, I want to offer a perspective that may help your motivation and focus.  The perspective is this:  meditation isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s actually a technique for noticing the patterns of thinking and acting that are blocking you from reaching your full potential.

In other words, when meditating feels difficult, that’s because it’s helping you see the places where you have room to grow.  As meditation teacher S.N. Goenka wrote, meditation “takes you to the deepest level of the mind and allows you to cut the roots of past conditioning.”

Letting The Discomfort Be

When uncomfortable thoughts and sensations arise in meditation, our immediate urge is to run away—perhaps by getting up and checking e-mail, trying to focus on something else, and so on.  However, we can grow as human beings by continuing to breathe and allowing those thoughts and sensations to be, just as they are.  When we let them flow through us and discover they can’t really hurt us, they no longer seem so scary.  And when we expand the range of sensations we can tolerate, we get more freedom to pursue our goals in life.

I’ll talk about a few issues people commonly face in meditation, and how just allowing those concerns to arise, without doing anything about them, can help us expand our horizons and lead more fulfilling lives.

1. I’m Doing It Wrong. Many of us meditate expecting specific results—maybe we imagine meditating will bring us peace, for instance, or help us come up with great ideas.  When we don’t get the results we want, we often blame ourselves.  “I’m not feeling any calmer or wiser—I must be doing this wrong,” we think.

If you find yourself thinking this way, consider this question:  where else do you get that feeling in your life?  Where else do you run into the nagging anxiety that you’re “doing it wrong”—in your career, relationships, exercise routine, and so on?  How do you react when you feel this way—do you try to achieve perfection and get trapped in “analysis paralysis,” get frustrated and give up, or something else?

Meditation offers you the opportunity to fully experience that feeling of “I’m not doing it right,” without fleeing or pushing it away.  When you let yourself get more comfortable and familiar with that feeling, you may find your behavior out in the world changing as well.  For instance, you may find yourself hopelessly striving for perfection less often, and learning to accept that you can only do your best.

2.  This Is Boring. Many of us have difficulty keeping up our meditation routine because, quite simply, we find meditation dull.  We wish there were something more interesting or stimulating going on, and the frustration of that desire can be almost physically painful.

Again, if this feeling comes up for you, look at other parts of your life and notice where you find yourself having the same experience.  For instance, do you find yourself quickly getting bored with projects and failing to finish them?  Do you get easily impatient with people, and lash out in anger more often than you’d like?

Meditation offers you a great opportunity to move beyond these unwanted behaviors.  The next time you start getting bored while meditating, I invite you to keep breathing, relax your body, and just let that frustration and discomfort wash over you.  As you do this over time, and you discover that letting yourself get a little bored won’t kill you, you may find yourself becoming more able to tolerate situations that felt painfully dull before.

3.  I’m Scared. For some of us, the experience of sitting quietly with our eyes closed is frightening.  Perhaps we start to feel alone, as if there’s no one around to care for and protect us.  Or maybe we find ourselves worrying that some problem will arise while we’re meditating.  Maybe a burglar will break into the house, or the stock market will crash, and we won’t be aware enough to deal with the situation.

If you have this kind of experience, a useful question to ask yourself is:  do you ever fully relax?  Are you ever able to just let your muscles hang limp, and allow all your wants and obligations to slip out of your mind?  Or do you experience life as a mad dash, frantically racing from place to place and from task to task?

The next time this anxiety comes up as you meditate, see if you can allow it to flow through you and pass away, without frantically getting up to check the front door or the headlines.  Notice that this anxiety, like any other thought or emotion, is fleeting, and can’t really threaten you.  When you recognize this, you may find yourself becoming able to unwind more easily.

So, in a nutshell:  meditation isn’t easy, but that’s the point—it helps you come to grips with, and move beyond, thoughts and behaviors that hold you back.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

Christopher R. Edgar

Chris Edgar helps people find focus, motivation and peace in their work through his writing, workshops and private coaching. Chris is the author of Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work. You can find out more about Chris’s work at www.InnerProductivity.com.

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47 Comments

  1. My “problem” with meditation is that I seem to have too many things to do and too much on my mind and when I finally find the time to meditate I’m exausted. Anyway, I know that it is pratically vital for me to do it in order to get some balance in my life – I had two complicated depression episodes and the anxiety still gets to me sometimes. So, even though sometimes I don’t do it, some days I manage to find the strenght to concentrate, breathe and meditate. Meditation isn’t boring at all and there is no reason to be scared of it. It brings inner peace and tranquility, and if I’m able to evolve with it, I know it can only bring me happiness.

    :*** from Lisbon, Portugal

    Reply
    • Thanks @Purplesu — I’m glad to hear meditation has benefited you. I’ve had the experience too of saying to myself “I’m too exhausted to meditate today,” and I’ve begun to suspect the whole reason I’m feeling exhausted is because I didn’t meditate and go through the day in a more centered place. :)

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      • @Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching – very true :) thanx!

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  2. Just what I needed…at just the right time, too! Thanks so much, Chris!

    “Meditation isn’t easy, but that’s the point” – Thank you. This brings me more comfort than you realize!

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  3. Great advice here — and I really needed it! I really love what you’ve said about letting the discomfort be. That’s really important. I love the image you’ve used with this post. Beautiful!

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    • @Positively Present, thanks for your comment. Now that I think about it, I know I’ve used the word discomfort or pain, but I wonder if it would be helpful to use “growth” or “change” instead to describe those sensations we feel that have us want to get up from meditation and check e-mail. :)

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  4. I think my main problem is the first two. I never really got into it, or read a complete book about how to meditate, but I just do something. And it works when I’m feeling stressed, just the ‘breath in, breath out’ works pretty good for me!

    But I tend to find it boring, which it isn’t. I have to take the time for it more.

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    • @Stefan | StudySuccessful.com, I’m the same way when it comes to meditation techniques — I just sit and breathe, and if thoughts come up I allow those to occur, and if they don’t then I allow silence to occur. I think what I’m really practicing is allowing whatever arises to come up, as opposed to focusing or trying to create anything in particular. Best, Chris

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  5. I reckon sitting through the roadblocks that meditating inevitably leads to is the one major key to meditation success.

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    • @Seamus, thanks and good to hear from you again. I think that’s a great way to put it — that some amount of letting discomfort wash over you is going to be necessary for most of us when we get into meditation.

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  6. Nice explanations! The importance of letting your experience be..accepting what is…is dead on. This reminds me to get back into my regular meditation practice. I feel like I got to a great depth and lost it when things got more stressful in my life. Like everything it’s the process not the outcome that is the most significant.

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    • @Amber, thanks for your comment — I like the perspective that the process is the most important part. We might even think of meditation as the act of getting comfortable with doing (or not doing) something without seeking material things or approval in the world — doing something with no “product” or end goal at all, at least in the way that we’d usually think about it in our culture.

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  7. Hmm….I’m not sure if the perspective that meditation is difficult will be a helpful one for me. My perspective is that we make it more difficult than it is. We put up a lot of resistance to the process. It is never going to be a peaceful session if we are in too much of a struggle.

    I meditate every night before sleeping. Some of my sessions are better than others. The ones which are better are the ones when I am totally in the Now, and not engaged in any thought about the past or the future.

    I definitely agree that thoughts like your points 1 to 3 are not useful for anyone who wishes to meditate!

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    • @Evelyn, thanks for your comment. I agree that it won’t help to struggle against uncomfortable feelings like boredom or fear when they come up in meditation. What I’m pointing to is people’s tendency to assume that, when they feel fearful or bored while meditating, they must be “doing it wrong,” or it must not be helping them. My sense is that, when we experience those feelings during meditation, we’re actually benefiting greatly from the process, because we’re becoming aware of patterns of thinking and feeling that are going on all over our lives — perhaps without our noticing most of the time.

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  8. The best way I found to build good meditation habits was to take myself out of my current environment. At first I found it hard to sit at home and meditate so I began going to different locations like lakes and parks and just sitting on a bench observing my surrounding until I felt calm.

    From there it was easy for me to forget the past and future because I felt relaxed and less anxious in that environment.

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    • @Ralph, I’m glad you’ve found a technique that works for you. And, I wonder what it is about being at home that has meditating feel scary or difficult, and what taking a look at that might reveal.

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      • @Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching, Not a scary feeling at all but I do work from home a lot. I think in order for me to relax I need to be away from my work area. Plus I like looking at the ducks :)

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  9. Thanks for this article Chris. It is a timely one for me – like Amber I would like to get back into my regular meditation practice. In the past I have found meditating before going to sleep each night (like Evelyn does) makes a big difference to my quality of sleep. Number 2 “This is boring” is the relevant point for me here.

    Peter

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    • Thanks Peter — yes, I’ve also found meditating at night and early in the morning the best schedule to help me sleep and stay centered throughout the day.

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  10. Chris,
    This came at a perfect time. My husband lost his job about 3 weeks ago. I decided to meditate instead of worry. Today I had my timer set for 15 minutes and did 12. Which is a great start. I also decided I didn’t have to do it every day. I’m an all or nothing kind of person.
    So when I remember to do it I do. Eventually it will be my new habit.
    Great post!

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    • Hi Tess — I’m glad to hear meditation has been helpful for you. I liked what you said about not having to do it every day — that sounds more freeing and uplifting to me than telling yourself you “should” do it on some schedule. And, it sounds like you’re moving in the direction of meditating on a schedule, which is what I eventually ended up with too.

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  11. thanks for the making the misconceptions clear, even though i don’t meditate often your article motivated me to start. in such a noisy world we really need to learn how to silence our thoughts

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  12. Interestingly, I used the same picture for an article I wrote on Effortless Meditation.

    You’ve done a great job of covering some of the common obstacles. One very common one is the feeling of wanting to run away–the lurching feeling.

    Meditation is difficult for most people, and a good place to start is by acknowledging that. One step to making it much easier is to “meditate” when we’re not meditating. Observe thought, use a very easy technique called inner stop, bring attention to the inner body…as Krishnamurti says, develop a passive watchfulness. This is easier to start with than sit-down meditation.

    Reply
    • @Kaushik, it’s a great picture – I’m not surprised to hear other people have used it in their articles. Here is a link to the article you mention (I think my readers will enjoy it):

      Effortless Meditation

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      • @Peter, Thanks!!!

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  13. Wise words. I nearly gave up meditation after several months because I thought that nothing was happening – and at that point, things clearly started to happen. Meditation became a staple of my adult life. By now it seems to me that at some level my mind is always doing something like what it does during meditation.

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    • Thanks Paul — good to hear from you again. Isn’t that funny, how things don’t tend to happen until you release your attachment to having them happen? I know I’ve experienced that many times myself.

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  14. Hi Chris .. I’ve ‘tried’ meditation .. and will be ready to try again when life becomes free .. my feeling is the start is to be prepared to be free – to realise that we need to free up the 10 – 15 minutes .. and then just leave it to be free .. there’s an initiation process (for want of a better phrase) .. for this – then that time is ‘not required’ for action or thought .. we’ve allocated it already to absorb ourselves into the meditiation process .. most people could do this in their day .. & I will get their when my time comes .. others come first for now.

    Thanks
    Hilary Melton-Butcher
    PositiveLetters.com

    Reply
    • @Hilary, I’m intrigued by your comment. What I’m hearing when you talk about an initiation process is that it takes some time to get accustomed to taking time out of your day when you aren’t thinking or acting. I know this was true for me. And, I think even that sense of weirdness we may feel sitting in silence can teach us a lot about ourselves. If sitting quietly feels strange, for example, maybe that explains why we have trouble focusing on a project for a prolonged period of time.

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      • @Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching,
        Hi Chris .. first it is that 21 day habit .. ie getting the practise into one’s daily routine … 2ndly my mother had 3 strokes 2+ years ago .. and she’s my first priority and I have an elderly uncle .. so time is not really mine at the moment and I need to balance everything .. meditation will come into its own in due time. I may get there before that .. I am aware it’s something I’d like to explore. I found a wonderful healer for my mother .. who is so brilliant she visits 5 days a week for us .. and Janice will guide me spiritually once I have the capacity to go this route ..
        Does that make more sense?
        Hilary

        Reply
  15. Solitude and silence are my best friends when I need time to meditate and reflect.

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  16. letting the discomfort be is really solid advice. meditation advice, especially from the perspective of yoga is that you should always be in ease, but sometimes one step back two forward :)

    so true that some of us meditate expecting certain results when in actual fact meditation should teach you to not expect results. saw a great TED talk by a man named Barry Schwartz at the conference themed happiness where he said “the key to happiness is low expectations!” – i’d prolly go as far as to say no expectations :p

    never had the scared experience but i’ve had the experience and know many people, if not all, are afraid that if the voice in their head stops talking that they’ll die – when in actual fact quieting the mind is the only way to truly be free, to truly live.

    inspiring stuff – subscribed :)
    thank you
    alex

    Reply
    • Thanks Alex — I liked what you said about being at ease. I tend to think of meditation as a process of learning to be at ease in the face of a broader and broader range of sensations — so that even when we start feeling angry or afraid during meditation we can be at ease with that.

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  17. Thank you for this timely post, Chris! I have just developed this habit. I love it! I vary the types of meditation. I have some guided meditations that I use, and sometimes it’s just me.

    I have to tell you. I have hypertension. My BP was up the other day, so I sat down and meditated. After I meditated, I checked it again. The systolic number had gone down 20 points.

    Reply
    • @Mary, I’m glad meditation has had health benefits for you — I know it’s done the same for me, in the sense that I suspect my immune system has been boosted by doing it.

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  18. As I mentioned to Edgar over on his blog, trying to get deep deep into meditation as I understood it to be when I read “The Power Of Now,” made my physically sick — with queasiness. So I gave it up.

    I do write songs and compose, so I guess that is a kind of meditation?

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment Jannie — I’ve actually experienced the same feeling myself. One challenge I’ve set for myself is to breathe into that nauseous place and relax my body. I’ve found that it actually passes away when I let myself experience it, and I don’t spontaneously combust or whatever it was I was imagining.

      I get the sense that you get into a place where your attention is 100% focused on songwriting, and there isn’t any fretting about whether the repairman is going to replace the light fixture or whatever else while you’re doing that. That sounds like a meditative state to me. Does that land with you?

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  19. Is it common for beginners not to be able to keep a straight spine or is it just me? While im sitting cross legged, I find it tremendously hard to sit up right.

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  20. Hi Fenix — I do know a number of people who have experienced some back pain when trying to sit up straight as they meditate. I tend to think meditation gives us an opportunity to breathe through that pain and get beyond our tendency to label it as wrong and something we shouldn’t be experiencing.

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  21. Great post. I know that I have my challenges with this, But I think focusing on the long term benefit really helps keep you motivated. I also have found that quality of meditation/visualization is more important than quantity.

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    • @Srinivas Rao, thanks for your comment — yes, taking the long view has also been helpful to me in staying motivated — and also looking at what might be keeping me from enjoying meditation where I am right now.

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  22. i came across your article in a very timely manner – i have been meditating for sometime now, however, i always had still small nagging feeling that i was not doing thing properly cos i was not achieving what i was suppose to achieve (total peace of mind, tranquil feeling etc). after reading your article, i found that that is exactly what is suppose to happen – the unsettling part of me is supposed to be watched and observed. Thanks So Much for this – it is such a tremendous help to me. And you know what the funny thing now is, i am beggining to enjoy watching this unsettling feeling i have in me hahaha… once again Chris, thanks :)

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  23. Wonderful article on getting back at the heart of why we meditate.

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  24. Thank you. Maybe it’s because so many aspects of our lives nowadays are simplified and made much easier than ever before in history (that I know of), but it just helps for a person in a position of authority on a matter say, “This isn’t supposed to be easy, and that’s the point.” So thank you.

    Reply

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