Learning to Meditate By Not Trying Too Hard

I’ve finally been able to establish a daily meditation practice, sitting 20 minutes a day, and find myself even craving the practice and wanting to sit longer.  But this was not always the case.  I definitely struggled to develop a consistent meditation practice for some time.   I knew that the benefits of consistently meditating would be immense, but often I found the practice to be another chore on my already long list of to-dos.  And somehow this chore always fell to the bottom of the list.  Even if I was able to maintain a meditation practice for a few weeks, it would end after just that, and then not resurface for several months.  I went through several unsuccessful strategies and attempts trying to meditate before figuring out what it was that worked for me.

Here are some of the things I learned along the way:

Learning #1:  Meditation does NOT mean to remove all thoughts.

In one of my all-time favorite books, “Eat, Pray, Love,” the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, describes an epic battle with her mind while trying to meditate. Here’s an excerpt from her book:

  • Me: OK, we’re going to meditate now. Let’s draw our attention to our breath and focus on the mantra. Om Namah Shivaya. Om Namah Shiv-
  • Mind: I can help you out with this, you know!
  • Me: OK, good, because I need your help. Let’s go. Om Namah Shivaya. Om Namah Shi-
  • Mind: I can help you think of nice meditative images. Like- hey here’s a good one. Imagine you are a temple.  A temple on an island! And the island is in the ocean!
  • Me: Oh, that is a nice image. 
  • Mind: Thanks. I thought of it myself. 
  • Me: But what ocean are we picturing here? 
  • Mind: The Mediterranean.  Imagine you’re one of those Greek islands, with an old Greek temple on it.  No, never mind, that’s too touristy. You know what? Forget the ocean. Oceans are too dangerous.  Here’s a better idea- imagine you’re an island in a lake, instead.
  • Me: Can we meditate now, please? Om Namah Shiv-
  • Mind: Yes! Definitely! But try not to picture that the lake is covered with…what are those things called-
  • Me: Jet Skis?
  • Mind: Yes! Jet Skis!….
  • Me: Ok, but let’s MEDITATE now, please? Om Namah…
  • Mind: Right! I definitely want to help you meditate! And thats why we….

Gilbert’s banter continues with the mind…until she finally loses it and says:

  • Me: Stop! Please stop! YOU’RE MAKING ME CRAZY!

During my first attempts at meditation, Gilbert’s dialogue was VERY familiar to me.  For a long time, I thought that meditating meant to remove all thoughts, so any time a thought would arise, I would try to fight the thought. The result…a ping-pong match with my mind; me trying to suppress my thoughts, and my mind trying to bounce something right back.  And almost every time, my mind ended up as the winner and I would be disappointed that once again I was not successful at stopping the thoughts. I thought that perhaps I was not capable of meditating because it felt impossible to stop the thoughts from arising.  Since then, I’ve learned that our thoughts ARE supposed to be there, and will continue to be there almost always, but in a mindful meditation practice, we “observe” our thoughts non-judgmentally.  We let the thoughts arise naturally as they do, but we try to not get attached. We don’t get swept up by the story.  If we realize that we are caught up in the thought, we pause and tune ourselves back to the present moment. The moment we realize that our mind is wandering and we take the pause, that is the moment that we are practicing being mindful.

Learning #2:  Remove all goals except to just sit…even for 1-2 minutes a day.

For some time I also tried to establish a consistent meditation practice by setting very specific goals- such as reciting a mantra 108 times?!?!  Or doing pranayama (breath control). While these practices can be useful, I learned that when you are intensely focused on achieving a specific goal to meditate, then the goal becomes more important than the practice.  When reciting a mantra 108 times, I would almost feel proud if I could get through it faster than the previous day- thinking the sooner I got through it, the sooner I’ll be done with this “chore” of trying to meditate again.  Or many times with the breath control, I would be so focused on hearing my breath or doing the technique correctly that I sounded more like the big bad wolf huffing and puffing rather than someone who was trying to find some zen.  After I started mindful meditation, and I could just relax and sit, the only goal I kept was to consistently sit for 1-2 minutes everyday.  Sometimes during the few minutes, my mind would wander the entire time, but I knew I had attempted to sit.  And over time, this consistency became a more natural part of my daily routine.

Learning #3:  Guided Meditations can help kickstart your practice.

Guided meditations really helped kickstart my practice.  For me, this guidance came through the Fundamentals course at Mindful Schools but there are also lots of apps like Insight Timer, Headspace, YogaGlo– all of which offer great guided practices.  The guidance helps new practitioners stay focused on the practice, to experience body awareness, and not get carried away with all the thoughts.  Another benefit of a guided meditation is that you can concentrate your practice on a particular area of importance- such as self-compassion or relaxation.

Learning #4: Focus on an anchor.

The concept of an anchor is incredible in helping to bring the wandering mind back to the present moment.  There are two ways to apply the anchor. First, if a thought arises in the mind, then you can label the thought with an anchor word.   For instance, during meditation, if I’m thinking about what I’ll be making for dinner or how I have to go to the store, then I can label that “planning.”  If I have a work deadline looming over my head, then I can label that “working.”  The anchor word creates a fog over the thought so that you don’t get consumed by the story. The first time I did this, I was blown away by how a simple label can mask the underlying story.  The second way I use an anchor is to physically ground myself in my meditation practice. Noticing the physical sensations of your breath- either at the tip of your nose, your belly or your chest- can really help you stay connected to the present moment by focusing on the actual act of breathing.  Your hands and feet can also be great physical anchors- noticing intently how they feel on the ground or in your lap.

Learning #5: Be comfortable, gentle and don’t try as hard

During my past meditation attempts, I thought I needed to sit on the ground, legs crossed, eyes closed, palms up- like a little Buddha.  Invariably after a few minutes of sitting like that I would start to feel uncomfortable and get squirmy.  However, I’ve since learned that rigidity is not the point. Instead it’s important to feel comfortable during meditation practice.  So for many folks starting out, just sitting in a chair, with palms relaxed in the lap, feet on the ground can work really well.  It’s also critical to be gentle with yourself.  If someone hasn’t worked out physically their whole lives, you can’t expect that they will be able to train at the gym for long periods of time everyday right away.  Meditation is very similar, and in many ways harder than physical exercise because our minds are usually on overdrive and we tend to judge ourselves.  Removing any expectations and being gentle can help soften the experience.  Once I stopped trying as hard and let go of goals, judgment, rigidity and expectations, then all of a sudden I started being able to sit for longer and even wanting to sit each day. In many ways, the daily sits are my only reprieve during the day. I can feel my temples soften and my head relax, and I’m able to give my brain a much-needed break.

Now I’ll note that you don’t have to meditate to be mindful.  And for some people, sitting down to meditate may never be their thing.  You can practice mindfulness in any activity you do during the day.  But if you want to attempt a sitting meditation, then it will help your mindfulness practice in other aspects of your life and provide great benefits within just a few weeks.  That will be a blog post for another time.