Can't meditate? The 7 main barriers to meditation and how to overcome them.
You've heard about the benefits of mindfulness meditation but just can't meditate regularly. You are not alone! Here are 7 common barriers to meditation and how to overcome them.
I'm not doing it properly
It’s very normal to worry about whether you are doing meditation “right” or not. As long as you are making an effort to pay attention and to bring your mind back each time it wanders off, you are doing it right! If you notice you have lots of judging thoughts, such as “I’m not doing this properly”, or “I’m hopeless at this”, remember that it’s the noticing of these thoughts that is the practice. Judging is simply a thought passing through your mind. The aim is to simply be aware of whatever is happening and to stay open and accepting of what you notice.
It’s too painful (it hurts my back/knees)
Having painful sensations such as joint stiffness, muscle ache, headache, or some other unpleasant feeling during a meditation can be quite a challenge. Our normal response to pain is to immediately try to stop it or make it go away. There is nothing wrong with moving during a meditation to find a more comfortable position, including using cushions and rugs to support your back or knees, however try to do this with awareness and see if you can explore different ways of relating to the pain.
I don’t have the time
We all know that “finding time” for something is really about what we prioritize. If keeping our job is a priority, we get to work. If there’s a new movie or TV show we really want to watch, most of us can figure out a way to see it!
We all have busy lives and it can be hard to find enough time for exercise, to catch up with our friends or family, read the books we want to, ….and meditation can be seen as just another thing to fit in.
We often look for the right time, place, or moment to meditate. We think: “When I finish this, then I’ll do it”. “When this project is over, then I’ll have time.” Yet for most of us, there is always an endless list of other things that need to be done. Waiting for the right time to mediate is like waiting for an extra hour to appear in the day. Finding time for meditation will not just happen, the time needs to be created.
This means setting up meditation as a priority in your day, so that meditation becomes a commitment no matter what other demands you may have. Of course, life and death matters will always take priority, but unless you are facing these there is no reason why at least 15 minutes of your day cannot be protected for a meditation practice. Unless, of course, it is not a priority. This is where you need to be really clear about why you would meditate. You might need to write a list of the reasons why meditation is important to you and keep this list somewhere close to hand.
Ask yourself now, why do I want to meditate? How important is it that I reduce stress in my life and sleep better at night? How do I rate the importance of these goals compared to other things on my daily “to do” list?
My mind wanders too much
The mind wandering in a meditation is very often mistakenly regarded as a bad thing or a failure. There is nothing wrong with the mind wandering. This is what minds do! It is the nature of the mind to think. Mindfulness meditation is not about creating a blank mind, it is simply about learning to be aware of thinking and to be able to choose to let go of a thought when you want to. Very experienced meditators will still find days that their minds are busy and active. Their experience allows them not to judge this and instead they simply watch the mind go off on all its tangents. This watching helps them to stay out of the thinking process, and after a while the mind generally begins to settle and become less active.
The aim is not to stop the mind wandering, but simply to be aware of it when it does and gently but firmly escort it back to the chosen object of your attention, such as the breath. If your mind wanders 100 times, simply bring it back 100 times. No judgment needed. Observing a busy mind during a meditation practice is the perfect opportunity to practice letting go, patience, non-attachment, non-judging.
You can read more about how to deal with an active mind in our article When the mind won’t stop thinking, just sit back and watch.
I got too bored or frustrated
We live in a society that is over-stimulated by multimedia and all forms of technology. As you begin to unplug from this constant flow of information and stimulation is very is common to feel restless and perhaps even empty. The craving for more stimulation can feel quite uncomfortable, and you may experience this as ‘boredom’. If you struggle with boredom when you meditate, it’s probably because you are simply not used to having a quieter, less stimulated mind. In order to reduce stress and wind down the nervous system, training your mind to become comfortable with less stimulation is essential. With time, meditation will help you learn to quieten the mind so that you can enjoy the feeling of inner peace and tranquillity. Rather than feel bored, you begin to appreciate this inner peace.
I keep falling asleep
The aim of meditation is become more alert, awake and aware, not to fall asleep! Having said that, if you find it hard to stay awake during a meditation, you are not "failing". It may be a sign that you're not getting enough sleep, and a reminder to prioritise healthy sleep habits. Read about tips for better sleep here, and learn about insomnia here.
There are a few things you can do to working with sleepiness during a meditation. Try noticing at what point in the meditation that you begin to doze off and notice where in the meditation that you wake up. Is it the same place every time? Also, to to reduce the likelihood of falling asleep try keeping your eyes open or try meditate standing up.
Difficult feelings come up (like sadness or anxiety)
It is next to impossible to get through life without facing some kind of emotional pain. Feelings such as loss, grief, heartache, sadness, anger, anxiety etc, are all part of the normal human experience. People can go to great lengths to avoid feelings. One of our common (but unhelpful) strategies is to distract ourselves from feelings by suppressing them and ignoring them, and turning to behaviours as such as drinking alcohol, taking drugs, gambling, over eating, watching excessive TV, playing computer games, excessive shopping, excessive sexual activity, excessive reading, etc. Distraction and avoidance helps reduce painful feelings in the short term but over time it leads to disconnection to ourselves and others, and very quickly it becomes difficult to even see what is really going on, and how we are really feeling underneath the façade. Most tragically these excessive avoidance behaviours over time leads to more pain and suffering, as secondary health problems emerge and relationships are destroyed.
Learning how to be with and stay with difficult feelings actually allows us stay connected with ourselves to we can heal from whatever it was that caused the pain. Managing feelings by acknowledging them and allowing them to flow through the body helps us to stay in control of our lives, and grow wiser through the experience.
As you practice meditation see if you can explore any feelings or emotions when they arise by staying with them, and noticing where they emerge in the body and how they may change over the duration of the meditation. With practice, you will find that you are no longer pushed around by feelings, no longer need to avoid them. You will discover that you can respond to any painful emotion with awareness and compassion, so that you can continue to live the life you want, no matter what difficult circumstances you might face.
Meditation offers us mirror to see ourselves more clearly. The reasons we come up with for why we can’t meditate, will often be the same reasons we give ourselves for other important things in our lives we don’t do or avoid. We don’t have time, we forgot, we got bored, other things were more important. Addressing these barriers to meditation can also help you overcome the same barriers in other areas of your life.
This article is adapted from a lesson within the course A Mindful Way to Healthy Sleep, which combines mindfulness training with cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia (CBTi) to help people sleep better. To find out more about the course click here.
Find it hard to meditate?
If you find it hard to meditate alone, then you might like to try our FREE 5-day midday meditations. We hope you can join us.
Looking for more information?
You can find more information about insomnia here. And you can learn more about the influence of thinking on sleep in the related articles When the mind won’t stop thinking, just sit back and watch and Are you stuck with insomnia, chronic fatigue or anxiety?