Recently, a friend asked me, “why meditate? what are the benefits of meditation?” I tried to answer as succinctly as possible, and so I said, “life is better.” He also answered succinctly: "prove it."
I told him that it was subjective. It’s just my own experience that life is better. It feels truly free, alive, easier, more enjoyable, smoother. It’s why I started meditating.
And I’m not the only one who feels that way. There are lots of studies that measure the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. I won’t list them—you can look them up online. Search for the keywords “meditation benefits research,” for example. And it’s those large number of proven benefits that help make meditation and mindfulness increasingly popular.
But if you have tried meditation for more than a few seconds, you might come to the conclusion that either the studies are wrong or you’re doing it wrong. Here’s what people sometimes tell me after they start meditating:
- I have too many thoughts - This is hard - I’m just getting frustrated - I don’t know if I’m doing it right - What exactly am I supposed to be achieving? - I’m just not very good at this - I feel worse
So what is the disconnect? How come I can say that my life is better and research shows that it works, yet some people report quite the opposite?
Here are some possible reasons that meditation might be difficult when you get started:
Habit: Much of our lives, or maybe after certain difficult experiences in our lives, we have unknowingly trained ourselves to pay attention to a limited set of things: lots of thoughts, a few moods and limited input from certain senses. We’ve made it a habit to only tune into those select experiences. When we try to break that habit, it’s hard, so we might feel incompetent.
Stuck: Not only that, but we may become especially aware of how strong these inner habits are—for example how incessant thinking seems to be. This hyperawareness of feeling stuck might feel intense, impossible to change and therefore disturbing.
Jumpy: We also see how fickle our attention is—it might be very difficult to re-direct to some object of attention like the breath (or anything else) and have it stay there. Our attention constantly jumps around. Not being able to stabilize attention on only one thing can be very frustrating.
Tiny pieces of peace: Occasional moments of peacefulness or calmness during meditation might be so seldom and fleeting that we wonder if we’re doing it right and if it’s worth the trouble. Not only that, but if we tap into peacefulness, we might feel ourselves slipping into the unknown and maybe get scared.
The past: Or we remember a difficult experience from the past and really feel the burden we’ve been carrying, or re-live it and get stuck in it. This may feel so uncomfortable that we want to stop meditating.
These are a few of the numerous challenges that might show up when we start meditating. There are others too, and at each stage of the process, different challenges can show up, with different solutions. So, what to do? How can we get the elusive benefits to show up when faced with such difficulties? Maybe print out the list of benefits and put them under our pillow to absorb when we sleep?
Or here’s an idea: How about becoming playful and seeing meditation as an experiment? When you do that, it becomes less serious and you might get a little more relaxed about it, curious about the process and start trying different things.
Meditation and mindfulness are not rigid mandates, but guidelines and suggestions. Here are a few tips in no particular order that come from my own experience and from people who have shared what worked for them. Maybe some of them resonate with you:
Attitude: See what happens when you become patient. When you are kind with yourself. When you are more gentle with yourself. Play around with being a little less intense. Or if you are already super relaxed, get a little more engaged. Pay attention to what works, and what doesn’t. Give yourself permission to listen to yourself.
Time: Try meditating a little shorter or longer. Sometimes people overdo it early on or when faced with some difficulty. However, I have also regularly heard people tell me they have a minimum time they need in order to slip into a sense of peacefulness. Also, if scheduling meditation doesn’t work for you, try doing it when you are in the mood.
Energy: Take a nap before you meditate. Have some water or tea or juice or a tiny, easily digestible snack before you meditate. Hydration is important for not falling asieep so easily. Pay attention to daily rhythms and when energy is picking up or overflowing or when overload is about to happen. Try it at a different time of the day—maybe before activities of the day start, or after they are done. Or maybe during natural transitions of the day.
Mindfulness: try bringing meditative attention, or mindfulness, to your everyday actions. When walking, pay attention to the body sensations of walking, while letting thoughts, emotions and emotionally-connected-body-sensations come and go. When washing dishes, be with that experience rather than trying to get out of it. Notice how that sort of attention helps lower the buildup of stress, which is an immediate benefit. And then when you sit for meditation, you already feel connected with the body and some of the mental processing has been done.
Preparation: You could briefly move your body before sitting, you could read something that motivates or calms you. People have told me that prayer or setting an intention before meditation can be helpful. Try to keep intentions simple, like wanting to connect, be open, or be receptive.
Technique: Maybe you are practicing a meditation technique that does not quite fit. There are a variety of techniques designed for people with different natural tendencies, and you have to play around a little to see which works best for you. It's like shopping for shoes--don't fall into the trap of forcing a shoe fit your foot!
Teacher/group: Connect with a competent teacher who may be able to help you through challenges. I have found some teachers to be incredibly helpful at various times in my practice. Even a few words of advice from someone with deep experience can give you just what you need. You can also join a group to help share and process difficulties—there are not many places to share meditative experiences and if you have an opportunity near you, give it a try and see if you feel comfortable in that environment.
Completeness: Notice the little things that show up in your periphery when you meditate rather than hyper-focusing on difficult thoughts, emotions or physical sensations. This can help you see a sense of completeness that is always there. You can pick from things like: noticing the breath for the first time all day, feeling some movement of energy, experiencing your heart beat, feeling warmth or tingling, experiencing sound a little differently, watching old memories bubble up, making interesting connections and associations, recognizing solutions to problems, noticing interesting visual patterns, feeling little shifts in perception, noticing spaciousness, etc.
Trauma: you can talk to a therapist about difficult memories that show up if they persist and cause a problem in your daily functioning. A good friend who truly listens can be a minor miracle to help you feel connected. An experienced meditation/mindfulness teacher may also be able to help you understand and modify your practice to make it work for you.
Your journey will likely develop in little steps. Sometimes sudden and/or profound experiences happen, but mostly, it’s about noticing little changes, knowing how to handle whatever arises, and letting yourself melt into the peacefulness that shows up in little moments here and there.
By following your own instincts in your meditation practice and mindful movement throughout the day…and by being playful and patient, you may come to understand that the practice of meditation is a set of skills that help us experience the simple wholeness of arrival, a slow coming home, a gentle landing in the now-here.
And then you may see that even a single moment of being free from your old inner habits is relief. Because in such a moment, you are experiencing the benefits of meditation: a sense of ease pervades. In that moment, your life is better.