Meditation is one of those things that everyone wants to do, in theory. But when it comes to actually implementing a meditation practice, many people create obstacles themselves.
I want to talk about these self-created obstacles to meditation. It seems to me that there are three ways to stop yourself.
- First, you stop yourself by not starting
- Second, you abandon your practice because of physical complaints
- Third, your mind comes up with mental constraints to get you to stop.
The 3 most common obstacles to meditation (and ways to overcome them)
Obstacle #1: Not starting
This is one of the most prevalent obstacles to meditation. I recommend meditation to almost all of my clients. You would be amazed by the number of excuses I’ve heard for not starting. Here’s my favourite example:
One client was the CFO of a major corporation. He was really stressed out, and had medical issues—he was overweight, he had high blood pressure, and most of his days were a misery. I suggested meditation.
He replied, “How am I ever going to find 20 more minutes in my already overfilled day?”
How can he not?! The way he’s living his life isn’t working—this is obvious just looking at him.
I have this theory: We’ve all got a little kid inside our heads that really likes being miserable. It’s the quite childish voice of all of our excuses. The little kid is also really good at defending past choices.
That’s this guy’s problem—he knows that his life is totally out of control, yet presents tons of arguments for why nothing can change. And of course, he’s right. Nothing can change—unless he changes it.
Many “not starting” excuses are weird. I have a friend who teaches meditation, but won’t meditate when she’s stressed. I find this really bizarre—she thinks that she can only meditate when everything is going great.
She upsets herself, stops meditating, ends up in a big mess, starts meditating, and feels better. You’d think she’d learn, but she has a little voice in her head that says, “Things are going much too badly to be sitting around doing nothing.”
- there’s the time factor—thinking yourself too busy to set aside 20 minutes a day, and
- the stress factor—thinking you’re much too upset to meditate. And there’s
- the stubbornness factor—the little kid is jumping up and down and saying, “I shouldn’t have to do this! It’s not fair! This is a waste of time!”
The way out
I know it’s going to sound pretty simplistic, but the only way to get past the obstacle of not meditating is to meditate. Everyone, me included, can come up with reasons for not starting. I certainly know that I have avoided meditation when I have a headache, or a cold, or if I’ve decided that I’m just too busy.
But I also can be stubborn, and in this case that’s a good thing. I make the daily decision to sit, I pick a logical time, typically in the morning, and then I sit. Here’s the key: I don’t have to want to sit—I just have to sit. It’s not about wanting. It’s about doing.
Obstacle #2: Physical complaints
This is another among the most common obstacles to meditation cited by people. I know this one too. I learned to meditate back in 1968. In the process, I knew if I was going to be a “real” meditator, I’d have to sit for long periods of time in full lotus.
I tried—oh how I tried. And my knees ached. And my back ached. Pretty much everything from my navel-down ached. I’d tough it out, my feet would fall asleep, I’d get up, I’d fall down. And then I’d stop meditating for a little while—maybe a decade.
There are meditation teachers that insist that full lotus is the only way to go. They are of the “no pain, no gain” school of meditation. I don’t buy it, not in the least. The only body I have to work with is mine, and after 45 years, my knees still prefer other postures than full lotus.
Which is why there are other ways to sit. There’s Burmese style, kneeling posture [which is the way I sit] and half lotus. And as an absolute last resort, you can always sit on a straight-backed chair.
The way out
Go find a meditation teacher who will help you discover the right sitting posture for you and your body. They’re out there—just ask around.
The other thing that really helped, happened three or four years ago. We found a new meditation center, and the teacher had us do yoga stretches ahead of meditating. I’ve done yoga for some years, but had never thought of using it specifically to work on my hips and legs for sitting.
He used about five poses, and after doing them, I could sit for 45 minutes with no pain. Pretty amazing. I only had to do the stretches for a year—now I can just sit, and sit comfortably.
So, you might touch base with a yoga instructor, and ask for some poses to loosen things up.
Then, tune into your body. I still feel a small amount of discomfort as I sit, so I run a scan on my body. Almost always, I’ve slid out of proper meditation posture. I may be tipped to one side or the other, or I’m rounding my back, or I’ve tightened myself up. Because I’ve made scanning my body part of my practice, it’s pretty easy to notice when things are out of alignment.
Again, you likely need someone to check how you’re sitting. Meditation teachers are used to doing this, as finding a perfectly balanced posture initially requires a second set of eyes. When in doubt, ask.
Obstacle #3: Mental chatter
Okay, so you’re sitting there. And you’re inundated with mind chatter, and vigorous gripes about sitting. How normal!
Another major issue keeping us from continuing our practice is, “My mind just won’t shut up!” And then I hear stories about all the crazy thoughts that come up for people as they meditate.
The problem comes from a misunderstanding about what meditation is all about. Most people think that meditation is about stopping thinking. Nothing could be further from the truth. We think, all the time. You can’t “not think”. Part of our thinking process involves that little kid I mentioned before. The whiny little kid really doesn’t like sitting still, meditating. There really is a part of our brain that loves the status quo. This part has habituated itself to being miserable.
It’s almost as if this part can sense that things are going to change if you continue to meditate. So this part of our brain starts throwing up warning signals. Complaints. Gripes. On and on it natters, and we obey at our peril. And let me assure you, this part makes reasonable complaints. Nothing outlandish, just endless griping.
The way out
You listen without attaching [following the thought].
What this means is, the real point of meditating is to be with what is happening. That includes being with aches and pains, wacky thoughts, and external distractions. As a matter of fact, the real point of meditation is what I call taking meditation into the world.
The world is a noisy, messy place. We learn to be present and at peace in the real world. This process begins on the cushion. As thoughts come up, remind yourself that it’s natural to be thinking. Take a slow, deep, conscious breath, and just let the thought go. Now, realistically, you might do this 100 times in a 20 minute sit. As I said before, the issue is not “thinking”—it’s attaching to the thought.
We are trying to break the habit of starting down the thought path, noticing, and then continuing anyway.
At the junction point—when you notice that you’re in your head, telling stories—you simply invite yourself back into the present moment. Some people do this by counting breaths, others by running an inventory of their bodies, and others just quietly tune into what’s going on around them.
One of my favourite silly thoughts is trying to guess when “time’s up”. We use a meditation timer that’s on our phones and tablets, and I have done all that I can to not be continually checking the device to see how much time is left. In the early days of using those applications, I could quite easily convince myself that they were broken and that I’d been sitting way, way too long. I got past it. Now I just laugh at myself. I have a breath and I remind myself that I’m there to meditate until I’m done. It’s really that simple.
None of the things that get in your way are that serious. It all really comes down to making the decision to sit, and then sitting. The things that get in our way are all resolvable, if we decide.
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