“We all possess wisdom that we lack the strength properly to enact in our lives.”
Whatever you think of Alain de Botton (who wrote that sentence), it’s certainly true that we don’t always act as we wish we would. For example, maybe we have a genuine intention to improve our diet, until the chips are down. Then we eat them. They’re just so crunchy and salty.
So too with meditation. Many people think that meditation is a great thing to do, really enjoy it when they do it—and don’t do it all that often. In fact, according to a survey we conducted in 2012, about two-thirds of meditation practitioners wish they meditated more.
We made Medivate to help fill in that gap. Wanting to meditate and actually doing it may not always equate in our lives. This is why we say we’re working toward a world where “Everyone who wants to meditate, does.”
Here are some things that keep us, and people we know, off the cushion—despite our best intentions. We’ve given our best advice for working with each challenge, and we’ve also matched each one to Medivate resources that we hope can help.
“It’s boring and hard.”
This is a real difficulty, and it’s worth talking about. After all, nobody writes blog posts about staying motivated to eat potato chips. Meditation can feel difficult, strenuous, and frustrating. Even if it’s none of those things, it can feel desperately blank, like eating white cardboard in an empty room. For these reasons, meditation does take a bit of discipline—but it does not have to be something you “put yourself through.” If it’s feeling that way, read on.
What might help:
• Don’t be hard on yourself. Many people feel guilty because they’re not meditating the way they “should.” Leaving aside all the likely contradictions in that attitude, developing a feeling of guilt or inadequacy around meditation is really toxic and hugely increases the chance that you’ll quit altogether. Please don’t worry: you’re doing a great job.
• Start slow and get in a rhythm. A great way to fail at a new activity is the “hero approach.” This is the approach that tests out running by signing up for a marathon, or creative writing by selling everything and moving to a log cabin with a typewriter. Even if you don’t end up in the hospital, you’ll probably view running or writing as an epic, bizarrely painful act of self-sacrifice—not the healthy, enjoyable, steady activity it really is.
So for meditation, especially if you’re just getting into it (or back into it), we strongly recommend you start out with a gentle, enjoyable daily practice schedule—as little as five or ten minutes a day. At the same time, really try to commit to meditating that amount every day: let yourself build up the momentum of steady, pleasant daily practice. Then, if you like, you can gradually grow your practice from there.
• For daily tracking of your meditation practice, our online meditation timer automatically syncs to your meditation log, which has a quick numeric “How it felt” box, space for both private and public comments, and a number of other features. (The timer’s also available as an Android app; a full version of the app, and an iOS app, are coming soon.)
• Meditation goals: These are a great way to formally set an achievable regular meditation schedule for yourself. They can be day- or week-based, for any amount of time, and you can even set a custom “reward” for yourself (like “dinner at my favorite restaurant”) when you complete a goal.
“It’s not working.”
We may have the sense that meditation is a very healthy activity. Depending on our background, we may even have heard descriptions of seemingly far-out states of bliss and spiritual attainment. But then we sit a bit, and we don’t feel any different. In fact, maybe we’re even a bit discouraged and frustrated, whereas we were “fine” before.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,”—and, especially, “I can’t do this” or “It’s not working”—are powerful impediments to practice.
What might help:
• Please don’t be hard on yourself. Meditation is definitely not an excuse to beat up on yourself. If meditation is painful because you feel inadequate or like a failure, try regarding yourself with some gentleness. Picture a loved one and think, “How would I want that person to regard himself or herself?” Then try seeing yourself that way.
• Read up on the benefits of meditation. They’re insane. Learning the “wonder-drug” properties of meditation has been one of the most unexpected parts of working on Medivate for us, and very motivating. (The “benefits of meditation” tab at the top of the page lists the benefits we’ve found so far.)
• Track meditation’s impact on your life. The benefits of meditation can be subtle, although they are very profound over time. If you notice that you’ve been a little more patient with a coworker than you would be if you weren’t practicing, really make a note of that. It wouldn’t be too much to write it down and put it on your fridge. Don’t risk failing to notice the ways meditation helps you in your life.
• Your meditation log is a great way to track your meditation practice over time. You can view your thoughts from past weeks, months, and years, and even graph trends in your practice. This is one way to uncover slow improvements (or at least changes) in how your practice feels and how rewarding it is.
• The practice journal is a “mini-blog” for meditation events. If you really do treat a coworker more kindly as a result of your practice, write about it here so you don’t forget it. (We’ve built ways to bring these journal entries back up for you as you browse the site.) You can also optionally share journal entries with the Medivate community.
• Your meditation portrait is the most robust way for tracking the interaction between meditation and your daily life.
“I’m too busy.”
This is a common complaint, but nobody is actually too busy for meditation. After all, you had time to watch four episodes your favorite TV show yesterday, and you’re even going on a ski trip next weekend. And you should do those things: you enjoy them, and they cheer you up. The point is that it’s a question of priorities: meditation doesn’t feel important enough to put in front of the other important things, or fun enough to put in front of the other fun things.
What might help:
• Remember why meditation matters to you. Why did you want to meditate in the first place? Perhaps you wish you could rein in your out-of-control temper and stop needlessly hurting yourself and your loved ones. Maybe you have insomnia or panic attacks and you’ve found that meditation helps. Or perhaps you were inspired by the wisdom and compassion of a great meditation teacher, and wanted to “be like them.” These are all really important things! If you can keep them in mind, regular meditation will naturally start to float closer to the top of your priorities list.
• Meditate early in the day, and for a manageable amount of time. If you’ve committed to meditating two hours every day, and you wait until late at night when you’re exhausted and frazzled and your favorite talk shows are on, you’re done. Choose an amount of time that fits (more or less) comfortably into your day’s schedule, and try to sit as early in the day as you’re able. If you do want to meditate for long durations every day, consider breaking that time up into several more manageable sessions.
• Our meditation portrait is designed to help you understand and express just why meditation is important to you—as well as the challenges you face, like an overfull schedule.
• Setting a meditation goal is a way to declare that “This is important”; and it lets you define a specific, regular commitment, so that meditation at least has a formal place on your calendar.
“It feels like an obligation.”
There’s a real danger in telling yourself you “have to” do something: when we treat something as an unpleasant obligation, we’ll feel like rebelling against it. Meditating out of a grudging sense of duty feels like trying to pull a moody donkey around. Treating meditation like a chore also risks sucking the joy right out of the practice, setting the stage for a later collapse.
What might help:
• Connect with what inspires you about meditation. Your interest in meditation almost certainly contains some element of inspiration: a spiritual teacher you admire, a book that really speaks to you, a friend who was helped in a way you’d like to experience. Try to reconnect with this feeling of inspiration. In particular, we find that reading a few paragraphs of a favorite book is inevitably energizing; it makes us feel like putting the book down and meditating. If you get this feeling, make sure to follow-through and do it; this is about the easiest getting to the cushion will be.
• Remind yourself how meditation makes you feel. Meditation can feel really good. In our experience, it’s generally not entertaining the way a movie or a first date might be; but it can have a strong element of wholesomeness, gentleness, and peace, and these effects spill wonderfully into our lives.
If meditation feels like a chore, try filling in this sentence: “When I meditate, I feel…” How do you feel when you’re actually doing it, and when you’ve just done it? Maybe you don’t feel all that different—but you might feel proud that you’ve honored your commitment to meditation itself, and that’s worth noticing and celebrating. If your answer is more negative (“frazzled,” “inadequate”), that’s okay too: at least you’re fully aware of some of the ways meditation is difficult for you at the moment.
• For reminding yourself of your inspirations to meditate, the motivation brainstorm section of your meditation portrait is a great place to start.
• Our meditation quote database is full of pithy and frequently inspiring quotes by well-known meditation teachers. You can receive daily quotes in a daily email, and you can receive both quotes and a semi-forthcoming feature called “Wakeup Moments” through Twitter.
“I’m alone in my practice.”
Meditation is very hard to sustain without a community. Fellow practitioners can provide knowledge, support and encouragement, and fresh perspective. Perhaps most importantly, a meditation community provides a sense of shared purpose: it affirms that meditation is a “real thing,” something others dedicate themselves to and benefit from. On your own, you’ll be a bit of a meditation mad scientist, and that just isn’t the most helpful place to be.
What might help:
• Think about who or what resonates with you, and go there. If you love a particular spiritual author, look up his or her teaching schedule. What community is that author part of? Do they have anything near you? Being inquisitive about the things that already speak to you is a great place to start.
• Put yourself out there. Just show up somewhere. Register for a weekend program, drop in on a meditation open house, go to a talk. They’ll be glad to see you, and you might have an amazing experience. If you’re worried about being sucked into something kooky or cultish, just trust your own intelligence; if something doesn’t feel right, leave. But don’t give up looking for a community of genuine, dedicated practitioners—they do exist.
• The Medivate forum: an open-ended space for discussion around meditation. We hope it can help you connect to a community of committed meditators. You can join (or start!) specific groups, as well.
• Or you can contact us and describe the kind of meditation community you’re looking for and where you live, and we’ll see what we can find for you. (We’re not joking.)
We’d guess that at least some items on this list feel familiar to most people who have tried meditation. If we’re missing big ones, we’d love to hear about them. (Maybe meditation feels like you have to sneeze the whole time? That’d be terrible.) If there are enough common themes, we’d love to write a second part to this entry; and we’re happy to amend this entry too, if our advice seems off-base, or (especially) if there’s something you’d like to share that really helped you overcome one of these obstacles.
We really hope as many people as possible could develop a regular meditation practice; we think it’s the most wonderful thing you can do for yourself and others. To that end, we hope this entry has given you a bit of perspective on some of the common challenges that we’ve noticed, and pointed you toward some tools that you may enjoy playing around with.
Very best wishes!