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Seeing Through “I Can’t Meditate”

I Can't Meditate

So many people stop meditating because they “can’t do it.”

I’ve been giving weekly meditation instruction at a small business, and today, we were joined by an employee I hadn’t met before. I asked if she’d ever meditated, and she said, “A few times—not very successfully.”

This is probably the most common response I get when I ask about people’s meditation backgrounds. Most people have tried meditation at least once—and many of them quickly stopped after coming to the conclusion that they “can’t do it.”

What’s Going On Here?

Is meditation really impossible for so many people? If so, what reserves meditation for a privileged, serene few?

Here, I think, is the real cause of “I can’t meditate”:

Many people incorrectly believe that meditation requires you to stop thinking.

This single misconception may be the biggest reason why so many people give up on meditation before ever really engaging with it.

You Don’t Have to Stop Thinking

Meditation is not about eliminating thought.

Meditation, in any authentic form I’m aware of, is not about eliminating thought. It’s not about “clearing” or “emptying” your mind, or finding a serene place “away from” your everyday worries and distractions.

On the contrary, any authentic meditation practice needs to have a friendly relationship with thoughts. After all, thoughts, emotions, and mental activities are an inherent part of the human experience; they are part of what it means to be human. And meditation is about making friends with ourselves.

Any meditation tradition that believes some version of either “thoughts are unnatural afflictions” or “meditation is about rejecting our humanity and becoming something better” doesn’t sound like one I’d want to associate with.

You Can’t Stop Thinking

Since thought is a natural process, it’s happening all the time. Anyone who tries to stop thinking in meditation hits an immediate brick wall: “I have to stop thinking” is itself a thought.

If you view thoughts as an enemy, you’ll panic anytime you hear the voice in your head.

It may be possible to resolve this paradox, temporarily, by simply relaxing your conceptual mind. But because you’ve begun viewing thoughts as a mortal enemy, you’re on thin ice: the first time the voice in your head starts back up, you’ll panic—and the result will be an avalanche of thoughts.

Why Even Try?

So stopping thoughts is either impossible or close to it. Now let’s think about it: Why would we try?

Whose example are we following? Most great spiritual teachers were also writers, and for this they needed thoughts. (Words don’t just appear on the page, they arise in mind first.) Are we willing to give up literacy—as our spiritual heroes did not—simply because it makes thoughts appear?

What about the thoughts that led to the development of, for example, antibiotics? Thoughts have the power to create enormous good. Do we just leave that to the non-meditators?

Or maybe we’re willing to let meditation be an alien process where we “zone out” for some amount of time, before returning to a thought-filled life that our meditation practice has nothing to do with. Isn’t that a bit weirder and more disconnected than we’d want our spiritual life to be?

Think About It!

Thoughts are not our enemy; they’re a natural part of what it means to be human.

Thoughts are not our enemy; they’re a natural part of what it means to be human. We can write poetry, think “I love you,” plan surprise birthday parties—even remember where we left our car keys—all because of thoughts.

You Can Meditate!

So if you’ve fallen victim to “I can’t meditate” because your thoughts just won’t go away, then I have great news: You’re a perfectly put-together human being, exactly like all the great meditators of the past and present, and exactly whom meditation was designed to help.

So now what? I’ve started another post on how we should work with thoughts in meditation if we’re no longer trying to banish them. Please look for that soon. In the meantime, if you have any comments or questions, I’d be delighted to talk to you. Leave a reply below, or feel free to contact me directly. Happy meditating!