For someone who finds meditation to be near impossible, I know a lot about it.
I've volunteered at meditation centers and immersed myself in the theory behind the practice, and I've read enough scientific studies, instructive texts, and self-help authors to be convinced of meditation's physical and metaphysical benefits.
By now, even the staunchest realist has been forced to admit that meditation can literally change the human brain. According to the neuroscientists at Psych Central, meditation can enlarge the prefrontal cortex, enhancing rational decision-making. It also can shrink the amygdala (the fear center of the brain); it can thicken the hippocampus, strengthening memory; and it can enhance gamma-wave activity, which can create peak experiences and blissful feelings. Meditation can also slow the aging process while increasing happiness, empathy and focus, soothing social anxiety and depression and easing addiction. Plus, no matter what the advertisement for a life-changing $2,000 course is telling you, it's free.
But intellectually knowing the benefits of meditation and actually reaping them are very different things. And the truth is, for me, actually meditating is actually quite hard and even painful.
I know I'm not alone. Many people find it hard to meditate, no matter how many times they hear the phrase "acknowledge the thought, then let it go" or "let your thoughts pass by like airplanes." But what if your thoughts are more like a cloud of locusts, berating you first with all the things you haven't done today and then coming at you with a million book ideas and TV pilot concepts and tasks that you must immediately complete or the world will end?
A busy mind is not a sign of failure. Most meditation teachers say that the point of meditation is not to quiet your consciousness; it's about relinquishing your identification with your thoughts, letting your sense of "I" dissolve. When that happens, there's nothing more or less than the stillness of breath and the profoundness of being completely in a moment, connected to the rest of the world.
Zen master Osho says, "People come to me and they ask, 'How to attain a peaceful mind?' I say to them, 'There exists nothing like that: peaceful mind. Never heard of it.' Mind is never peaceful; no-mind is peace. Mind itself can never be peaceful, silent. The very nature of the mind is to be tense, to be in confusion. Mind can never be clear, it cannot have clarity, because mind is by nature confusion, cloudiness. Clarity is possible without mind, peace is possible without mind; silence is possible without mind, so never try to attain a silent mind. If you do, from the very beginning you are moving in an impossible dimension."
Even knowing this, meditation can be difficult, especially for people who suffer from anxiety and chronic pain or for people who have kids or other distractions. Sometimes our thoughts are just simply too overwhelming, even unbearable to sit with for long periods of time.
In the spirit of self-improvement, here are a few hacks for people who hate meditating (though if you're like me, you've probably read them all before):
Try a walking or moving meditation
You don't have to be sitting still with your back straight and your hands posed perfectly in order to meditate. Meditation can be done literally anywhere—even while you're working or crying or performing any daily task—and walking meditations will sometimes make it easier to calm your body down, thus inviting your mind into a calmer state. As Bodhidharma said, "Not thinking about anything is Zen. Once you know this, walking, sitting, or lying down, everything you do is Zen."
2. Try meditating directly after exercising or while falling asleep
There's nothing like lying down for a meditation after a sweaty yoga class. Having just exercised, your body will be longing for the opportunity to be still, and you'll be feeling the boost of all those endorphins. Fitting your meditation directly after your exercise can be an effective way of circumventing a normally hyperactive mind. Pairing your meditation with another activity can help make it feel more natural
3. Try a writing meditation
Sometimes sitting still can feel like a challenge, especially if you're someone who tends to think of everything you forgot to do and every mistake you've ever made the moment you sit down to meditate. So simply free-writing can also be a form of meditation. Start by writing down any thought that comes to your mind, set a timer, and don't stop pouring out your thoughts until it's done. You just might find that after you clear away the immediate alarm bells, you'll be finding the silence or reflectivity you seek.
You might also practice a themed writing activity; for example, making a huge list of everything you're grateful for is always an excellent practice.
4. Totally embrace your thoughts
If it were easy to clear our minds, then we'd all instantly attain enlightenment. So since that's clearly not the case, at least judging by the state of this world and the state of Twitter at all hours of the night and day, we'll have to accept our own imperfections. The "falling leaves" meditation method advises wannabe meditators to simply let your thoughts explode and run wild, like autumn leaves in a windstorm. Watch them, but don't hold onto them. Accept the fact that meditation might dredge up some feelings you've been suppressing, and try not to identify with the feelings; explore them as if from above.
5. Commit to the practice, no matter how painful it is
Sadly, meditation may not be a relaxing, healing force for all of us. For some of us, it might be more of a specific task, a challenge like work or school or exercise, something that we have to do. Instead of hoping that meditation will help you find peace, treat it like any other task, something that your body is engaged with but that you aren't hoping will actively change your world or even your mood. If you're doing meditation right, eventually, you'll be able to detach from all expectations and desires, so you shouldn't have any desire for healing or happiness in the first place, just like you should no longer cling to the numbing distractions of this illusory world.
6. Create a ritual
As with all things in life, you can't just decide that you want to meditate and suddenly reap the benefits. You actually have to commit to a practice. It may be helpful to set a specific time and even to designate a specific place to meditate. You might enhance your experience by lighting candles or playing a soundbath, or burning incense, or reading a passage of your favorite scripture. If you practice this enough, your mind will recognize when it's time to meditate.
7. Use a pre-downloaded guided meditation
Guided meditations are double-edged swords. On one hand, it can be extremely helpful to have someone holding your hand as you walk down the path towards mindfulness and eventually freedom from the cycles of birth and death, but on the other hand, nothing is as distracting as a sudden YouTube ad. Try pre-downloading your meditations so you aren't at risk of getting distracted by all the options or potential pitfalls of the Internet, and turn your phone on airplane mode as you meditate.Yes, our fragile human minds are always buzzing with thoughts and concerns. The point of meditation isn't to shut off those concerns—it's to stop identifying with them, to instead become an observer. This allows us to deepen our compassion for the rest of the world, and to move through life with grace and stability.
Guided Meditation for Overthinking ~ You Are Not Your Thoughts www.youtube.com
But what if—in spite of knowing all of this—meditation is just impossible?
Maybe...it's not entirely your fault. Maybe it's because things are hectic and stressful and terrifying, and many of us have to find ways to compensate and tune it out for our own survival and well-being. Maybe it's because the world is actually pretty messed up, and no amount of deep breathing can fix that. Maybe the modern wellness industry has completely distorted the goal of meditation, which was never to stop caring about things or to stop feeling or to become a productive machine.
Perhaps this is bad meditation advice, but here it is: If meditation as you're practicing it now is really excruciating, maybe you're just not meant to meditate in the traditional sense right now. Maybe your form of meditation is cooking, or protesting, or making music. Maybe it's just gratitude or even just accepting your emotions as they are.
Everyone has a different way of understanding meditation, and if you're seriously struggling, maybe you just haven't found the form of understanding that's right for you.
The right approach can make all the difference. Here's hoping that one of these days, we'll all develop a better meditation practice, one that exposes us to extended moments of perfect understanding (that we eventually learn to stop clinging to because they also don't exist).
Here's hoping that we all heal, by slowly realizing how little we (or what we consider to be "we") matter, and by deepening our connection to the world around us. In the meantime, here's to being distracted and flawed and imperfect, and questioning our definition of perfection. Here's to forgiving ourselves when we fail, time and time again, and trying again the next day. Here's to f*cking hating meditating and trying anyway.