I was naturally drawn to meditation and Buddhist teachings from a young age. However, when I was in my early twenties and finally took my first class, I was left confused. My first official meditation was a stark contrast to the prevalent imagery of a yoga teacher in lotus position with a blissful grin on her face - just looking like she was having a great fucking time.
It was agony.
45 minutes with only myself felt like an eternity. The rapidity of my thoughts was overwhelming. A non-stop thought train was rolling through my mind and it infuriated me. I was so irritated and actually left feeling more stressed, not less. I didn't understand what the point of sitting down and doing absolutely nothing was if I was just going to leave feeling worse. But, fast forward 5 years and hundreds of hours on a meditation cushion, and I can tell you it is so worth it.
Meditation change your life. I can say with 100 percent confidence that I have transformed as a result of my practice. I am happier and am able to approach life in a more balanced, calm, and focused way.
As you develop your own meditation practice, some challenges may pop up. Here are three big ones, and what you can do to overcome them:
Challenge #1 You can’t ‘clear your mind’
Good news, that’s not the goal anyways, so you're doing great. There’s a common misconception that the aim of meditation is to have no thoughts. Thoughts are inevitably going to pop up from time to time (even for advanced meditators). Think of the goal instead to be to view your thoughts objectively, without reacting emotionally to them or allowing them to carry you away.
If it helps, you can view your thoughts like helium balloons just floating up. Notice and acknowledge them, but don’t grasp for the string. The practice is to always come back to the breath, mantra, sensation, or whatever other point of concentration your using, without getting mad at yourself or frustrated for having the thought. Even simply noticing that the mind has wandered is a win because it means that you are able to observe the thought.
By not reacting and practicing the art of observation, we train our mind to react the same way to agitations in life. When something unpleasant comes up, we are able to step back and evaluate the situation calmly, to assess it from different perspectives, and to access higher thinking (when we get stressed about something our body responds and cuts off the connection to the higher brain – frontal cortex). We are literally dumber when we are stressed. Meditation can help.
Challenge #2 Physical Discomfort
You simply cannot manage to get comfortable… and all you can think about is how frustrating it is that you can’t get comfortable. There’s an ache or a pain here, you’re itchy, or your foot fell asleep.
Use this ‘challenge’ as an opportunity to strengthen your equanimity (mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation). Try to observe your pain objectively and for as long as you can – is the pain dull, sharp, throbbing? Where exactly is the pain located? Does the sensation move? With time you will lessen your identification with the pain as being 'yours'.
Try different meditation positions to find something that works for you. You don’t need to be sitting cross-legged to meditate ‘properly’. You can extend your legs, sit in a chair, sit against a wall, or ever lay down (not recommended for everyone as it’s especially easy to fall asleep). You can also use cushions or pillows under your knees for support.
Challenge #3 You get sleepy
When you first start a meditation practice, finding a balance between focus and relaxation can take some time. You may find that you nod off frequently. That’s perfectly normal.
Sleepiness can also be viewed as resistance: the mind or ‘ego’ can become sleepy as a way of preventing you from facing difficult thoughts or emotions. In our every day life, we often numb, or distract to avoid feeling difficult emotions, or thinking about our troubles. Meditation causes us to sit with them and feel our feelings, a necessary prerequisite to being free of the ones that weigh us down.
To prevent falling asleep, you could try and change the time of day that you meditate. If you meditate in the evening, you could try and meditate as soon as you wake in the morning instead. Also consider your position: try to sit up with a straight back. Lying down or slouching comfortably can make you sleepier. Avoid meditating in or around your bed if possible - your mind associates your bed with sleep.
Most importantly, as you develop in your practice, strengthen your self-compassion. You will take days, weeks, even months off. You will fall asleep sometimes. You will spend the whole 20 minute ‘meditation making grocery lists and thinking about what you’re going to wear to your cousin’s wedding’. Give yourself a break and allow yourself not to be perfect in your meditation practice. At the end of the say it’s all about self-love and judging yourself less. So do that.
If you have any questions about meditation or mindfulness, feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org!