When I ask people if they’ve ever tried meditation, they tend to answer: “I’ve tried, but I can’t meditate. It’s too hard.”
On the surface, this seems reasonable and logical. Meditation is hard, that’s true. You try it a few times and can’t do what you’re being asked. Forget maintaining attention – you can’t even sit still. Conclusion: you can’t meditate. Right?
But it’s not that simple. My view is that meditation is a steep learning curve and that often we begin with unrealistic ideas about it. Those ideas jeopardise us.
Let’s begin unravelling this subject by looking at your beliefs.
Can’t Meditate? Change Your Attitude
My mum always says: “I can’t means I won’t.” And it’s true. If you believe you somehow can’t meditate for some inherent reason, you simply won’t do it. Lo and behold, your behaviour will prove your original belief. This is a clear example of the Pygmalion Effect.
The key to learning how to meditate is to change that belief. Just stop believing it. It’s a struggle in the early weeks and months, I know. But consider that all learning journeys are like this, and it’s not because you’re inherently flawed or incapable.
Flip the whole thing around and see this as a crucial part of your path. You’re learning the fundamental skills of meditation and picking up vital lessons. Don’t try to skip this phase.
Besides, saying “I can’t meditate” is like saying “I can’t speak French”. Sure, maybe you can’t right now. And you shouldn’t expect to with little practice. But with consistent effort and the right instruction, you will learn.
Can’t Meditate? Change Your Expectations
Most people proclaim they can’t meditate because they’re comparing what happens in their meditation with a faulty precoceived idea about what “should” happen. Ridiculously common examples include:
- Meditation should be easy,
- Meditation should calm my mind and relax me,
- I should feel good,
- I shouldn’t have any thoughts,
- My attention should never get distracted.
If you hold any of these, it’s no wonder you’ve given up.
I’ve been doing this for over seven years, and I don’t hold any of these expectations. I don’t even think about them. Not only are they pretty much unattainable on a consistent basis, they’re not even the right goals.
Having such a goal, to return to our language analogy, is like wanting to learn French with little effort, constant motivation, and non-stop smiles and laughter. I’m sorry, but that’s simply not going to happen, and nor should it happen. Your goal is to learn French, not to have fun. And if you can’t bear some hard work, you’ll never learn it. The same goes with meditation.
Please, for your own sanity, drop these beliefs about meditation. They’re doing you no good.
My Experience: The Beginner’s Hump. I have a name for the difficult period when we first start out in a pursuit: The Beginner’s Hump. When I begin a new hobby or field of study, I expect to be terrible. But I have the experience to know that if I practice hard and stay on the path, I’ll eventually move beyond this challenging phase.
Here’s Your Goal For Meditation
Though I don’t know your long-term motivation for meditation, I can guide you as to what your goal before every practice session should be.
Here’s your ideal goal. And no, it’s not to relax, it’s not to empty your mind, it’s not to feel a certain way, and it’s not to experience 100% effortless attention.
Your ideal goal is to simply do the meditation to the best of your ability, focusing on skills, not states.
I know it sounds silly, but I’m serious. This is it. Follow the instructions you were given, whether you read them in a book or listen to them through an audio, and try to do the exercise as best you can, without wanting to feel a certain way.
And this isn’t a resignatory pat on the back, or “Oh well, at least you tried your best”. Fundamentally, your level of effort is all you can truly control in meditation.
Some days you’ll maintain your attention effortlessly. Other times you’ll be thinking non-stop about tomorrow’s dinner, the neighbour’s cat or your cousin Jackie’s wedding in 1983. Some days you’ll have pleasant reward states. Other days you’ll be suffering and facing unpleasant emotions, discomfort, boredom, and sleepiness all at once.
None of that matters so long as you try your best to do the meditation in spite of everything that’s going on. Ignore the content and focus on developing skills and following the instructions. Try your best, and you can’t fail.
And always remember: a good meditation is one that you do.
By developing this attitude early on, you’re preparing yourself for later in the journey, where your focus is less on immediate results and more on long-term dedication to the path, the subtleties of practice, and gradual positive transformation.
Can’t Meditate? Adopt These Attitudes for Meditation
While we’re at it, let’s touch on the key attitudes you need for meditation. This will help you adopt the right frame of mind and avoid early self-sabotage.
A lot of newbies betray a lack of equanimity or non-resistance. They grab on to certain experiences (joy, peace, relaxation, poise) and push away others (distraction, mind-wandering, discomfort, boredom).
If you want to make progress with meditation, it’s critical that you drop your resistance as much as possible to whatever comes up. As we’ve said, mindfulness meditation is less about what we experience and more about how we experience it. And a crucial part of optimally experiencing is to have as much equanimity as we can.
When I listen to people complaining of their inability to meditate, they often report that they tried meditating 10 minutes a day for a fortnight then gave up.
The lack of persistence is plain to see. Even if you were inherently incapable of meditating, 140 minutes of it isn’t enough to judge. It’s simply not enough time for you to interiorise the skills and for the meditation to take root.
In The Science of Meditation, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson study the best science behind meditation and conclude that a minimum of 1000 hours of formal practice is required for permanent changes to occur within us. Before that, the effects are fleeting and likely based on high expectations and placebo-like influences as opposed to real change.
This might be disheartening, but realise that this is the case in all areas of life. We need years of practice to get really good. That’s the price we pay for competence.
And it also shows us that meditation is real, not some flimsy, quick solution. Hard work is required.
The lesson? Be persistent over the course of months and years, and you’ll begin to see the power of meditation.
The next tip follows on nicely from the last. In mindfulness meditation, you get out what you put in, or you reap what you sow. Don’t complain that meditation is tough. Embrace it. See it as a kind of workout that builds the fundamental attention skills.
Meditation slowly alters how you experience and respond to life. There are a number of objective and lasting neurological and behavioural changes in long-term meditators. This is a practice that brings real long-term change and growth – expect to invest plenty up front.
Skeptical but Open-minded
If you come in believing that meditation will somehow solve all your issues in 30 days, you’re in for a shock. You’ll soon discover that the journey of spiritual growth and change is much longer and dirtier than we’d like. And those unrealistic expectations will cause you to quit before you really get started.
On the other hand, if you come in closed and resistant, you’ll likely find a tonne of evidence that meditation “doesn’t work”. You’ll take any sign of “failure” as a symptom of your apparent inability to meditate. This will only make you more closed and resistant, and you’ll give up.
The best attitude is somewhere in between: John Kabat-Zinn calls it “skeptical but open minded”.
On one hand, be skeptical. Realise that when you start out in any pursuit, your enthusiasm and excitement mean you tend to overestimate your progress. Use these emotions as fuel for practice, but temper them. Have a critical eye, and look out for changes to how you experience life, not what you experience. Don’t swallow the dogma that meditation is a kind of panacea. It’s not.
On the other hand, be open to change. Really listen to your instructors, attempting to set aside your preconceived ideas and previous learning. Only this way will the learning really sink in.
You can meditate. You just need the right guidance and the right attitude. Be prepared for a steep learning curve when you start out, and you’ll be more likely to stick with it long term.