Why do people find meditation so difficult?

Updated: Mar 17, 2019

I have been teaching people how to meditate for over a decade and it strikes me how many of them give up because they feel they are not able to do it right. I should point out that it is mindfulness meditation that I teach because the term 'meditation' covers a multitude of different practices. It has been likened to the word 'sports'. Sports cover all kinds of different activities like running, rowing, fishing and snooker which have little in common except that they usually include physical and mental skill and the word 'sport'! Meditation on the other hand usually involves focusing the mind in some way but that's where the obvious similarities end and the purpose and expected results vary enormously between different types of meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is widely associated with Buddhism although Buddhist practices also vary greatly. But in it's most straight foreword form it usually involves focusing the attention on ones breath and keeping it focused for a period of time. So what is it that people find difficult about that? Firstly it is very difficult to keep your attention focused on your breath because it is rather boring and your mind wants to wander to more interesting or pressing subjects. Secondly nothing seems to happen except your mind wants to wander. This results in you constantly having to notice when your attention has drifted away from your breath to something more interesting and the effort to bring it back to the boredom of your breath.

The most common complaints I hear from people who have tried to meditate is that they can't stay focused on their breath because their mind keeps wandering and that they can't empty their mind because it keeps filling up with thoughts and daydreams so they end up frustrated and feeling that they can't do it. Many people also complain that they don't relax and feel calm. These are the most common misconceptions about mindfulness meditation, that it is quick, easy and that it is a relaxation technique.

If you think of meditation like you think about taking physical exercise to improve your physical fitness and suppleness, you would not expect improvements in your body without putting in some effort and time and let's be honest some discomfort if not pain. Let's say you decide to get fit and take the stairs instead of the elevator. The first time you climb the stairs you will be breathless, sweating and fatigued but you wouldn't say you are doing the stairs wrong. You are more likely to notice you are less fit than you realised and hopefully be more motivated to continue with the effort.

Let me suggest that the wandering mind is the same as noticing how unfit your body is when you first take some physical exercise like taking the stairs. You are noticing how distractible and unfocused your mind has become. Like the effort of lifting your legs up another stair, the effort of noticing your mind has wandered again and bringing it back to your breath is exercising your brain. Over time it is more able to focus your attention and not become lost in stressful or useless thoughts and the uncomfortable emotions that these thoughts usually produce.

So when someone tells me that they find meditation difficult because their mind keeps wandering and it is an effort to keep bringing their attention back to the focus on their breath, I congratulate them because they were meditating. Your mind throws up thoughts because that's what it is meant to do. It's trying to get your attention and it learns the type of thoughts that work best. These are usually stressful thoughts about the things that worry you or the things that you desire and they are accompanied by the usual unpleasant emotions which help to keep them on your mind. By practising moving your attention away from these thoughts and back to your breath, your attention becomes stronger and your brain realises these thoughts are no longer working so they quieten down somewhat. This is how, over time the mind becomes quieter and the emotions calmer.

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