When Meditation Challenges You: Why are you struggling & what can you do?

When we add mindfulness practices to our lives, a journey begins. And, the simplest meditation practices we do are, in their classical form, often the most difficult. 

The mind that we call the “Western mind” is accustomed to analytical perspectives and cause-effect relationships. When an interpretation or a judgment appears in our minds or when a chain of thought begins, we act under the premise that it’s good and correct to keep it going. We approach incidents and situations from a problem-solving perspective. Since this is a preferred way of thinking in society, we’re not used to understanding situations and incidents as just experiences. Additionally, we’re always rushing from one moment to the next. The more items we can cross off on the to-do list, the more work we can fit into a day, the better. That’s why meditation practices can be quite challenging for many people, especially in the beginning.

Things get a little more complicated when different ideas and lots of information about how meditation should be done start piling up around you. For example, when you think of meditation, do you think of a figure sitting cross-legged in a quiet, peaceful environment with eyes closed? In fact, there’s neither a particular form nor an ideal setting or mood you have to have in order to meditate. 

The form of meditation depicted in Buddhism only advises us to observe the breath and slow down the interpretations of the mind a little. And yet, what could be more natural than having a hard time meditating and thinking that this practice isn’t for you?

Everyone struggles at one point or another in their practice. When we start meditating, most of us think that there’s something wrong with us. There may be moments when you realize that your thoughts won’t leave you alone, that you get stuck at even the slightest sound in the house. This is very natural… Relax! In fact, all this is a part of your experience and a process that almost everyone who’s unfamiliar with meditative practices goes through. Let’s look at some of the challenging situations that many of us often come across so that you can look at them from a different perspective and move forward in your own practice.

If you’re having difficulty meditating, you can try asking yourself this question: “How was my meditation experience?” Answer: It was challenging because…

1. The Mind: “My thoughts won’t stop.” 

This is one of the most common phrases for beginners: “My thoughts won’t stop.” In fact, I was one of those who coined this phrase! After several meditation practices in the yoga classes I attended, I came to the conclusion that: “My thoughts never stop, so I can’t meditate.”

At that time, I didn’t know that the duty of the mind is to think, that it’s not possible to stop thoughts anyway, and that everyone experiences this situation.

In order to meditate, you have to be willing to look at the structure of the mind. The point of isn’t to stop thoughts, as they’re not very inclined to stop. There’s a metaphor that I think might shed some light on the relationship between the mind and meditation: Think of a river flowing at full speed. Let this river be the river of your thoughts. Actively thinking is like throwing yourself into the river. You have no vehicles, no tools, and you can only go wherever the flow of water or the slope of the river takes you. What’s more, you have to go. So, you’re going to be thrown into places completely involuntarily and it’s a never-ending stream. Think about it, is it possible to stop the river?

There are trees by the river you can hold onto and when you catch the branch of a solid, rooted tree reaching toward you, you can stop and watch the river flow by. The rushing water, all the living creatures, and plants are in front of you. You’re not interfering with the river, you’re simply watching it without being a part of the river.

Meditating is just like watching the river. That’s why it’s important to maintain your focus and inner discipline by holding onto whatever solid tree branch you can find. Getting lost in thought is like falling into a river over and over again. The first step of mindfulness starts here. If you can catch the moments when you’re lost in thought, that’s a great start. Every time you realize this, try to get yourself ashore by holding onto that branch again. You can think of this branch as an anchor that keeps you steady and prevents you from getting swept away with the current.

We usually choose either the breath or a bodily sensation as our anchor in meditation. You must try to concentrate on the anchor without forcing yourself, but with gentle insistence as if you were encouraging a child. After repeating the cycle of contemplation and remembering the anchor a few times, you’ll see your focus return on its own!

2. External Factors: “The bell rang and I got distracted.”

When you think of meditation, you may think of a monk sitting alone on a mountain. Absolute silence, a state of complete peace and tranquility… In real life, unfortunately, things aren’t like that! Especially if you live in big cities or crowded and noisy neighborhoods… Moreover, almost all of us share our homes with others. Your roommate, family, partner, or pet may make it difficult to create the ideal environment for you to meditate. While there are some precautions you can take, these factors are beyond your control and your measures may not always work. At this point, you can make those external factors a part of your meditation. But, how?

Communicate & set boundaries

You can take measures to ensure that your meditation practice is minimally affected by the environment around you. For example, you can turn off your phone completely, keep other electronic devices off, or shut the windows.

If you live with other people, you can ask them not to contact you in any way while you’re meditating unless it’s very urgent, or you can put up a “Do not disturb” sign on your door just like in a hotel room.

If it’s still too difficult for you to find a quiet spot, you can try wearing soundproof headphones or earplugs. You can also try changing your meditation environment or time. For example, you can try meditating on the balcony, at a friend’s house, or in a park near you. 

Include external influences in your meditation

We can’t always control the noice from the street, the kitchen, or our neighbor’s loud music. We call the focused state in meditation “mindfulness.” In fact, this is a state in which we’re aware of everything that’s happening, including all sensory stimuli around us, while still maintaining our focus separate from these things.  

So, as you continue your meditation with the anchor you’ve chosen, you must allow the sounds around you to pass through your field of awareness. Let’s continue with the river example… Say you notice that a leaf suddenly falls into the river, would you be meditating if you dove into the water and grabbed the leaf? Instead, just like your thoughts, let the river flow. All bodily sensations, stimuli, and thoughts are a series of experiences. Experiences pass that pass on by moment to moment. You can get angry at the sounds or you can understand that you hear them and continue on with your practice.

Meditations focusing on emotions

Instead of seeing external factors as an obstacle, dance along with them! But, how? You know, we mentioned having an anchor earlier… Here, try choosing one of your senses as that anchor. For example, you can do a meditation that’s centered on your sense of hearing. 

You can do this by focusing on the sounds around you, or by finding a sound that helps you stay focused. Maybe that’s a piece of music that you play in the background as you meditate that helps you stay rooted in the present without pulling your focus out of your practice. You can do this with any of your senses depending on how you’re feeling in the moment. 

3. Emotions: “I felt challenging emotions.”

When we focus our attention inward, we usually notice the mind (our thoughts) or the body (our senses or sensations) first. Recognizing and naming our emotions is a bit more difficult because we often make judgments about the situation that’s making us feel that emotion rather than staying in that feeling.

However, when we’re feeling an emotion very intensely, it can be very difficult to focus our attention inward. Moreover, the intensity of this emotion can increase even more during meditation. The first thing you need to know is that you shouldn’t force yourself into feelings that strain or alarm you a lot.

Challenging emotions often involve an experience, an emotional reaction to that experience, and secondary emotions brought about by interpretations of that experience. What we call an emotional response includes both the effect of this event on our nervous system, certain hormones, and sensations such as temperature, pressure, and pain. In other words, the emotion itself is mostly a more bodily and reflexive response. The reason we stay in that emotion for long periods of time is because we add thoughts and interpretations to that emotion. So, how can you shape your meditation practice when you’re experiencing challenging emotions?

If the emotions you’re going through are so intense that they prevent you from physically standing or cause you to react by crying or shouting, mindfulness meditations may not be suitable for you at this point. Instead, during times like these, you may benefit from dynamic meditations where you dance, shake your body, or use your voice (like chanting mantras). The important thing here is to make whatever action you’re taking your anchor. If you’re singing, your attention should be entirely on your voice and the vibrations it creates throughout your body. If you’re dancing, your focus should be on the movement of your body and how your body feels moving. 

Emotions are reactions of the body and when these emotions go unexpressed, they become trapped within us, our minds left trying to interpret them to complete the incomplete process. However, when we express our feelings as physical energy, our system relaxes. That’s why expressing yourself in non-destructive ways can help get rid of this excess energy. To do this, you can try to express yourself through an artistic medium. You can paint the color and shape of your feelings without focusing on aesthetic or artistry. Another option can be moving your body for as long as you need (you can start with 5 minutes), then sitting down and focusing your awareness inward.

If you’re experiencing such intense emotions that you can’t do these suggestions, I would definitely recommend working with a facilitator to take a closer look at this sensitive area and see where you’re getting stuck. This could be a therapist, someone you trust, or an expert guide. In this case, it’s perfectly normal to pause your meditation practice for a while.

4. I’m Unable to Stay Present: “I’m bored.”

Being bored can be a common problem not only for those who practice meditation but also for almost everyone. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s released in our brain that’s involved in feelings of pleasure and reward. It acts as a bridge between two nerves and gets reabsorbed for reuse again and again. However, if we’re constantly releasing dopamine, we’ll begin to experience dopamine deprivation after a while. So, what does this mean exactly?

There are many actions and items that bring us a sense of reward after completing a job. For example, getting a high score on a test, having a successful meeting, or consuming sugar or caffeine… Encountering completely new things that we’ve not seen before are among the biggest dopamine triggers. With the world of social media and the internet, this search for innovation means that we can access dozens of photos, new clothes, or the details of a newly discovered scientific subject in seconds. This means a constant release of dopamine. 

The amount of dopamine in our body is limited. That’s why when we overuse the existing dopamine, situations that would normally create a dopamine response are no longer interesting to us. In other words, we’re so accustomed to being constantly stimulated by difference and innovation that daily life no longer feels pleasant enough. So, we feel “bored.” Of course, this may not be the only reason for getting bored in meditation. I have a few suggestions for situations where you feel bored, but you should know that meditation, which feels like “stopping and doing nothing” creates a boredom response in many of us…

There’s no such thing as being bored!

Meditation isn’t just sitting and observing your breath. It’s about focusing on yourself and honestly looking at all of your states of being. Ask yourself what you really mean when you say, “I’m bored.” Is your body struggling to stay still and wanting to move? Is your mind unable to stay in the moment and traveling to the past or the future?

When we say “I’m bored,” what we actually mean is that we somehow dislike the situation we’re currently experiencing. In the context of meditation, this occurs when there’s a situation we usually avoid. For example, there may be situations that ruin your mood when you think about them and you’re just alone with your thoughts. Likewise, emotions, bodily pains, or illnesses may trigger avoidance. I invite you to explore what being bored actually means to you. Maybe if you turn to different meditation techniques for the answer, you’ll discover something new about yourself.

More serene choices

First, try to eliminate some of the things that set your mind in motion. If possible, practice meditation right after you wake up. That way, you can start meditating without looking at your phone or making any contact with the outside world. Your mind is often the least active in the morning or before engaging with screens and you can use the freshness of waking up from sleep to propel you into your practice.

If you consume caffeine or similar stimulant foods and beverages (cocoa, green tea, fizzy drinks, etc.), you can try to reduce your intake. Even if you don’t remove them from your daily life entirely, you can at least try to meditate before consuming them. In addition, when the stomach is relatively empty and your body’s not actively digesting, your nervous system is better prepared for meditation. If being hungry isn’t your thing, you can help your mind focus by meditating after large meals.

You can also try to distance yourself from momentary pleasures such as using social media, consuming sugary foods, or tobacco products. With a bit of effort, it’s possible to bring our relationship with dopamine closer to the default. Thus, you can discover the joyous side of such moments by looking at the actions that seem ordinary and boring to you from a fresh perspective.

Sensory meditations

Meditating by activating our physical senses can be very beneficial for everyone. Before you start meditating, be sure to tire your body out, even for a short time. That could look like jumping to a song for a few minutes, as putting your feet on the ground can take the sharp focus of your mind to a whole new level. 

I highly recommend keeping your eyes open while meditating for these kinds of meditations. Examine the colors and details of your environment with childlike curiosity. Our mind is like a rather shy and grumpy child. It’s up to you to choose the object you want to focus on for each meditation. There’s a method for everyone! Just try not to quit your practice the moment you feel bored.

meditation

5. The Unknown: “I don’t know.”

You’re having trouble meditating, but you don’t know why. Although you can’t exactly define this state, the uncomfortable feeling of the unknown is also very normal human experience. Our mind works within cause and effect relationships, trying to complete everything that’s left unfinished. That’s why the lyrics of songs get stuck in our heads, or we can’t stop thinking about it when we can’t remember a word.

Uncertain situations have the same effect. We feel uncomfortable when there’s a void. “Unknown” almost always triggers a state of fear and alarm because we perceive not knowing as the equivalent of life-threatening. When we feel threatened, the sympathetic nervous system gets activated. However, the parasympathetic nervous system gets activated when we meditate, helping to calm us down. 

If you can’t find out why you’re having trouble, you can review the reasons above and look for the source of your uneasiness. Continuing your meditation practice with patience and stability will help you get to know yourself better and more easily identify the obstacles that come your way over time.

If the unknown itself is an obstacle for you, your fears may be a little more prominent right now. You can try using methods that will relax the nervous system. For example, try meditating after taking a warm shower or taking a walk in nature. Practice the meditation for a while without closing your eyes, then maybe try keeping your eyes closed again as you start to feel more comfortable.

If these suggestions don’t work, you can try taking mindfulness breaks instead of forcing yourself to meditate. Mindfulness practices include a wide variety of methods you can easily add to your daily life. If you want to explore these methods more closely, you can benefit from this article.

By starting with 5 to 10 minutes and focusing on yourself and your body in your daily life, you can search for answers to these questions:

How am I breathing right now?

Are you holding your breath? Are your breaths short or relaxed and long?

What am I thinking right now?

If there’s a thought that crosses your mind, write it down immediately. Is that a thought from the past, the future, or your judgment or interpretation of a situation? Add this as a note too.

How and what is my body feeling right now?

How are you feeling physically today? Energetic, light, rested, or tired… Do you have a particular pain or a part that you that feels stronger? Your body is your instrument for experiencing this life. As we connect with it more frequently, we begin to feel more trust and less fear.

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