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How to Overcome Beginner's Frustration With Meditation

It's not easy to quiet the mind, but these tips can help you do it

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Have you been meditating lately? If so, you've got lots of company, as people the world over have embraced the practice to find calm and comfort during the coronavirus pandemic. But if you've tried it and quickly given up, you have a lot of company, meditation experts say.

Many people “notice that they have trouble maintaining a practice even though they go into their meditation habit with a lot of enthusiasm,” says Dan Harris, an ABC News journalist who wrote the best-selling, often humorous 2014 book 10% Happier, after an on-air breakdown spurred him to try meditation. He writes about how challenging it was to embrace the practice and slow his constantly running mind, but he did. And as he puts it, “If it can work for a restless, skeptical newsman, it can work for you.” Just maybe not the first time.

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"I like to remind people that it's totally natural to fall off the wagon and you can start again,” says Harris, who created a Ten Percent Happier app and podcast. “You just need to approach this whole endeavor with a sense of experimentation and exploration."

Many novice meditators may need that kind of encouragement right around now. The Ten Percent app saw a doubling of new users early in the pandemic. Headspace, another popular meditation app, reported similar growth. And meditation was already gaining in popularity: The share of U.S. adults who said they meditated in the previous year rose from 4 percent to 14 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are many kinds of meditation, meant to induce mental states ranging from spiritual enlightenment to loving kindness. But the most widely practiced types are broadly labeled “mindfulness meditation.” The basics: You focus on your breath, the sounds around you or some other anchor while you let your thoughts and other distractions come and go, without judgment.

That mental exercise is like a “flight simulator” for life, says Ralph De La Rosa, a meditation teacher and psychotherapist who is the author of Don't Tell Me to Relax: Emotional Resilience in the Age of Rage, Feels, and Freak Outs. “If you can focus on keeping your composure while you are being distracted over and over again and maintaining a sense of kindness and centeredness and balance throughout that process, you are cultivating a skill that will serve you well.”

But it's not clear how many people who try meditation stay with it long enough to see its many health benefits (see our story), which studies have shown can include lowered anxiety, depression, insomnia and blood pressure, as well as slower brain aging, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

If you are ready to try meditation for the first time or once again, here are a few obstacles you may face and how to overcome them.

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You think you don't have time

New meditators often set overly ambitious initial goals, such as meditating for 20 minutes twice a day, Harris says. He recommends “setting a lower bar.” You might start with just one minute “daily-ish,” he says, to build confidence and motivation to do more.

Meditation teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., says that “research shows that even a short amount of meditation, a few minutes a day, can make a real difference.”

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The goal is to make meditation a habit, as regular as brushing your teeth, the experts say. “The best thing to do is to have a plan” and to follow through, no matter what, De La Rosa says.

Some people like to meditate first thing in the morning, but others prefer tacking meditation onto their lunch break or some other daily habit, and any time is fine, says Rae Houseman, head of coaching at Ten Percent Happier.

You think you're doing it wrong

"No one wants to do something they think they are failing at,” says Brach, author of an upcoming book called Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness.

New meditators often lament that they are failing to clear their minds or quiet their thoughts. But that reveals a common misconception, Harris says: “The whole goal of the practice is to notice when you become distracted, and start again and again. Every time you start again, it's like a bicep curl for your brain.” During a meditation session, Brach says, “your only job is to come into stillness and pay attention as well as you can."

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You get distracted by aches and pains

If even the thought of sitting cross-legged on a cushion makes your back hurt, Houseman has good news: “There's no need to sit in any particular position.” You can sit in a chair, stand, lie down or even walk while meditating, she says.

Still, many people will notice physical discomfort as they meditate. One strategy is to notice the discomfort and “allow it,” Brach says. “I encourage people to think of difficulties as weather systems or waves in the sea that come and go. Meditation helps you to ride the wave.” Another approach, she says, is to adjust your position, with feelings of kindness toward yourself. Different approaches are right for different people at different times, she says.

You fall asleep

If you start to doze off, “there's nothing wrong with you,” Houseman says. “It doesn't mean you can't meditate.” Instead, you can note the sleepiness with some “curiosity,” she says. “Notice the sensations, the overwhelming pleasantness.” The act of noticing, she explains, may make you more alert. It's also OK, she adds, to open your eyes or stand up as you continue meditating.

You get bored and your mind wanders

The prescription, again, is to “bring more interest to what you are actually experiencing,” to note it and let it be, Houseman says.

Brach adds that it's always good to try new styles or modes of meditating — with support from the many books, online videos and apps (popular ones, in addition to Ten Percent Happier and Headspace, include Calm, Insight Timer and Waking Up) that offer thousands of unique meditations. Brach's website offers a free 40-day meditation course. You're likely to find one guide (or many) that speaks to you.

As COVID-19 restrictions ease, consider in-person classes and retreats. “We have to keep it fresh,” Brach says. Practicing with other people lets you see that others are facing the same challenges you face, she notes. “It helps us lighten up on ourselves.”

3 Surprising Benefits of Meditation

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