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“Help! I’m Terrible at Meditating!”

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

Sound familiar? I hear this comment frequently, and four years ago, it’s something I said on a regular basis too, along with:

“I know meditating is powerful, but sitting still is torture!”

“There's so much to do. What a waste of time.”

“Am I doing this right? Nothing seems to be happening.”

And yet. . . and yet. . . I kept circling back to the idea that meditation would be good for me, that this habit would help me feel more grounded, at peace, and less anxious overall. Maybe even be life-changing?

Fast forward to today. Now you’ll find me with a fairly solid 20-minute meditation habit four or five times a week. Four years ago, that was unthinkable. And without a doubt, this new skill helps to steady me through life’s ups and downs. The intervening years had fits and starts as I found my way, but by always re-starting wherever I’d left off, by giving it one more go, I eventually got there.

So, what happened? A few things. And I share them here in case you’re considering or reconsidering meditation as one way (of many) to manage stress.

First - Make it Your Own

For me, this meant letting go of the image of sitting on a pillow with my legs crossed. I decided to try other options in addition to sitting (more on this later). I avoided locking into one specific school of meditation. I also committed to NOT TALKING about it - unless someone specifically asked. I put my energy into doing it instead.

Second - Take Continuous, Tiny Steps

I embraced the idea of a new concept I'd discovered: Kaizen. Kaizen is widely used in the business world, but I applied it to my personal life, reminding myself that tiny, continuous steps would lead to improvements. I set a timer for 1 minute, sat in a relatively quiet place, wearing comfortable clothes, closed my eyes, and if I made it until the timer beeped, well, YAY! When I mastered 1 minute, I upped it to two. And so on.

Third - Accept That Thoughts Are Always There

Somehow I’d internalized that meditation or mindfulness meant my head would be empty of thoughts. No wonder I resisted meditation or felt it “wasn’t for me.” Everyone’s mind works differently, but for me, thoughts are always popping up. (And sometimes my thoughts aren't super pleasant.) I rarely have a blank mind.

So instead of going for an empty mind, I learned the habit of noticing my thoughts, saying hi to them if I wanted to, and then letting them dissipate instead of giving them my attention and a life of their own by creating a whole story around them (e.g., taking the thought “obnoxious leafblower blasting away outside" into a full-blown diatribe entitled "Noise Pollution and Combustion Engines are Killing Our Planet.")

This step was a turning point for me. It was also one of the hardest skills to learn.

Last - Go Beyond Sitting

Lastly, I allowed myself ways of “meditating” outside of a typical sitting meditation. I discovered walking meditations. I started playing around with the idea of forest bathing. Most recently, I've built in time for regular 2-minute nature snacks when I'm working on the computer a lot.

What do I mean by nature snacks? I keep a small collection of natural objects on my desk. I'll set a timer for 2 minutes and spend that time using as many senses as possible to experience that single object: I'll notice color gradations or tiny details, how it feels to the touch, what it smells like, and whether there's a sound associated with it. Invariably, doing this leaves me softer and more relaxed on the inside. Just 2 minutes can restore and reset my focus.

In short, I stopped trying to “meditate the ‘right’ way” and experimented with ways that felt natural and meaningful to me. I stopped trying to turn it into something academically formal and had fun experimenting.

The weird thing? Four years later, I can now sit for 20 minutes with my eyes closed (on a pillow!) -- nearly every day.

Sometimes it's worth sticking with something that you're not naturally good at. Practicing a meditation habit definitely moves me in the direction of who I want to be. But life-changing? I’d say yes, with this caveat: your inner and outer landscape will change, but not at a pace akin to social media ad promises like "30 Days to a New You." More like the pace of a powerful glacier carving out a mountain valley that lasts for millennia.

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