“I Can’t Meditate!”: Why Meditation Can Sometimes Feel So Hard, and 4 Steps to Work with the Challenge

Working with meditation challenges

Does the phrase “I can’t meditate!” sound familiar? If so, read on. We can all meditate—we just have to know how to work with the challenges that arise in our practice.

I have taught hundreds of adults and children how to meditate over the last ten years. Over and over again I hear the same questions: “Why is meditation so hard?” “Am I the only one who can’t sit still?” “I just can’t stop thinking. Am I just not built to meditate?”

Nowadays, most people have had some kind of exposure to meditation, especially mindfulness. Therapists are now as likely to recommend meditation for stress and anxiety as medications. Numerous scientific studies show that meditation can lead to lower blood pressure, improved sleep, pain control, greater attention span, even help with addiction recovery and depression. So if “I can’t meditate!” is true in our case, we’re missing out on a lot.

With all this attention and encouragement, why do so many of us still struggle with meditation? Why does a practice with such simple instructions—sit still and notice your breath, try not to pass judgment, and observe what happens—seem so fiendishly difficult to do that it can take a lifetime (or even multiple lifetimes, according to Buddhist thought) to master? Why is meditation so hard, and what can we do about it?

1. Working with “I Can’t Meditate!”: Relax Judgment

“Whatever arises is fresh,
The essence of realization.”

Traditional Tibetan Buddhist chant

Many of us come to meditation with the goal of taking a break from our frantic, busy, frustrating, overwhelming modern lives. We are looking for calm and peace, but when we finally get a chance to sit, we may be overwhelmed with a racing mind full of thoughts and a restless heart that can’t calm down. It can feel like the exact opposite of what we hope to achieve.

If we’re overwhelmed by thoughts during meditation, we shouldn’t worry that there’s anything wrong with us.

Seeing a roomful of other meditators, with good postures and placid faces, only reinforces a sense that there is something wrong with us, that we can’t meditate, that we’re doing something wrong. At worst it can feel like a betrayal of the promise of meditation that so many doctors, celebrities, and friends have made.

First of all, from my own experience and that of my students over the years, this is a very common and understandable reaction. It doesn’t mean you can’t meditate. It doesn’t mean you are uniquely bad at meditating.

It just means you are a human being taking the first courageous step towards letting go of controlling your experience and distracting yourself from what’s painful, annoying or otherwise  unpleasant. Meditation is about noticing what arises in the present moment—whatever it is—withholding judgment, without bias, and with acceptance and self-compassion. That includes explicitly not forcing yourself to be calm and relax if that’s anything but what you’re feeling.

Meditation is about noticing what arises in the present moment. That includes not forcing yourself to be calm and relax if that’s anything but what you’re feeling.

It might not be pretty, it might not be fun, it might not even be that interesting. But one thing it is, is real. It is your very own unique, genuine experience in that particular moment. And because of that it is beautiful and precious and worthy of notice. 

Sound intriguing? Read on.

2. Working with “I Can’t Meditate!”: Keep Your Eyes on the Process, Not the Prize

“Meditation is a process of lightening up, of trusting the basic goodness of what we have and who we are, and of realizing that any wisdom that exists, exists in what we already have. We can lead our life so as to become more awake to who we are and what we’re doing rather than trying to improve or change or get rid of who we are or what we’re doing. The key is to wake up, to become more alert, more inquisitive, and curious about ourselves.”

Pema Chödrön

Has this ever happened to you at a meditation class, or perhaps while following a guided meditation on an app? The soft voice of the meditation teacher has gently helped you to find the correct posture, how to focus on and return back to the breath, instructed you on how to hold a soft gaze and what exactly a half-smile is supposed to look like. You are trying your best to ignore the stabbing pain in your hip and wondering if you can keep still for the next 10 minutes. 

You try harder to relax, or stay awake, or ignore the pain, or remember the instructions, or where the heck your breath went.

The bell rings after 10 minutes and you realize you’ve been writing a shopping list in your head and planning out the dinner menu. How do I know this so well? Because this has happened to me, more times than I can count over the years. 

Meditation is called a practice because it is a skill that is learned gradually, over time.

Meditation is called a practice because it is a skill that is learned gradually, over time. It is a period to practice the skills that will help us eventually find the peace and calm we all want to achieve right away.  You might have practiced throwing a ball, or learning an instrument for years before mastering it, and the same goes for meditation. If you’re wondering, “Why is meditation so hard?” it might be helpful to think in these terms.

You can’t learn tennis from reading about it or watching a YouTube video; you have to practice it on the court. In the case of  meditation, you’ll need to practice on the cushion, walking slowly, or maybe while eating or washing the dishes. A little bit every day seems to work for most people. 

Practicing a little bit every day works best for most people. 

Be curious. Be alert. Wake up and see what you see without trying to change anything. Figure out what works for you, for where you are right now, with your life history, and your way of seeing the world.

3. Working with “I Can’t Meditate!”: Relax and Drop the Practice

“‘That,’ said the Buddha, ‘is how to practice: not too tight and not too loose.'”

traditional Buddhist story

In the rest of our lives, it often feels like if something is difficult, we just need to try harder, keep at it until we succeed. Why do meditation teachers often say that working harder doesn’t really help in meditation? Why do they recommend to just “let go,” “drop the practice”—and what does that really mean?

As Pema Chödrön teaches, if you are too loose—not paying enough attention—it’s a problem. But it’s also a problem if you’re too tight, trying too hard, metaphorically (or maybe really)  gritting your teeth as you follow the instructions.

Chögyam Trungpa writes that self-compassion isn’t just nice to have, it is an absolutely essential ingredient in practicing meditation at all. The process of “trying harder” often involves judging ourselves for being restless, trying to figure out what’s wrong with our technique, and the like. And then, if we realize we are judging ourselves, we might start beating ourselves up for that too. And so this negative and self-reinforcing cycle takes another turn. 

Drop the practice, stop beating yourself up, and just sit there. Don’t try to do anything.

What a radical and liberating suggestion it is at this point to be told, drop the practice, stop beating yourself up and just sit there. Don’t try to do anything. See what happens if you stop comparing yourself to others, stop judging yourself. And if you find yourself judging yourself for judging yourself, give yourself some self-compassion, find the humor in the situation and try to drop that moment of self-judgment too. 

Don’t believe me? Try it out yourself. Set your timer for 5 minutes and try sitting while purposefully telling yourself you’re not working hard enough, you’re doing it wrong, you need to try harder.

How did that feel?

Now set the timer again for 5 minutes and sit. This time if a feeling of self-doubt or self-judgment comes up, meet it with self-compassion. Tell yourself you’re okay, you are just another human being and anything, anything you are thinking or feeling is okay in the moment and worthy of notice. That you are not a failure or a monster or hopeless . You are just you in this moment, and seeing it clearly, genuinely, and with kindness, return to the feeling of the breath in your body, the felt sense of being alive.

What was your experience this time? Which way would be more likely to lead you to practice again?

4. Working with “I Can’t Meditate!”: Show Up When It’s Hard

Practicing meditation is not just for the easy days.

Practicing meditation is not just for the good days, the calm days, the easy days, where the time flies by on your cushion and you get up ready to meet the day. Those days do happen, more so the the longer you studies and practices meditation.

But for all meditators there is tremendous benefit in showing up on the hard days, the gloomy days, the days where you feel overwhelmed and can’t see a way out. These are the times that challenge and teach us as nothing else can do. As Shelley Pierce, a long time teacher at the Seattle Shambhala Center, has taught, “These are the juicy moments.” Showing up on those days allows us to apply a clear, honest, observing eye to these powerful emotions and feelings. It helps us build compassion with ourselves and anyone who has also felt this way. It gives us the perspective we need to meet these feelings during the parts of our lives that are not on the cushion.

If we also show up on the days we are feeling anxious, depressed, restless, or frustrated, we will develop the skills to meet even those emotions with grace and balance.

If we only practice on the days we are already calm, we will become really proficient at sitting with calmness. But if we also show up on the days we are feeling anxious, depressed, restless, or frustrated, we will develop the skills to meet even those emotions with grace and balance.

As human beings we will always face challenges. What meditation can provide, with practice, is a new way of relating to our many experiences: making a new relationship with our feelings and emotions, not eliminating them altogether. 

What’s Your Experience?

Have you faced these challenges? What has been your experience? What in your own practice has left you wondering, “Why can’t I meditate?” or “Why is meditation so hard”—and what have you done to work with it? Let me know in the comments below and hopefully I’ll be able to address them in a future post.

In the meantime, if you are looking for good books on mediation, especially for beginners or those interested in a refresher, take a look at my previous post, Best Meditation Books for Beginners: 9 Classics to Get You Started.

What about a class? You can find a local Shambhala center with classes and programs, or take a look at our online offerings here.

This article is part of the Shambhala.org Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.

4 thoughts on ““I Can’t Meditate!”: Why Meditation Can Sometimes Feel So Hard, and 4 Steps to Work with the Challenge

  1. Thanks for a much-needed endorsement of meditation practice- it will inspire folks to find the benefits of meditation and look at all the ways we try to avoid it. Thanks for giving me a quote and I didn’t know I said it but thanks for giving me credit! I am intrigued by your writing ability, always going to the heart of the matter, and your skill in bringing out the wisdom of the group.

    Love, Shelley

  2. Great reminders for me. And helpful hints to bring forward as we, as meditation instructors, offer these insights to new meditators. Thank you.

  3. Lovely article Janine and loved reading your quote and response and just thinking of you Shelley! (I sometimes attended Seattle’s Sadhana of Mahamudra online)

    My MI always said “just sit with the feeling of being restless and frustrated with your practice, or the feeling of being impatient, or the feeling of (fill the blank)” I didn’t realize that THAT gets to count as meditation in maybe even a purer form….and it helped a lot. I go in and out of honeymoon phases of sitting practice, with LOTS of restless mind, but I’ve learned to be friends with myself regardless of whether I have success at finding peace or clarity.

  4. Useful information. Fortunate me I found your website unintentionally, and
    I’m stunned why this coincidence didn’t took
    place earlier! I bookmarked it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2024-05-25 16:43:12