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Can’t meditate? This might be the key to success

Scroll through Instagram, and it might seem as though everyone from celebrities to business leaders is extolling the virtues of meditation.

From a distance you’d think the practice, which is really just about focusing the mind, should be pretty easy. But why is meditation so difficult for many of us – often leaving newbies feeling more uncomfortable or anxious than relaxed?

Fear not, struggling meditators: it’s actually challenging for most people at the beginning, says Dr Subhadra Evans, a psychology lecturer at Deakin.

If we’re doing mindfulness of the breath, it’s just paying attention to your breath and how simple does that sound?’ she says.

‘But in reality it’s actually one of the most difficult things and if someone’s struggling to meditate, they are certainly not alone. Most people find it very difficult.’

The benefits of meditation

While it can be challenging, giving up on meditation before you’ve even really started might be the wrong move.

Dr Evans says early-stage research suggests that it can be beneficial for everything from managing chronic pain to stress, anxiety and depression.

‘It’s everywhere now from education to healthcare, and increasingly people who are under a lot of stress, like first responders, have become really interested in the practice.’

Why an app, or meditation class, can help

Meditation is also now more accessible than ever, thanks to countless online meditation programs and apps including Smiling Mind, Headspace and Calm.

‘I think especially when we’re starting out, just sitting by ourselves with our own mind can be really, really difficult and actually painful sometimes,’ Dr Evans says.

‘So having some sort of guided meditation is important – whether that’s going to a class where we’re in a group with other people and we have a teacher that’s helping us through the process, or finding apps that we like where you are listening to a guided meditation.’

'I think especially when we’re starting out, just sitting by ourselves with our own mind can be really, really difficult and actually painful sometimes.'

Dr Subhadra Evans,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

You don’t have to banish all thoughts

If you have a rigid idea of what meditation is – for example, that it must be done for a long chunk of time with your legs crossed and mind cleared – think again.

For starters, it’s not necessarily about getting rid of all your thoughts.

‘In Eastern teachings, they say stopping the mind is like stopping the wind – it’s basically impossible,’ Dr Evans says.

Rather than worrying about your mind being blank or still, she says mindfulness is about noticing what’s on your mind at that moment and bringing yourself back to your ‘anchor’.

‘So if that’s the breath for example, not trying to stop all the thoughts, it’s knowing that the thoughts will be there and that’s just a normal part of what minds do … just noticing them and then with an attitude of gentleness and kindness, just bringing the thoughts, bringing the mind back to the breath. That might happen hundreds of times in the space of a few minutes.’

Finding a method that works for you

Other techniques to try could be a body scan – where you move your focus slowly around different parts of your body. Or you could focus on outside sounds, for example learning to notice that jackhammer outside, without judgement.

Dr Evans says it’s really about finding something that works for you. You might be more comfortable sitting on a chair than the floor, or developing different kinds of ‘mindful movement’.

‘Yoga for example is a form of meditation; tai chi is a form of meditation. Mindful walking can also be really helpful, because there are definitely people who just really struggle to sit still.’

Adding nature to the mix could also up your chances of success. ‘Some people really enjoy sitting beside the ocean to meditate, whether it’s meditating on the wave or your breath, that can be really, really helpful,’ Dr Evans says.

Go easy on yourself

Like any new skill, meditation can take time to master, so don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t come naturally. Meditating for just five or 10 minutes a day is a great place to start.

‘It’s like anything we do, whether it’s learning a musical instrument or a language or working out at the gym, starting out it can be really hard,’ Dr Evans says.

‘But if we keep going with it… we do notice that slowly, slowly the mind does become quieter.’

Relax… or not

Another point to remember: if you’re not feeling relaxed while meditating, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, Dr Evans says.

‘That could be part of why people find it difficult, is there’s this expectation you’re going to feel relaxed. That might be an outcome that happens eventually, but that’s not the point of it.

‘The point of it is really just to be with whatever is occurring right now, in a non-judgemental, accepting way.”

Curious to know more? Find out how you can fully harness the benefits of meditation

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Dr Subhadra Evans
Dr Subhadra Evans

Lecturer in Psychology, School of Psychology, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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