Meditation is a wonderful practice that can improve your life in a variety of ways. It can help to ease your stress so you can find peace of mind.
It can get you to pay attention to your body and focus on your physical health. It can even help you find your purpose in life and discover deeper meaning in the things that you do.
However, if you're relatively new to meditation, you may find that you have come across a number of obstacles that stand in the way of you having a positive experience.
Not to worry, many of these can be overcome with a few minor adjustments. Just remember you’re not alone.
Anyone that has been meditating for any amount of time has experienced many of these issues at one time or another.
This article covers many of the fundamentals of meditation and may be of the most benefit for those that are newer to meditation or those who would like to meditate more, but keep running into obstacles that hold them back.
This may also be for those that have had a negative experience at some point with meditation.
I have tried to present the writing in this article in a way that should be accessible to all types of meditators regardless of path.
If you are looking to overcome some of the common obstacles in meditation or just want to meditate more deeply, some of the solutions that follow may be just what you are looking for to help improve your experience.
Thinking Too Much
One of the biggest obstacles that many newer people face when they start meditating is getting caught up in thinking too much about the experience or over analyzing it.
They may have an idea in their mind of what meditation is supposed to look like or be like and they may believe that if their experience doesn’t match that idea that they are doing something wrong.
One of those ideas is the common misconception that your mind is supposed to be completely free and clear of all thoughts while meditating. This simply isn’t true.
It’s very common to experience a lot of thoughts when you first sit down to begin meditating.
This happens for people that have been meditating for many years as well as someone completely new to meditation. It is very natural.
When you first sit down, you are just beginning to witness the busy-ness of your mind and nervous system at that point in time.
You are catching a glimpse of yourself in a very active state, a state that is necessary for normal life.
This may seem a little intense at first because you’re not used to paying attention to it. It just sort of happens in the background of normal life.
However, as your mind begins to shift more toward a neutral / non-action state in meditation, you will notice the mental activity beginning to quiet down and move toward the background of your awareness.
Keep in mind that you cannot quiet your thoughts by out-thinking them.
Just as with everything in our physical universe, it also applies to our internal experience as well. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The more you push or force to quiet your thoughts, the more it will cause a push-back response. It will not only not quiet your mind; it will make it noisier and more difficult to relax.
Shifting Into Neutral
In our everyday life we are used to doing something and getting a result. Meditation takes a completely different approach; it’s more about not doing to get a result.
What does this mean?
I sometimes like to think about that shift between normal active life and meditation like the gear shift in a car.
In normal life we will have the car in drive or reverse, moving forward or backward (getting somewhere!), which are both action states.
However, when you move the gear to neutral (or park), the car is not moving forward or backward, it is in a neutral position, not actively going anywhere.
So, moving that analogy to our meditation, when we shift our focus toward a state of non-action, not actively pursuing or processing anything; letting everything be okay just the way it is and allowing our experience to happen without any effort, our mind will begin to shift into “neutral”.
When we shift into neutral, we allow any accumulated stress, imbalanced or suppressed energy to dissipate and/or find balance within us.
As our mind and body finds balance, it naturally leads to a quieter mind and internal peace.
Non Judgement - The Other Side of Being Neutral
We live in a world of opposites. Everything we see, feel, and experience sits somewhere on a spectrum of opposites or polarity.
This polarity carries a positive or negative charge for any given topic.
Bring up the topic of food and just notice the varying degrees of response as you think about different types of food. “I love this food”, “don’t like that food”, “this food makes me feel this way or that way”, etc.
All these responses carry a charge or an energy.
We have the thought, then the energetic event is triggered in our body, which then triggers a feeling. There are multiple dimensions to it.
There is the judgement of “I like this” or “don’t like this” or “this is good” and “that is bad” and there is the energy created from that judgement.
Now, what if you could see that apple as not good or bad?
What if that apple was just an object sitting in front of you with different characteristics being neither good nor bad? Just information, nothing more.
See how that shift in focus disengages the mind? Your mind is still processing on some level, but everything that passes through is not subject to judgement.
If you are able to approach your meditation from a place of non judgement or neutrality, you may find that those thoughts that tend to pull you away will have less power thereby allowing your mind to more easily relax and find peace.
Try this out for yourself the next time you meditate.
When you notice a particular thought that has a lot of 'baggage' with it, see if you can shift to seeing it from a non judgement / neutral perspective.
Finding Time to Meditate
A more practical issue with meditation may be finding the time to meditate. We all have busy lives so fitting one more thing into our daily schedule may be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be.
While it is important to make time for meditation, it doesn’t need to be for an extended period of time, especially if you are newer to meditation.
Meditating for just a few minutes each day can be enough to make a noticeable difference on our outlook in life.
Rather than forcing yourself to meditate for 20 minutes and it feeling like a chore, then later procrastinating or avoiding meditation altogether, why not start small and let it grow naturally.
The idea is to first create a habit of setting aside time for meditation each day, but also to establish the parameters for a positive experience.
It’s human nature to move toward things that we enjoy and away from things that we don’t.
We naturally make time for things that we enjoy in life, so if you are able to establish a positive experience with meditation every day, even if for only two minutes, it won’t be long before you have a natural desire to meditate longer and it won’t feel like a chore.
The Two Minute Meditation
Everyone has at least two minutes to spare each day. But, what’s the point of meditating if it’s only for two minutes?
Part of the practice of meditation is establishing a habit; a time to routinely check in with yourself and collect yourself and your energies.
If you find it difficult to find time to meditate each day, try starting with two minutes.
When you wake up each day:
- Try sitting on the edge of the bed before getting out of bed.
- Close your eyes and let your body relax into a comfortable seated position with both feet firmly planted on the floor and having an upright spine.
- Take a few slow breaths, let go of any thoughts about the day ahead.
- Just continue to relax and breathe for a couple minutes.
- Then when you’re ready, open your eyes and begin your day.
This is a great time to meditate because your mind is usually already in a relaxed state, so it will take less effort to reach a meditative state.
You can take advantage of that and get a quick and effective meditation in before the day starts. It will certainly have a positive effect on your day.
In addition, you can also try this just before going to sleep at night. It only takes 2 minutes.
Some people find that they get a little uncomfortable when they're trying to get into the right position for meditating.
One of the key things to remember is that you shouldn't force yourself into any particular position because you think it's the 'right' one to sit in.
There are lots of ways you can vary your posture and position if you're feeling physically uncomfortable.
If sitting on the floor isn't for you, choose a chair instead. Experiment with how you're sitting until you find something that's comfortable for you.
Sitting on the Floor
When sitting on the floor it’s important to elevate your hips so that you don’t strain your back while meditating.
It’s also important that your hips have a slight downward tilt on the front side of the pelvis to help encourage energy circulation and easy breathing.
Sitting on a meditation cushion or pillow that is at least 3-4 inches thick will help put you in the right position and will also make it much easier to have an upright spine.
This will help to create a supportive environment which will improve the chances of having a positive experience during your meditation.
Sitting in a Chair
Something to keep in mind when sitting in a chair for meditation is maintaining a comfortably upright spine.
The best way to do this is by sitting toward the front of the chair rather than leaning on the back of the chair for support.
Having both feet firmly planted on the floor while also tilting the hips slightly downward from the front of the pelvis will allow your spine to remain comfortably upright without strain.
This will improve your breathing and energy flow and should lead to an overall more comfortable experience in the long run.
Getting distracted can be one of the biggest problems when you're trying to meditate.
There are always things that can distract you, from your own thoughts to noises in the distance, but this doesn’t have to derail your meditation. There are lots of techniques to help you return to your meditation after being distracted.
A good way to help let go of distractions both internal and external is by having a focal point. Paying attention to your breathing is one of the most recommended focal points in meditation.
Not only is breathing a central point of connection between mind and body, it is also regular and rhythmic, which makes it easier to follow and stay in sync with.
At first, it is better to just follow the breath (let it lead and you follow) rather than trying to control it or force it into a specific pattern.
Ear Plugs / Noise Cancelling Headphones
Ear plugs are something you may not associate with meditation, but they may be helpful at times during meditation to help reduce distractions and improve the ability to pay attention to the breath.
Using ear plugs helps to accomplish a couple things.
First, it reduces the amount of external noise that you hear, so you feel less distracted by your surroundings, but it also amplifies the sound of your breath internally.
Because the sound of your breath is so much more pronounced while wearing ear plugs, it becomes effortless to pay attention to your breath, which additionally helps to reduce being distracted by thoughts in your internal environment. It’s a double win.
You could also try noise cancelling headphones without the music. It will make your internal sense of hearing near silent except for the sound of your breath.
This can be especially helpful if you are somewhat new to meditation or if your mind is overwhelmingly busy.
Mantras & Affirmations
Another popular focal point is repeating a mantra or affirmation in your meditation practice.
This approach can be as simple as ‘breathe in’, ‘breathe out’ or ‘1, ‘2’ with each breath to as advanced as cycling through a specific set of phrases.
If you are newer to meditation it may be better to lean toward a more simple approach, just follow your preference.
Using mantras can help to bring your awareness to one point of focus, which commonly reduces the internal distractions that you may experience such as intrusive thoughts.
If you want to learn more about using mantras in your meditation, learn how to choose a mantra for you.
Mala beads are a tool that can be used in a few different ways to help relieve the pull of distraction.
You can use them in conjunction with your mantra, advancing a bead with each one or you can just use them as a physical focal point. In both cases you hold them in one hand and use your thumb to advance through each bead. You can learn more about how to use a mala here.
This brings your awareness to the sensation of moving from one bead to the next, and because of the concentration it takes, it will help in letting go of distracting thoughts because there is “no room” in your awareness for those thoughts to persist.
There is also an energetic component to mala beads that help positively influence your meditation. You can learn more about the energetic properties here.
Mindfulness uses a slightly different approach. Instead of having one focus, you are paying attention to every detail of your whole experience; all the sensations, sounds, whether internal or external, feelings, everything all at once.
Instead of a noise being a distraction it becomes part of your meditation. You are not distracted by it because it is neither good nor bad.
In a state of mindfulness there is just the stream of your awareness and in that stream is this varying information in the form of sound, sensation, etc.
There literally are no distractions from this perspective.
If you would like to learn more about mindfulness, check out the center for mindfulness for a good starting point.
Setting Up a Place for Meditation
A relaxing and established space to use when you want to meditate can allow you to create the right environment to help you have a more peaceful meditation and avoid distractions.
You don't need to have a whole room to use if you don't have one available. Just a corner of a room or even part of a large walk in closet can be enough to give you a dedicated space.
You can add some decorative items that might help you to relax, too. For example, some candles, a salt lamp, some flowers, or anything that you feel might contribute to a calming environment.
You can choose items to make your space comfortable, like cushions or blankets. You might also find it helpful to choose some things to create sensory experiences, such as scented candles or incense.
Be sure to make this a comfortable and inviting space so you will be drawn to meditate there more regularly.
Just Can’t Get Into It
There will be times when you’re just not feeling it. It’s completely normal.
Just remember that it’s better to have an organic feeling of wanting to meditate rather than pressuring yourself to meditate. You will have a better experience.
But, if you are not finding that organic motivation, following are a few tips to help you move in the right direction.
- If you have too much on your mind, try jotting down your thoughts before sitting down to meditate.This may be enough to free up your mind to feel more inclined to want to meditate.
- If you’re stuck on the couch and ‘can’t move’, try doing some slow deep breathing. You don’t even have to move, just begin to breathe slowly and deeply for a few minutes. This may be energizing enough to help naturally motivate you instead of internally nagging yourself.
- If you are feeling too stressed or tense, try doing a quick 5-10 minutes of light easy yoga.
- Start by lying on the floor face down with your chin resting on your hands and just breathing normally and comfortably for a minute or two.
- Then lift up into cobra pose and hold for a few seconds.
- Then sit all the way back into child’s pose, then moving your arms so that your forehead rests on your hands. Stay here for a minute or two.
- Then switch to cat pose for a minute.
- Then cow pose for a minute.
- Take a few deep breaths then switch to a seated pose and start your meditation.
- If you just ate a big meal you may want to wait an hour or so before meditating. If you meditate just after a meal you may find that most of your energy is wrapped up in the process of digestion and may find it difficult to get into your meditation.
Another feeling you might experience while meditating is boredom. Many of us are used to having various stimuli all the time, whether it's TV, a book, music, conversation, or just the noises around you.
Being left with just your own thoughts can leave you feeling bored. There are a couple places where boredom may show itself.
First you may notice that you are avoiding meditation because on some level you’re afraid that you will feel bored and you don’t want to experience that feeling.
Or, you can start meditating and just feel restless, like “this meditation isn’t going anywhere”.
In either case remember that boredom is just a mental state and your mental state is usually determined by your focus.
When you gently bring your awareness back to your focal point whether that be your breath or your moment to moment awareness, that feeling of boredom will naturally dissipate.
If you find that it persists for you, just let it be okay. The more you try to change it, the more it will persist.
Feeling Sleepy During Meditation
Feeling sleepy is another common thing for people when they're meditating, which can be both a physical and emotional feeling. It's natural to sometimes get sleepy, as meditating and/or breathing deeply can be very relaxing.
You have a choice, you can just be okay with feeling sleepy or you can choose to give into the sleepiness and lay down to rest or you can move into a more active meditation so that you don’t feel as sleepy.
What is an active meditation?
It’s basically just moving or allowing yourself to move in a way that requires enough concentration to keep you alert, but not too demanding to take you out of meditation.
For example, try slightly rocking forward and backward from your center at the hips. It doesn’t take much, maybe just a couple inches forward and back. You can also move side to side. Remember it doesn’t take much, just slight movements.
This should be enough to maintain your focus without falling asleep or falling out of your meditation.
Drifting Away In Thought
If you find that you commonly drift away in thought, you aren’t alone. Drifting away in thought is another common obstacle in meditation. The solution for this is to go back to the basics.
When you notice that you have drifted away, gently yet firmly bring yourself back to your focus. It is the nature of the mind to want to think and wander.
But, while you are meditating you want to develop the ‘muscle memory’ of bringing yourself back to your focus each time you notice yourself drifting away.
Still Finding It Difficult?
If you are having a difficult time with meditation, you may want to consider going to a class or joining a meditation group in your area. You might want to check out meetup.com for groups in your area.
This can be helpful in many ways. You will get the support and encouragement of other like-minded people as well as direct guidance on how to maneuver some of the issues that commonly come up during meditation. In addition, you will usually find it much easier to meditate in a group.
The shared experience of everyone meditating together creates a supportive environment in multiple ways, energetically and psychologically, which benefits everyone meditating.
If you have tried meditation before on your own and didn’t have a good experience, going to a class or joining a group could make the difference for you.
There are many obstacles that can deter you from practicing meditation, however by getting back to the fundamentals of meditation there are also many ways to overcome these obstacles.
The obstacle itself can provide a path to deeper learning, so we’re not trying to avoid the obstacle, but we also don’t want the obstacle to stop us before we even get started.
In time you will find that you learn how to maneuver through them more easily, have a more positive experience and meditate more deeply as a result.
So, what kinds of obstacles have you encountered in meditation? And, what did you do to overcome them?
Let’s continue the discussion in the comments below.