You tried meditation. You dutifully focused on your breath for 20 minutes. Day after day. But things don’t seem to be getting better. And if you do notice progress, it is painfully slow. Here’s why meditation may not be working for you, and what you can do about it.
Meditation, and its more clinical-sounding cousin, mindfulness, have fast become the go-to solutions for the challenges of modern life.
Stressed? Try meditation. Distracted? Try mindfulness. Need to clear your mind? Or be more productive? Or boost your creativity? Or have a transcendental experience? A staggering array of meditation apps, downloads, courses, seminars, retreats, books and coaches is readily available.
Google and a rapidly growing list of other companies offer meditation courses for their employees. Headspace, a go-to meditation app, has been downloaded over 65 million times, with 600 companies offering the app to their employees. Calm, it’s closest rival, counts 43 million downloads, and 300 corporate accounts.
The meteoric rise in interest in meditation, and consequent availability of meditation resources, is well founded. A range of scientific studies show that meditation can lower stress and anxiety, reduce the inflammation that comes from stress, improve sleep, decrease depression and better regulate emotion, boost self-esteem, strengthen focus, lengthen attention span, lower blood pressure, improve memory, help control pain, and even help fight addiction. Regular meditation can actually physically change the brain for the better.
Not bad for just following your breath for 20 minutes a day.
Still . . .
Lots of people have tried meditation, but remain stressed. How many of you feel quite calm and centered while you’re meditating, only to watch that all go out the window the minute you encounter an unruly child or a toxic boss?
Others know they would benefit from meditation, but find it challenging to commit to a regular practice. And as encouraging as some of the studies are, some other studies suggest meditation may not always be efficacious, and may even be detrimental for certain people.
The truth is that, as great as meditation can sometimes be, it doesn’t always work for all of us all the time – and it often doesn’t work when we need it most. For many of us, meditation is less effective than it could be because it doesn’t mirror real life.
You Don’t Need to Meditate Like a Monk
One of our greatest challenges to benefiting from meditation is that most of the meditation techniques we use were not designed for the real-time challenges we face in the 21st century.
Take a good look at the photo at the beginning of this article - the almost stereotypical monk sitting in a cave. He’s in a deep state of meditation. He can go on like that for hours, undisturbed, indistractable and calmer than you’ve ever felt anytime you’ve meditated.
The problem is that your life looks nothing like this. If you could sit in a cave for hours a day with no distractions, no responsibilities, no cell phone – you also might have a chance at developing the monk’s level of concentration.
But you don’t live in a cave. You live in a world surrounded by other people clamoring for your attention, a cellphone with non-stop notifications, a job to do, bills to pay, and an incessant stream of advertising to convince you that you need whatever it is you don’t have.
Faced with the noise of modern life, did you really think that focusing on your breath for 20 minutes a day would solve your problems? If the monk were in your shoes rather than in the cave, he might not feel so peaceful either.
Fortunately, in the midst of our hectic lives, there is a way that meditation can help you - even significantly. The potential benefits described in the studies are all real. Your meditation practice just has to be harnessed in the right way to realize them.
The monk has his life. You have yours. He practices meditation in a way that makes sense for the life he leads. And so must you.
Every athlete knows that, while drills are important, practicing drills will not turn them into elite performers unless they find ways to apply the drills to real-time situations. A boxer doesn’t simply work with a punching bag. A critical part of his training is the work he does with a sparring partner, imitating the conditions he will actually encounter in the ring.
To truly benefit from meditation, you must think of your practice the same way. Focusing on your breathing is like the boxer working with the punching bag. It’s important work and can produce positive results. But it’s not going to be enough once you step into the ring – or in your case, your everyday life.
Just like the boxer, you need to apply your meditation to real life conditions. Your meditation practice – whether breath focus or anything else – is a great place to start. The next step is to take your practice off the meditation mat. Here are three ways to do that:
Visualize. Let’s say you meditate for 20 minutes. You are now in a calm state of mind. Don’t end it there. Next, in your mind’s eye, see yourself in a challenging situation, one that you know you are likely to encounter. For many, this will involve a boss, a child, spouse or in-law. It could involve dealing with your finances, or taking an exam. Pick whichever situation in your own life is the most challenging to maintain your calm and equilibrium.
Visualize the scene in your mind - notice how you feel right now, after having meditated. See yourself in this challenging situation, but with the same calm feeling you have right now. Notice yourself breathing slowly while in the challenging situation, staying centered, and experiencing whatever other good feelings you have while meditating.
Practice in Real Time. Very consciously and deliberately enter a meditative state – or as close to one as you can – while in the challenging situation. This is not an invitation to zone out and ignore what is happening around you. Rather, it is an opportunity to practice being present and not fall victim to destructive emotions.
While in the challenging situation, you can intentionally slow down your breath, breathing through the nose and lengthening the exhale. You can mentally stand back from the situation and focus on the person or challenge in front of you, simply noticing what is in front of you, and then choosing how to respond rather than simply reacting.
It may help to try this first with a less challenging situation, and gradually build up to your most stressful events. You will likely be more successful if you begin by, for example, going through your emails in a meditative state, before trying to find zen as your boss berates you.
I ask many of my clients to write down a word or phrase that will remind them to do this, and then place it where they will see it. In the thick of battle, it’s often hard to remember to fall back on your meditation practice, even though that’s when you most need it. A visual reminder often helps.
Try Spaced Repetition. When learning something new, spaced repetition is very effective. We’ve all experienced cramming for an exam, and then promptly forgetting the material. We know that we will remember that material far better over the long-term if we learn it over a longer period of time with breaks in between.
The same is true for applying meditation to your real life. Instead of only practicing meditation in 15-30 minute blocks of time, mini-meditations throughout the day will help you access the benefits of meditation when you are not meditating.
Try focusing on your breath, or any other meditative technique, for just one minute, or even 30 seconds. But do it throughout the day – every hour, or each time you get up or sit down. You can also try 30 seconds or a minute just before going into a meeting, making a phone call, beginning a difficult conversation, or whatever else tends to get you stressed.
The short duration will not interrupt or negatively impact your day. But by making your meditation practice ever-present, it will be top of mind and easy to access whenever you need it.