Staying on the Meditation Wagon

5 Common Problems Faced by New Meditators and How to Overcome Them

Meditation and mindfulness are the shit these days and everyone sort of thinks they want in. I’ve been meditating a long time and I constantly run into people with some vague interest based on the current mindfulness boom. They’ve always wanted to meditate but never knew how to start. They totally want to learn how to be calm and serene. They really need to get meditation into their life. But they don’t exactly want to get started right now because it’s just something they really enjoy considering.

Getting people to actually try meditation is the trick. And getting them to keep doing it is like pulling four aces that smell like sandalwood out of your butthole. These days, meditation and mindfulness promise a solution to everything from stress to bunions to shotgun-wielding despair. Yet, in my experience, very few people stick with the practice. Once they discover the gritty, behind-the-scenes reality, most of them quit. They’ve been under the mistaken assumption that the results are the path. That is, meditation seems to produce serenity, peace, and a delightful calm. Therefore, the practice itself must be serene, peaceful, and calm.

That’s like seeing an Olympic swimmer in his nut-clutching Speedos and thinking “I bet it’s pleasant, being in shape like that. I wonder where I can get some cheese sticks?” Sure, it’s nice being in shape, but it takes sweaty dedication to get in shape.

And, while I’ve heard there can be perks during exercise, like the “runner’s high” or “swimmer’s drunk” or whatever, it’s mostly just hard goddamn work. Hemoglobin, perspiration, and lamentation. Not to mention the strain, blisters, soreness, and occasional bout of surprise vomiting. The major benefits of dedicated exercise – better strength, fitness, and health – are results; they happen because of the exercise. The exercise itself is extreme exertion and struggling not to poop your shorts.

Meditation is exactly the same way, although you should expect to poop yourself less. Maybe twice a year. Meditation is the arduous heavy lifting; concentration, clarity, and equanimity are the results. Calm and relaxation are side effects. Without the tedious exertion, the healthy benefits don’t exist. Count on the aches and pains.

Millions of people every year hop on the meditation wagon only to jump right off at the first bump. I understand. This isn’t easy. When you’re first starting out, there are certain tribulations you can expect that will make you want to say “fuck this.” There are a million excuses to quit, but, if you’re seriously interested in living a happier life, you’ll find ways to stick with it. Here’s a little help with some of the more common problems.

Problem 1 – “I don’t have time”

This is the biggest issue by far. We’re a pathologically busy and distracted population and our perpetual daily motion is disruptive. We’re raising kids, working at all hours, fucking, learning to juggle chainsaws, and figuring out our insurance. Our bodies and minds are always churning with activity, some of it necessary, some of it just filler. We rush from one activity to another and in our down time we’re staring at our phones and TVs, gorging on social media and bingeing on Netflix.

Between getting up at 6 a.m. and collapsing into bed at midnight, there’s just no fucking time to meditate.

Solution – Commitment

You have to genuinely want to do this. If you don’t, if you’re still just thinking about how sweet meditation would be, sometime off in the future when you get your shit together, it’ll never work.

The decision to meditate can’t be a casual one or you’ll always feel like you can skip it because other things are more important. You can’t just meditate whenever you have a little bit of free time; you have to commit to the practice. It shouldn’t feel like you’re trying to chisel thirty minutes out of your day to do this. It needs to take precedence, which means something else may have to go. You manage to make time for Twitter and the NFL and The Walking Dead; make time for this.

The commitment is the only thing that will let you do that. Where does that commitment come from? Generally, it arises based on what you decide you want from meditation, since its benefits are many. Whether it’s to be less stressed, more focused, calmer, or fully enlightened with sunshine shooting out of your butthole, you’ll find the commitment in that desire. This has to as much a part of your day as brushing your teeth. It’s a healthy habit and it has to be developed so you feel slightly icky if you skip it.

Problem 2 – “I’m obviously crazy”

Our brains crank along at breakneck speed throughout the day, spitting up thoughts and opinions and ideas too fast to keep up with. The sheer volume and velocity influence nearly everything we do and every way we feel, but we don’t notice it. We ignore it because it’s background noise.

But when you sit down to meditate, it leaps directly into the foreground. You’re suddenly face-to-face with the horrifying stampede of greased lunacy that is your everyday mind. It crashes in at the speed of sound, howling like an F12 tornado sodomizing hurricane Katrina and absolutely fucking wrecking the tiny Midwestern trailer park of your sanity.

Our lives are filled with distractions from this unnatural disaster going on in our heads. We work our hardest to make sure we never have to confront it. So when we finally do, we’re appalled. We feel pretty sane most days and use our minds for all sorts of normal shit like designing condos and solving Sudoku puzzles. How can it possibly be so hysterically bananas in there? And how have I never noticed I’m a maniac?

Solution – understanding

When this happens, most people have a tendency to think they’re too bonkers for meditation. Since they’ve never paid attention to the unmitigated hysteria of their untamed mind, they assume something’s wrong with them.

But trust me: this happens to everyone and it’s not a problem. Not one person has ever sat down to meditate the first time and, after five minutes, thought “Wow. This is wonderful. I’m so chill and happy. I could do this all day.” Every newbie wants to leap up, set the meditation cushion on fire, and run screaming to update their Facebook status.

There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re definitely not demented. Just understand that this happens to all of us, and it’s perfectly normal. It gets better.

Problem 3 – “Meditation didn’t work the first time”

So you break your meditation cherry and it feels like you’re on acid watching a mental rodeo full of shitfaced clowns hiding in barrels and wetting their big baggy pants. Now you’ve learned this happens to everyone and you’re not a schizo serial killer. The next issue is the fact that, when confronted with your creepy, coked-up mind, meditation didn’t do shit. At the end of five minutes, or ten, or however long you made it the first time, everything was exactly the same. No mystic peace descended. No beautiful calm settled over your buzzing head. Nothing but the light speed conveyor belt of crazy, from start to finish.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling, especially if you were expecting meditation to be a switch that instantly flipped from FUCKED to UNFUCKED. Most people, after their first session, actually feel worse. It’s jarring to see how delirious your mind really is, but it’s a crushing blow when meditation does nothing to alleviate it. Is this false advertising or what?

Solution – Time and effort

You have to keep at it. Just like doing half an hour of slightly spastic cardio at the gym won’t erase your milkshake gut, half an hour of meditation won’t make you a beatific Buddha. Meditation is mental fitness and it’s a daily regimen. However, it’s largely ignored and always takes a back seat to physical well-being and there’s no dispute about the time and effort necessary there. Nobody expects exercise to have instant positive results. You’ve got to do the work over the course of months and years. Jesus, not even antibiotics work the first day, I don’t care how mild the gonorrhea is. Stop scratching and take your pills.

Meditation isn’t magic just because it takes place in the mind and not the biceps. If you practice almost every day, after a few weeks you will start to notice a difference. That’s probably faster than you’ll see results from the gym.

The more frequently you sit, the less overwhelming your mind will be. You’ll stop getting caught up in the madness and learn to just observe until it all slows down on its own. It’s gradual, but one day you’ll realize that you’re much more at ease than you used to be.

Problem 4 – “I work all day; this is just more work”

After a long day of people bleeding drunk blood on you in the ER, or steam cleaning the carpets on a porn movie set, the last thing we want is something else that’s work. We want to relax.

This is a common complaint once someone has gotten used to the more general, low-key difficulties of this practice. Meditation is all about confrontation. It puts us directly in contact with painful stuff we normally ignore and uncompromisingly demands we deal with it.

It’s not easy to get up half an hour early to do this before work. Nor is it a picnic to drag your exhausted ass home afterwards and do something that requires mental effort. It’s so tempting to just unwind with a drink or five while playing video games as your girlfriend reads Fifty Shades of Grey out loud to set the mood.

Solution – Focus on results

Struggles on the cushion translate into results off the cushion. You work your ass off while sitting on it and then you reap the benefits when some unenlightened fuck cuts you off in traffic and rage doesn’t erase your humanity.

Not all the results are as evident as reduced road rage. Meditation’s effects can be subtle and you have to pay attention in order to notice them. Thankfully, you’ve been meditating for a while now and have cultivated some bad ass mindfulness.

The primary thing meditation does is increase the gap between stimulus and response. That doesn’t sound impressive but it’s a life-changer. Your husband snaps at you and your typical reaction is snarl right back. But, before you do, you realize that there’s an extra moment that contains the choice to snarl or not.

There are a hundred things like this every day. Things that provoke a negative response; things that twist and burn our bellies. They’re habitual reactions and they keep us locked into an unconscious pattern of suffering.

But meditation makes us conscious. It makes us aware of these inveterate unhealthy patterns and gives us a chance to break them, to respond instead of react.

Inside that gap is where all the benefits of meditation lie. The focus as you see your habits and patterns; the clarity as you observe how they hurt you; the joy when you realize you have a choice; the equanimity when you abandon something negative; the peace as you’re no longer bullied by your unconscious reactions.

These are the results you’re looking for, the effects that start to permeate your daily life. Yes, meditation is work but it pays off in ways nothing else does. The corollaries will radiate into every crack and crevice of your existence, every split and seam of your personality. Look for them. Enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Problem 5 – “This is fucking boring”

Boredom is unavoidable. If you meditate, you’ll get bored. After all, you’re just sitting there, you lazy bastard.

Ah, I kid. But not about getting bored. That will absolutely happen. Amidst the insanity of your non-housebroken mind and the travails of domesticating it, there will be long, face-numbing stretches of pure tedium. It’ll make your ass go numb and your slack mouth drool. You’ll wish for a couple of frisky fucking flies to watch. You’ll pray to relive that dream about your high school girlfriend peeing on you in a kiddie pool while you play clarinet in a teal prom dress.

But instead, you just sit there in the midst of a vast, arid stretch of featureless ennui, your mind is as listless and dull as Kristin Stewart’s acting. You start to wonder if you somehow died and didn’t notice. Or maybe the timer on your phone had a stroke and will never buzz to release you from this yawn-fest.

Solution – Pay attention

Sorry. There’s no perfect antidote to boredom. It just has to be experienced. It’ll move along soon enough. Just wait.

That sucks, doesn’t it? Believe me, I know. The best thing you can do is just watch your state of mind when boredom explodes like a narcoleptic bomb. See how you recoil from it, how you fight against the sensation and search frantically for a distraction.

But distractions are the problem. Not boredom. Boredom comes and goes just like everything else. You don’t need to ignore it; you need to sit with it. Your natural reaction is to be rigid, to resist. Don’t. Soften toward it. Relax. Pay more attention to your breath, to the fine nuances as it enters and leaves. Look more deeply at the sluggishness that’s dragging you down and check out the specifics. How exactly does it feel? Is there warmth? Friction? What is it?

Boredom isn’t an absence of stimulation. It’s its own thing. If you can observe it in minute detail, you’ll see through its illusion. And then you won’t be bored. Shit, you may even be enlightened.


Featured image by Ryan Johnson via Flickr.