1) You’re “Meditating” for too Long
If you find yourself dreading your meditation, and spending most of the time distracted or poorly committed, consider shortening your sessions. After a hard day of work, the last thing you want is to struggle through an entire hour of your own thoughts. From the outside, an hour, or even a half hour, appears daunting and difficult. If you shorten that period to 10 or 15 minutes, you may find the sessions actually become more fruitful.
I recently tried this myself, and was amazed by the results. Knowing my session would only be 15 minutes allowed me to relax, and think, “Even if my mind doesn’t settle at all, I’ll only have wasted a few minutes,” which is a much better thought than, “This will be the longest hour of my life”.
If you still want to reach the goal of an hour in meditation, you can split that hour up into several shorter sessions. Think of it as high interval training. Instead of having to get up the courage to run a mile, you’re doing several high intensity sprints. These meditation “sprints” are easier to start, and often easier to enjoy. I would recommend this shortening of sessions to beginners, and those who feel their practice has stagnated.
2) Your Environment Sucks
Though “sucks” isn’t the technical term, it effectively describes the environment many people attempt to meditate in. And any environment can suck for meditation. Try to sit in a room without any electronics, or entertainments, or anything that draws your thoughts to the worries and disruptions of everyday life.
But you may be thinking, “Walker! I meditate in a minimalist room with incense, candles, and Buddha statues galore!” such a room can be great, but sometimes it actually hurts your practice. A room made specifically for meditation can put pressure on you, and make you beat yourself up if the session doesn’t go well. You might open your eyes, and look at all the incense and Buddha statues, and feel like a phony.
If you’re in such an environment, and your practice isn’t going well, switch it up for a bit. Meditate in a local park, or in your bed, or anywhere that there’s no expectation of meditation success. Take that pressure off yourself for a while, and then return to your sacred room.
3) You’re Not Experimenting
About six months after I first started meditating, I entered a period of stagnation. I would sit in zazen, close my eyes, focus on my breath, and wait. And my thoughts just wouldn’t stop. Day after day I toiled in sitting meditation, getting nowhere. Eventually I got so frustrated I finally tried a completely different meditation, where I would chant a mantra.
I was skeptical at first, never having tried mantra meditation. But within minutes, I was in a deep, meditative trance. The change in meditations lifted me immediately out of frustrating stagnation, and back into deep states of meditation. Later on, I returned to zazen, but my problem was gone. The few months of experimentation with mantras had enhanced my zazen, and my practice as a whole.
There are countless forms of meditation to experiment with. To name a few, there are moving mediations, yoga, mantras, and guided meditations.
4) You’re Not Easing Into the Practice
An ideal meditation practice involves several phases, with each bringing you deeper into a gentle focus on nothingness. This process is much more difficult if the activities preceding meditation are highly chaotic and stimulating. So examine what you do before beginning meditation. Your problem may be there, rather than in the practice itself. If you’re doing difficult work, or watching stimulating entertainment, or dealing with a demanding situation, you’re entering meditation in the worst possible way. Implement a buffer activity, between the demands of the day and your meditation practice. This activity could be quietly enjoying a cup of tea, reading a familiar book, listening to gentle music, light exercise, or anything else that relaxes and eases your mind into a state of calm.
5) You’re Not Meditating Long Enough
Seems contradictory with number one, right? Its not. There are different stages in the development of a meditation practice, that come with their unique problems and solutions. If you’re fairly experienced with meditation, but you feel that you’re no longer developing, the solution may be to simply lengthen your sessions.
This can mean taking your daily practice from thirty minutes to an hour, or it can mean attempting one incredibly long session. I recommend this for all intermediate meditators. Give it a try. Commit to a session longer than two hours. And don’t break your commitment no matter what. A single lengthy session can completely revolutionize your practice. You may experience breakthroughs, visions, and states of mind that simply aren’t attainable with shorter sessions. You may find these long sessions so appealing you implement them several times a week.
And the proof is in the pudding; theres a reason Buddha meditated three weeks straight, and Monks meditate many hours at a time. It works, and it forces you into the present moment. Because if you’re not in the present moment, it’ll be a very painful three hours. Take up the challenge, and evolve your practice.
6) You’re Just Not Taking it Seriously
This is the hard truth many meditators must face; just sitting there for the allotted time isn’t enough. And though meditation is a practice of doing nothing, it is an active practice of doing nothing. You have to engage with your own thought process, and stop yourself from doing things. When a thought comes up, you must let it fade away. Without discipline and commitment, you can easily sit there and follow thought after thought, not getting anywhere with your practice. That’s called Daydreaming, not meditation.
But you don’t have to take it from me. Ever heard of Zen masters smacking their meditating students with a stick? They do this because they can perceive when a student isn’t actively engaged with the practice, and the pain of the stick serves to bring the student back to the present.
Now, you don’t have to use a stick, of course, but you must be diligent with yourself when meditating. When you find your thoughts drifting about, gently bring the breath back into focus. Don’t judge yourself. But you must not let your thoughts control you.
Meditation is both the easiest, and most difficult thing in the world. It’s like trying to pluck a mote of dust from the air; the more aggressively you try, the harder it gets. Yet you must continue your practice, and know that it’s all worth it in the end. Your mediation practice will go through many stages, much like a marriage. Starting is difficult, but you soon see the benefits and couldn’t think of ending it. Then the novelty wears off, and things start to stagnate. This is the point where most people quit their practice.
I urge you; don’t quit. A few simple fixes and changes can make you fall in love with your practice all over again. And for those who are excelling in their practice, you may find these changes bring you to a whole new level that you never thought possible.