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How to meditate when you’re terrible at meditating

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Photo credit: Alpha-C/Getty Images

When you have an anxious, type-A personality with less-than-healthy perfectionist tendencies as I do, meditation is a recommendation that comes up again and again — and with good reason. As much as we nervous types might resist the idea of sitting in stillness and actively doing nothing, there’s no denying that the research comes down firmly in favor of the pro-meditation camp. 

Studies have found that cultivating a regular meditation practice is associated with a whole host of benefits, including reduced anxiety, increased well-being, increased connectedness and empathy, improved focus, improved relationships with others, heightened creativity, better memory and improved decision-making skills. And those are just the cognitive benefits. Meditation is also associated with other, more tangible health benefits, such as addiction treatment, improved cardiovascular health, a stronger immune system and better sleep quality.

This is all great, but, for some of us, “doing nothing” is deceptively difficult. When I started my meditation journey, I struggled to physically sit still, let alone actually clear my mind. Part of the problem was my understanding of meditation. I thought you were only “good” at meditating if you could achieve a state of perfect zen: calm, still and able to maintain a clear mind for hours on end. 

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But, as it turns out, being that good at meditation is as hard as attempting a full marathon the first time you lace up your running shoes. For most, it’s impossible. I just didn’t know that.

In fact, I spent a lot of time beating myself up about just how terrible I was at meditating before I shifted my focus to something I actually am good at: Researching. In my quest to learn how to suck less at meditating, I learned to redefine my idea of what meditation even is, and I picked up a few techniques.

Here are some of the best ways I’ve found to meditate when you’re terrible at meditating. 

If you don’t fully get what mindfulness is, try body scans.

Body scans are a very basic meditation technique — a good stepping stone to deeper meditation practice and a fantastic crash course on the concept of mindfulness. In meditation, mindfulness is an intentional awareness of the present moment. It’s the kind of thing that seems obvious, like something you must already be doing just to function, but it’s not. Ever gotten into your car and made it home without exactly remembering the drive? That’s how easy it is for us to get stuck on autopilot and mentally disconnect from what’s going on in the moment. 

Body scanning is just what it sounds like. To practice this technique:

  1. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit, stand or lie down — whichever is most comfortable.
  2. Take a couple of deep breaths, and get ready to focus on your body for a few minutes.
  3. Start at the top of your head and focus on actively feeling what’s going on in your body, moving slowly from your the top of your head to the soles of your feet.

Notice the weight of your own hair hanging down from your scalp. Notice where you situate your tongue in your mouth when you aren’t talking. Notice where your weight rests in your spine and what your feet feel like pressed against the ground. 

This seems very basic, but most of us never do it in day-to-day life. We’re too busy thinking about the emails we haven’t answered and the errands we haven’t run. But, when you’re actively focusing your attention on how your body feels, you can’t think about the emails and errands, and mindfulness starts to take shape. 

If you do catch your mind drifting to those emails and errands, don’t beat yourself up or write the session off as a failure. Just acknowledge that your mind drifted, let the thought go, and refocus on the body scan, right where you left off. A guided body scan meditation can be extra-helpful when you’re just starting out, and there are a lot of great free options in apps, podcasts and on YouTube. Here’s one to try.

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If you’re just too fidgety to meditate, try walking meditations.

If sitting still is part of your problem with meditating, consider walking meditations. These turn the very act of moving into meditative practice.

To practice walking meditation:

  1. Find a place where you can walk for 10 to 15 paces easily. This can be indoors or outside, but ideally someplace where you won’t be watched. This frees you to focus on the meditation aspect and not what onlookers might be thinking.
  2. Take a few breaths and get into a calm mindset.
  3. Start your walk, focusing on the act of walking. Actively be mindful of the aspects of walking that have become automatic and unconscious: lifting your foot, moving it forward, sitting it down, making contact with the ground, etc.
  4. Count your steps. When you hit your target (10-15 is a good number), pause and take a few deep breaths, focusing on the sensation of breathing in and out.
  5. Turn, walk back, and repeat the process as many times as you’d like to. 

Eventually, as you cultivate your mindfulness skills, you’ll be able to turn any walk into a meditation opportunity, and you’ll be able to drown out distractions. 

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If you’re “too busy” to meditate, try sound mindfulness meditations.

People who are “terrible at meditation” tend to be very susceptible to the busy-ness trap. They wear their packed schedules and blatant exhaustion like badges of honor and use their teeming to-do lists as a ready-made excuse against making time for the “do nothing” mantra of meditation. If that sounds like you, consider sound mindfulness

I came across sound mindfulness when studying dialectical behavior therapy; I found it to be a perfect midday mindfulness meditation technique. A lot of meditation guides recommend setting aside a specific block of time for meditation each day and making it a part of your routine. This is excellent advice, but, like so many things in life, meditation isn’t (and shouldn’t be!) one size fits all. 

The amazing thing about sound mindfulness is that you can practice it anywhere, anytime — whether you’re at home, standing in line at Starbucks, or fending off anxiety in the bathroom at work.

The idea is simple:

  1. Close your eyes, and listen to the world around you, making a note of every sound that you hear. I like to set a goal for myself: say, 10 or 15 sounds. Don’t think about the awkward social interaction you just endured or the email that has your blood pressure rising. Just think of the sounds, and focus on hitting that goal.
  2. List them out, one by one, starting with the obvious: maybe music playing over the speakers, for starters.
  3. Then, go deeper. Notice the hum of the espresso machine or the flow of water through the pipes.

Sound mindfulness is not only versatile, but also a quick, effective way to break an anxiety pattern, particularly if you’re prone to ruminating and catastrophizing. 

The moral of the story: Even the least skilled meditators can find a way into helpful practice, as long as they’re willing to rethink what meditation means.

Drawing can also serve as a cathartic meditation. Learn how to draw like a pro in the video below.

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