You’ve heard all about the benefits of meditation. You know the science behind the benefits of meditation is overwhelmingly positive. You even know that meditation has gone from an ancient sacred religious practice to a fringe hippie belief and then to a billion-dollar industry over the past sixty years.
But what do you do if you can’t meditate? What if you can’t stand focusing on your breath?
Despite the fact that there are countless apps, podcasts, YouTube channels, and articles designed to teach you how to meditate, many of us struggle to find any peace from the practice.
Not All Meditation is the Same
In the United States, meditation almost always refers to the practice of transcendental meditation. This is a particular type of meditation with ancient roots in India and is often associated with both Hinduism and Buddhism. When you imagine sitting still for long periods of time while focusing on your breath, you are thinking of transcendental meditation.
Many people feel like they are failing at meditation because they are never able to quiet their minds. If you find that you can’t get the hang of meditation, it may be because nobody has taught you what the early stages of building a personal meditation practice look like, or it may be that transcendental meditation is not a good fit for you.
There are many different forms of meditation. If you are struggling with meditation, you should try to find a different practice that is a better fit for your life.
Why Meditation is Harder for Some
Some people struggle with meditation because they do not like being alone with their thoughts. They have unresolved issues, and silence allows those issues to surface. Some people don’t know how to handle being uncomfortable.
Other people are used to being in control and do not like meditation because it requires a temporary surrender of the ego.
Neurodivergent people often struggle with transcendental meditation. Our brains are wired differently, and the practice doesn’t always flow with our mind and body.
I have ADHD and an anxiety disorder and failed to cultivate a meditation practice for over ten years. I found transcendental meditation to be strangely physically painful. It literally hurt my brain. However, once I discovered alternative types of meditation, I began to enjoy the benefits of increased mindfulness in my life.
Alternatives to Transcendental Meditation
I hate sitting still and focusing on my breath. I always end up thinking about my chronic sinus problems and how heavy my breathing sounds.
But, I discovered that I can still my mind when I use other techniques. Below are a few of my favorite alternatives to transcendental meditation.
This is more than just taking a walk. Walking meditation is about quieting the mind through focused physical activity. Instead of walking and letting your mind wander where it wants, you count your steps, repeat a mantra with every step, or count groups of steps.
Walking meditation also works best in a natural environment like a park.
Instead of focusing on your breathing, you think about the sensation of each step you take. If you lose count of your steps because you get distracted, that’s okay. You simply start back at one.
Some people prefer to only count steps in sets. Once they complete a set they begin to count the next set. I have found that counting twenty steps at a time works best for me.
Another variation is to have a mantra where you say a single word with each step. Once you have completed the mantra, you start over until you are done with your walking meditation.
Single Thought Meditation
Meditation increases mindfulness because it teaches you to sharpen your focus and still all of the distracting thoughts that flitter in and out of your mind. If you can’t stand to focus on your breath, you can try instead to focus on something else.
You can try to focus on a mental image of a blank wall or a white movie screen. Every time your mind wanders to another thought, you take notice that your thoughts have wandered, and you think again of the mental image. You don’t judge your distraction. It isn’t bad or wrong to have thoughts during meditation. The practice is in resetting your focus.
A variation I use is to focus on one problem or word. For example, if I am having money issues, I will focus on the question, “How can I increase my earnings?” I allow myself to think about anything related to that question. I repeat the question in my mind over and over. When I start to get distracted, I repeat the question I am meditating on.
Some Hindu and Buddhist monks use beads to help them focus. These beads are similar to the Catholic Rosary beads. The monks will chant a word or syllable of a mantra while touching each bead.
This simple physical activity helps to focus the mind.
Lately, I have been using my fidget cube as a meditation aid. I click my cube once for every word of a mantra I’m using to stay focused. My current mantra is, “I am enough.”
It’s easier for me to sit still for long periods if I have my fidget cube. Where I once couldn’t sit with my eyes closed for more than a minute, I can now sit for 30 minutes with my fidget cube. Often, I fall into a state that feels a lot like the flow I enter when I’m writing.
In Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, she introduces the idea of morning pages. This is a meditative practice where you write three pages in a journal first thing every morning. The journaling is stream of consciousness writing. You dump all of your thoughts without stopping or judgment. You don’t even read the morning pages.
Screenwriter and podcaster Brian Koppelman swears by morning pages. He writes morning pages almost every day and then also engages in a transcendental meditation practice.
I have found that if I first write my morning pages and then meditate with my fidget cube, my mind is much quieter than when I skip the morning pages.
Cameron says that morning pages are a way for writers who can’t quiet their minds to find the peace and clarity that others find in other forms of meditation.
Start Very Small
The best way to fail at anything is to do too much. Just like you need to train your body to run a marathon, you need to train your mind to meditate for long stretches of time.
When you start your meditation practice, start small. Try to do your meditation practice for one minute. Meditate for one minute a day, every day, for a week. After a week, you can gradually increase the length of your meditation session.
Remember, this practice is for you. It’s not a competition. You are developing a habit. Through gradual discipline, you will learn to enjoy meditation.
Meditation is a Journey Not an Accomplishment
You don’t win meditation. There are no gold stars or Olympic medals if you “get it right.” Meditation is a practice. That means that if you cannot focus for an entire minute, you are still meditating. If you notice your attention has wandered, that is actually a sign that you are becoming more mindful — not that you suck at meditation.
The key to getting the benefits of meditation is to treat it like a game of catch with a small child. When you play catch with a four or five-year-old, they drop the ball more times than they catch it. They also often fail to deliver the ball to you successfully.
Does that mean little kids suck at catch, and you should never play with them? No! That’s ridiculous. It means that little kids need a lot more practice. The act of playing catch with a child is the goal. It is a practice. Through regular practice, everyone gets better at playing catch.
The same is true with meditation. If you fall asleep, your mind wanders, or you can’t sit still, that doesn’t mean you have failed at meditation. It means that you are practicing. The practicing of meditation is the thing. The goal is consistent effort, not mastery.
Meditation is not a one-size-fits-all wellness hack. It is a personalized mindfulness tool. You need to experiment and explore different techniques and tactics until you find something that works for you.
Take a moment before you go to bed and pick a new way you will try to meditate and then test it for one minute. Once you find the right meditation routine for your life, you will be grateful you made the extra effort.