Welcome to week 4 of The Year of Happy‘s month on mindfulness. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education.
The funny thing about mindfulness is just when you think you’ve figured it out, it eludes you.
“We may have the best of intentions, but things get in the way of practicing mindfulness all the time. You may feel like you are mindful one minute and mindless the next. Or just when you think you are most mindful, boom! You realize that you have completely missed the boat. That is human nature, and the reason why you need a good sense of humor to develop a mindfulness practice and attempt to live more mindfully,” write Susan Smalley and Diana Winston in Fully Present.
Like all happiness practices, mindfulness is something we need to work on constantly, although it can become more or less habitual over time. Here are some of the common obstacles you’ll encounter as you start meditating and becoming mindful. (Surprise! You’re not alone.)
Problem: I’m too busy to meditate
Since meditation can take as little as 5 minutes, it’s highly doubtful that you don’t have the time to meditate. But this is a common complaint nonetheless. We all feel so busy that when the time comes – when our alarm buzzes to remind us – there’s always something better to do.
“Often our lives become so driven that we are moving through our moments to get to better ones at some later point. We live to check things off our to-do list, then fall into bed exhausted at the end of the day, only to jump up the next morning to get on the treadmill once again,” writes mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn.
I could give you a few tips, like find an accountability partner for meditation, schedule it at the same time every day (preferably in the morning), or set expectations with your family so they leave you alone. But that doesn’t get at the root of the problem, which is prioritizing meditation. If the benefits from Week 3 didn’t convince you, think of that feeling of busy-ness and rushing and life passing by that prevents you from meditating in the first place. That’s the feeling that meditation could help reduce as you become more aware and present. One study even found that 10 minutes of meditation made people perceive time as passing more slowly.
And as this video from Happy Free Spirit explains, that 10 minutes you spend meditating will actually save you time later – minutes, hours, or even days:
Problem: I’m terrible at meditation
Kabat-Zinn advises the beginning meditator to take delicate care of their meditation practice…for the first 30-40 years.
If ever there were an activity that’s hard to be a beginner at, meditation might be it. It’s so easy to imagine this spiritual ideal of ourselves in perfect tranquility, the breath moving in and out peacefully, our minds obediently blank.
But that’s not what meditation is. The practice of meditation is actually in the distractions, in bringing our attention away from the wandering thoughts and back to the present. Wandering thoughts are the weights that train the muscles of the mind.
We can’t attack meditation the way we might pounce on any other task, eager for progress and improvement and ready to judge how we’re doing. Meditation requires exactly the opposite attitude.
“Until and unless you implement it and sustain it through ongoing, regular practice, leavened with an appropriate attitude of gentleness and kindness toward yourself, mindfulness can easily remain simply one more thought to fill your head and make you feel inadequate…one more concept, one more slogan, one more chore, one more thing to schedule into your already too-busy day,” says Kabat-Zinn. “Mindfulness is not some kind of cold, hard, clinical, or analytical witnessing, nor is it a pushing through to some special, more desirable state of mind, nor a sorting through the detritus and debris of the mind to discover the gold underneath.”
The same is true of mindfulness itself, even outside of meditation. Brad Waters outlines an alternative to the perfectionistic pursuit of mindfulness:
Smalley and Winston list a host of obstacles you may come up against as you start to meditate. In all these instances, you can try to be mindful of the challenging feeling itself (sleepiness or restlessness, for example), in addition to trying the tactics below:
- Sleepiness: Try to meditate at a time of day when you’re most awake. If you still feel sleepy, try opening your eyes, taking longer breaths, and standing up or walking.
- Restlessness: If your thoughts are racing, sometimes it helps to try a more relaxing meditation, like a hearing meditation. Try to relax the body, which can help relax the mind.
- Doubt: If you’re feeling unsure – am I doing this right? – remind yourself of the reason you’re meditating. That will usually give you a boost of motivation to keep on trying.
- Aversion: If you get caught up in aversion during meditation – emotions like frustration, anger, irritation, grief, or hatred – try to conjure up positive emotions with a loving-kindness meditation.
- Boredom: If you’re bored during meditation, you’re probably only skimming the surface of observation. Try to be aware of more details of your surroundings – where can you feel your breath? How does one breath compare to the next? What is your posture, and what does your weight feel like against the chair?
- Fear: When worries or anxieties come up, ask yourself: am I okay right now? Almost always, the answer is yes.
Problem: I can’t stop ruminating
Described as restlessness above, repetitive negative thoughts are one of the biggest obstacles to calm during meditation and outside it. When we’re sad and we ruminate, we begin to feel powerless, self-critical, pessimistic, and negative. One of the reasons women are more prone to depression is because they’re more prone to rumination.
Rumination happens when we fail to create that distance from our thoughts: instead of standing next to the raging river and watching it thrash by, we fall in and get swept away by the current. So any strategies for rumination will have to help us take a step back.
Smalley and Winston mention two tactics that are useful when rumination seems unavoidable:
- Shift the focus to the body. When we ruminate, we’re so caught up in our thoughts that we forget altogether about our bodies. Moving the focus to the body can give us something else to direct our attention to and be curious about. If you decide to do a full meditation, a body scan can be appropriate here.
- Make light of the situation. Remember how we said mindfulness should be playful? One way to avoid rumination is to give the thoughts less power – make fun of them! “There’s another pessimistic thought. That track must be on repeat!” or “You again? Come on in, but just for a few minutes!”
Problem: I don’t want to live constantly in the present or accept everything
This obstacle isn’t really an obstacle at all, but more of a misunderstanding of what mindfulness is. Although “mindfulness” and “living in the present” are sometimes used interchangeably, they’re not exactly the same. In the present moment, you may decide to reflect on the past or daydream about the future, and you can do that mindfully. Mindfulness doesn’t mean you can’t plan for the future, just that you don’t have to obsessively worry about it against your own will.
As for accepting everything, the acceptance involved in mindfulness is not the kind that says, “Whatever, it’s all good.” It’s the kind that says, “Okay, this is the way things are. I see it clearly, without slapping my own interpretation onto it. This is the reality I have to deal with, and now I’ll figure out what to do.”
Watch Kabat-Zinn explain in detail the attitude of acceptance (he also explains the other eight attitudes of mindfulness in short YouTube videos, if you’re interested):
Why should we push through these obstacles? A mindful life is a life no longer lived on autopilot. We take action, make decisions, and react more consciously, and that shifts the way we live in the world.
We get to know ourselves better, seeing what’s important to us and how we sometimes sabotage our best intentions. With that knowledge comes the ability to make changes, and to be kind to ourselves when change doesn’t happen as quickly as we hope. In the process of getting happier, mindfulness is a tool we can apply to monitor our progress, see what’s working and what isn’t, and become our own biggest supporter.
Sources and further reading:
- Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (chapter 4)
- Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
- Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment – and Your Life
- Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston, Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness