So you’ve begun your meditation practice. You know all the amazing benefits of meditation and are excited about this change in your routine.
And then problems set in… body aches, itching, thoughts, sleepiness. Who ever thought just sitting could be so hard?!
I’ve practiced meditation for several years, but it’s only been the last couple months that I have consistently meditated every day, for about 20 minutes each time. And while I enjoy meditating, I’ve hit some bumps along the way, too. We all encounter bumps along the Way, don’t we?
The thing is, there really are no “problems” in meditation.
A problem is only a “problem” when we perceive it as such. In fact, meditation is a great way to help us reframe how we interpret and react to our experiences, especially the ones we judge as “negative.”
Once you’ve learned some basic meditation tips to get started on your journey, you may need some guidance for the small detours along your path.
Body: aches and irritations
Bodily aches are common in meditation. They can be due to our posture, or because once we’ve quieted the mind and concentrated our awareness on the body, we notice small discomforts that previously escaped our attention.
Mindfulness meditation is about bringing our nonjudgmental awareness to our present moment experience, both internal and external. It is noticing our thoughts and our bodily sensations, without labeling them as desirable or unpleasant.
When you experience itching, pain, or discomfort during meditation, bring your awareness to the sensation. What does it feel like? Where exactly do you feel it? I find that doing this immediately lessens the sensation of pain or irritation. I suspect that this is why mindfulness has been clinically demonstrated to help relieve chronic pain – much of our experience of pain is based on our perception of and reaction to our body’s sensations.
Meditation teachers recommend sitting with discomfort when it arises. In many ways, it is helpful practice for learning to make peace with the present moment, even when it contains something we don’t like. It also teaches us that unpleasant thoughts and sensations come and go, and we don’t need to engage with or get wrapped up in them.
All that said, there are things you can do to address some of these common discomforts. Gentle stretching before sitting can be helpful. It may also help to recognize that, as with any activity, some initial soreness may be experienced until you have more practice.
Alternatively, you can find a different position for meditation – knee pain can be alleviated by sitting in a chair with feet planted on the floor, and knee and back pain can be helped by lying down. If lying down hurts your lower back, try bending your knees and planting your feet on the floor while lying on your back.
And if all of these suggestions don’t help, then move! This is not about punishing the body.
Mind: thoughts and boredom
It’s a terrible misconception that mindfulness meditation is about emptying the mind, or getting rid of thoughts entirely. You will have thoughts while you are meditating! Stopping your thoughts in meditation is about as practical as stopping your breath. So don’t let “I’m thinking so I’m clearly not doing it right!” be your “problem.”
When you have a thought while you are meditating, simply acknowledgethe thought and watch it rise and fall in your awareness. You don’t need to engage the thought; you just observe it.
You can use anchor words to name the type of thought: “worrying,” “planning,” “judging,” or simply “thinking.” Note what the mind is doing and then return to your breath.
Being aware that your mind has wandered off with a thought is the entire point of meditation – the moment when you recognize your mind has wandered is a moment of mindfulness. And it’s okay to have tens or hundreds or of those moments in your meditation session!
What could seem more boring than sitting on the floor staring at the wall for 20 minutes? What could be more unproductive, more pointless, more unpractical?
In our constantly connected, constantly talkingmovingengaging world, taking 20 or more minutes out of your day may seem like a colossal waste of time. Once you’ve made the commitment to meditation, you may find yourself five minutes into your session wondering, “Is this it?”
The answer, of course, is yes.
It may be boring. Fine. Sit with your boredom. Where is the boredom coming from? I can think of few things less important than learning to tolerate boredom.
Get curious about your boredom. Jon Kabat-Zinn says that even boredom is fascinating when we bring our awareness to it!
Mind and Body: restlessness and sleepiness
The quiet and stillness of meditation may make you sleepy. You may actually fall asleep! I am of the mindset that if you fall asleep during meditation, you probably needed sleep more than contemplation at that moment, and you shouldn’t feel like you “failed.”
But if you’re reading this, you want to meditate, not sleep. Perhaps change the time of day that you meditate. I’ve learned that early morning or early evening are the best times for me. If I try to meditate in the afternoon, a normal time of low energy for most people, I am too sleepy. You can also adjust your position. Perhaps sitting in a straight chair, or sitting on the floor, would help your alertness.
“If restlessness and worry is present … one knows ‘there is restlessness-and-worry.” — Buddha
The aches, itches, thoughts, and boredom might make you restless. This time, it’s not pain that’s making you want to move; it might be your discomfort with stillness and silence. Or perhaps it’s irritation. It may feel like a craving for some stimulation or entertainment. It might be a sense that you’re not getting the important work done.
Trust me, you are doing the important work.
Observe your restlessness. Notice where restlessness manifests in your body.
And return to the breath.
Again and again.
With meditation, the first step is not admitting you have a problem.
It’s realizing there’s not a problem at all.”
By Sarah Rudell Beach