I never thought I’d be the kind of person to meditate. I didn’t have flowy white robes, prayer beads or a strong connection to my chakras. I dismissed it as something mystical. Pretentious. Even a bit gimmicky. Sure, many people swear by it, but then again people swear by “The Secret” or the healing powers of gemstones.
Then I learned more about it, and there’s nothing mumbo-jumbo about the cognitive benefits of meditation. I’m now swayed by the mountain of evidence (like this, this and this) that meditation is capable — maybe even uniquely capable — of sharpening our minds and soothing our nerves. It’s a gym for the brain.
While all of this is true, there’s also another, less discussed truth: Meditation is sort of a pain in the ass — especially when you’re a newb. I’m still very, very, early in the meditation journey (also, I still laugh at phrases like “meditation journey”). So instead of pretending that I’m suddenly an authority, I can share the five ways I struggled with meditation … and how to (kind of) overcome them.
1. Waffling on how to start.
When I moved into my apartment four years ago, I decided I should get a rug. But what color? What size? What texture? The rug wasn’t really critical to my apartment’s functionality, so, overwhelmed by the thousands of choices, I just put it off indefinitely. I still don’t have a rug. (Can you believe I’m still single?)
In psychology this is called the Paradox of Choice, and I felt this paradox when sifting through my options for meditation. I dawdled for weeks. “Use YouTube videos of guided meditation,” suggested one friend. “Pay for one-on-one instruction,” said another. “Just read a meditation book.” (I did, and now recommend Jack Kornfield’s Meditation for Beginners.) Finally I followed the same ritual used by ancient monks: choosing the app with the highest rating in the iTunes store. I chose Headspace.
2. Remembering to do it.
This is by far the hardest part. As Woody Allen said, “Half of life is just showing up,” and with mediation, it’s at least 90 percent of the battle. Most beginner programs are just 10 minutes a day. That sounds doable. After only three days, though, I shamefully let it get bumped from a crowded schedule. I’d plan to meditate after work, then I’d get invited to a happy hour and, well, the rest is history. Solution: Meditate first thing in the morning. For me, that’s the only way it sticks.
3. Grumbling about the price.
The first 10 sessions of Headspace are free. After that, you have four options:
2) Pay a monthly fee of $12.95
3) Pay an annual fee of about $100 (there’s also a 2-year plan), or
4) Pay $420 to use it forever.
This gave me sticker-shock. Suddenly I became annoyed with my new best friend, Andy Puddicombe, the voice of Headspace and an ex-Buddhist monk who serves as my daily mentor — my Yoda. It affected the sessions. On days eight and nine, as I’m trying to focus on my breathing like Andy tells me in the app, I’m thinking, “He’s a huckster! He’s trying to get me hooked on this thing, only to take my money!” Was I becoming a meditation junkie and he the dealer?
So after those 10 free days, I quit. There must be a cheaper option, right? I tried Calm but I didn’t like it as much. I tried to do it myself, but I soon felt lost. Finally I caved, forked over the annual membership, and started again from the beginning. Now my mindset has changed. I no longer resent the fee, and I feel childish about my protest. Gyms cost money. Books cost money. Why shouldn’t this?
4. Panic that you’re “doing it wrong.”
The mind is built to wander. That’s what it does. When my eyes are closed and I’m listening to Andy’s velvety British voice, and when I’m supposed to be concentrating on my breath and nothing else, it seems that I can’t go three seconds — literally three seconds — without thinking about dinner or a deadline or who will rule Westeros in Game of Thrones. In the beginning I spent much of my time thinking, “I suck at this.” But Andy tells me there’s good news: This is totally normal. In fact, it’s actually a key part of the training: Every time your mind wanders and you gently reel it back in, you are teaching your brain to concentrate. It’s one more rep on the bench-press. It’s this very wandering — and our noticing it, reacting to it — that ignites cognitive change. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it wrong. All that matters is that you’re doing.
5. Frustration that there’s no Big Epiphany.
When you first pick up weight-lifting, you won’t instantly become a bodybuilder. If you stick with a program, however, you will make real gains. It’s a near certainty. Or that’s what I tell myself, anyways, when I lament my lack of Nirvana. I haven’t yet found some BIG IMPORTANT ANSWER about life. But who cares? I remind myself that the goal is to make incremental gains, feel calmer, flex the mind, trim my anxiety and become more mindful — more present.
And while it’s far too early to declare my mission accomplished, my gut tells me that I’m nudging in the right direction. Yes, meditation can be a pain in the ass. But so is going to the gym. So is getting up early to volunteer for a charity. So is parenting. It’s not easy and it’s not free. But if something’s truly worthwhile, is it ever?