The Struggle with Meditation: Why It's Not as Easy as It Seems
Updated: Jul 23
This is such a common question that we get! Clients often tell us that meditation feels difficult, so we had one of our resident therapists, Hall Birdsong, who loves talking about living a peaceful life and developing a consistent practice within meditation, share his tips for how to implement this beautiful yet often elusive practice into your daily life in a way that feels helpful and positive.
What is meditation?
Meditation is an ancient practice with many forms, dating as far back as 1500 BCE. This beautiful practice has been present in many cultures throughout the world and has provided many people with a method to connect with the world within them and the world beyond them.
Currently, most people understand meditation as a practice that helps them cultivate certain states, such as wisdom and compassion, and decrease negative experiences like anxiety and depression. Most meditation practices you hear about in modern times actually derives primarily from what is known as the Tehravada Buddhist tradition of mindfulness, which involves learning how to be aware of the present moment and cultivating a deeper understanding of your mind and emotions. Despite its long-standing presence throughout history, only recently has meditation converged with neuroscience, with the first physiological studies of meditation in the 1950s and the first clinical studies in the 1970s. Since then, scientific research has made enormous strides in demonstrating the remarkable psychological and physical health benefits associated with meditating regularly.
Science-based benefits of meditating are:
reduced age-related memory loss
increased kindness and compassion
Why is Meditation so Hard?
So you might be thinking....if this practice is so beneficial…why do so many of us struggle with doing it? I’ve found this is a common question, and I think it stems from people using meditation almost like a “prescription”, or a means to an end, which fundamentally distorts the power of the practice and the deeper and more subtle ways it can change your relationship with life.
If meditation is only practiced with the intention of gaining peace or getting rid of anxiety, it will likely begin to feel mechanical and arduous over time, like another chore you don’t want to do. This is why maintaining a regular practice is often quite difficult. In fact, when you first sit down and face your own thoughts with no distractions, you may be shocked to find just how loud your mind is and how illusive the peace is that you’re seeking. You may feel you’ve been sold an empty promise, another self-help fix that works for others but never you. This is the point where most of us go to war with our minds and try to quiet our thoughts, before quitting the practice entirely out of frustration.
But as one wise teacher said, “If you go to war with your mind, you’ll be at war forever.” Trying to quiet your mind isn’t, technically speaking, meditation, but rather a form of concentration. And even if you’re successful at quieting the mind during formal practice, as soon as you stand up and resume your day, the mind will spring back to life. Force isn’t the answer.
Biological and Psychological Barriers
Meditation is not just a mental exercise; it also involves physiological changes in the brain and body. This section explores some of the biological and psychological factors that can make meditation difficult, and offers tips and techniques to overcome them.
Neuroscience of Meditation
Meditation has been shown to have a range of positive effects on brain structure and function. By understanding the neuroscience of meditation, we can better understand how it works and what benefits it may provide. This subsection explores the following aspects of the neuroscience of meditation:
The Brain Regions Involved in Meditation
Research has identified a number of brain regions that are active during meditation, including the prefrontal cortex, the insula, and the cingulate cortex. These regions are involved in attention, self-awareness, and emotional regulation, and may help explain why meditation can improve these cognitive and emotional processes.
The Impact of Meditation on Brain Plasticity
Brain plasticity refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt in response to experience. Studies have shown that meditation can enhance brain plasticity, leading to changes in brain structure and function. For example, meditation has been shown to increase the density of gray matter in certain brain regions, as well as to increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex.
The Effects of Long-Term Meditation Practice on the Brain
Long-term meditation practice has been associated with a range of structural and functional changes in the brain. For example, studies have found that experienced meditators have greater gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex and other regions associated with attention and emotion regulation. Other studies have found that long-term meditation practice can enhance connectivity between brain regions, leading to more efficient information processing and greater cognitive flexibility.
By understanding the neuroscience of meditation, we can appreciate the complex ways in which meditation can change the brain and contribute to a range of physical, emotional, and cognitive benefits.
Brainwaves and How They Affect Meditation
Brainwaves are the electrical patterns generated by the brain during different states of consciousness. These patterns are measured using an electroencephalogram (EEG), which can detect the frequency and amplitude of different types of brainwaves. Understanding how brainwaves affect meditation can help us optimize our meditation practice for maximum benefits. This subsection explores the following aspects of brainwaves and meditation:
The Role of Alpha, Theta, and Delta Brainwaves in Meditation
Alpha brainwaves (8-12 Hz) are associated with relaxed, wakeful states of consciousness. Theta brainwaves (4-8 Hz) are associated with deeper states of relaxation and meditation, while delta brainwaves (0.5-4 Hz) are associated with deep sleep and unconsciousness. During meditation, practitioners often aim to enter into a state of relaxed wakefulness, characterized by alpha and theta brainwaves.
How Brainwave Patterns Change During Meditation
Studies have found that different types of meditation can lead to different patterns of brainwave activity. For example, mindfulness meditation has been associated with increased alpha and theta activity, while Transcendental Meditation has been associated with increased alpha and gamma activity. Over time, regular meditation practice can lead to changes in baseline brainwave patterns, with increased activity in alpha and theta waves.
The Benefits of Reaching Deeper States of Consciousness During Meditation
Deep states of meditation, characterized by theta and delta brainwaves, can provide a range of benefits for physical and mental health. These benefits include reduced stress and anxiety, improved immune function, and increased creativity and intuition. However, reaching these deeper states of consciousness can be difficult, and may require years of regular practice.
Fight or Flight Response and How it Hinders Meditation
The fight or flight response is a natural reaction to stress that prepares the body for action. It involves a complex interplay between the nervous system, hormones, and other physiological processes. While this response can be helpful in emergency situations, chronic stress can lead to a range of health problems, including anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease. Moreover, the fight or flight response can interfere with meditation practice in several ways. This subsection explores the following aspects of the fight or flight response and meditation:
How Stress Affects the Body and Brain
Stress can have a range of effects on the body and brain, including increased heart rate, elevated cortisol levels, and decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (a brain region involved in decision-making and self-control). These changes can make it difficult to focus and can interfere with meditation practice.
The Impact of Stress on Meditation Practice
Stress can make it harder to enter into a state of relaxation and focus during meditation. It can also lead to distracting thoughts and feelings of restlessness. Over time, chronic stress can make it harder to maintain a regular meditation practice, leading to decreased benefits.
Techniques to Reduce Stress and Quiet the Fight or Flight Response During Meditation
There are several techniques that can help reduce stress and quiet the fight or flight response during meditation. These techniques include deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and mindfulness techniques such as body scans and loving-kindness meditation. By learning to quiet the fight or flight response, we can improve our ability to focus and enter into deeper states of meditation.
The Role of the Default Mode Network
The default mode network is a network of brain regions that are active when the mind is at rest and not focused on the outside world. This network is involved in a range of mental processes, including self-referential thinking, mind-wandering, and social cognition. While the default mode network is important for many aspects of mental life, it can also interfere with meditation practice in several ways. This subsection explores the following aspects of the default mode network and meditation:
The Relationship Between the Default Mode Network and Self-Referential Thinking
The default mode network is particularly active during self-referential thinking, which involves thinking about oneself and one's experiences. While this type of thinking can be helpful in some contexts, it can also lead to rumination, worry, and other forms of negative thinking. Meditation practice can help to reduce self-referential thinking and activate other brain networks, leading to a more positive and open mindset.
How the Default Mode Network Can Interfere with Meditation
The default mode network can interfere with meditation practice by promoting mind-wandering and distracting thoughts. This can make it difficult to focus and enter into deeper states of meditation. Additionally, the default mode network can be activated during negative emotional states, leading to increased rumination and negative thinking.
Techniques to Quiet the Default Mode Network and Improve Meditation Practice
There are several techniques that can help to quiet the default mode network and improve meditation practice. These techniques include focusing on the breath, visualizing peaceful images, and practicing mindfulness techniques such as body scans and loving-kindness meditation. By quieting the default mode network, we can reduce distracting thoughts and improve our ability to focus and enter into deeper states of meditation.
By understanding the role of the default mode network in meditation, we can develop strategies to optimize our practice and enhance the benefits of meditation for our mental and physical health.
Ways to Overcome Biological and Psychological Barriers
Tips and techniques to overcome biological and psychological barriers to meditation:
Mindfulness techniques to improve self-awareness and focus
Breathing exercises to regulate the nervous system and reduce stress
Body awareness exercises to release tension and promote relaxation
Techniques to cultivate compassion and kindness towards oneself and others
By understanding the biological and psychological barriers to meditation and practicing techniques to overcome them, you can develop a more effective and fulfilling meditation practice.
Hall's Tips: How to Meditate with Ease
To start developing a consistent practice of meditation, pay attention to the quality of gentleness, rather than force. Rather than focusing on your breath, notice your breath. Notice the way your body is just breathing, without any effort on your part. Notice that your heart is beating. You don’t have to do anything to earn it or deserve it. It just beats. Notice that your eyes are seeing. Your ears are hearing. You do not need to create, maintain, or manufacture these phenomena. They are already occurring. Simply notice them. Whether you notice them for a moment, five minutes, or thirty minutes, you’re doing it. You’re meditating.
These are unimaginably complicated processes happening in your body, yet they all feel quite natural and easy. When you begin to feel your way into this, you will start to understand what it feels like to flow with your experience, rather than against it. This is what the great zen masters meant by the phrase “effortless effort.” This is a great starting point for establishing a more accessible and rewarding practice.
Remember, at its core, meditation is non-violence. This is a concept we see in the philosophy of yoga as well, known as ahimsa. (to learn more about yoga philosophy, check out this blog post). In a way, most of us are very violent towards ourselves and toward life, always trying to control everything and allowing our inner critic to dominate our thoughts and actions. The practice of meditation is about letting go of control, which really just means letting be. It is about allowing your experience to be just as it is in the present moment, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant, and to watch how letting be, paradoxically, cultivates the space necessary for your mind to slow down, without any effort on your part.
Keep in mind, this practice doesn’t have to be done while sitting. By “tuning in'' or tapping into your intuition throughout the day and becoming aware of your breath and your senses, without any direction, goal, or method, meditation can become your natural state of being.
I recognize that even while this sounds simple in theory, it can be really hard, especially if you are struggling with your current emotional state. This brings us to the paradox of change.
How Do People Change?
How people change is a core element of therapy. There are many different therapy approaches and theories, but the one thing scientific research has shown again and again, is that 94% of therapeutic outcomes comes down to the relationship you have with your therapist. If this is a good relationship, you will feel un
conditional positive regard, acceptance, and empathy. In other words, you feel accepted just as you are.
I find that meditation and therapy are quite complementary and work well together as both encourage awareness and acceptance of one’s current state. When people allow themselves to be fully in touch with who they currently are and what is happening in their mental and emotional world, change and growth then have the space to emerge. And that is s the paradox of change! The longer you foster a meditative attitude towards your inner experience and the circumstances of your life, the more you discover that this is not a passive state at all, but a dynamic and creative one. Meditation is, counterintuitively, a method that nurtures fluidity, freedom, and possibility.
Be Your Best Self & Thrive Counseling uses a holistic, non-judgmental approach to help you build an alliance with your mind, body and spirit that work together for your benefit. We love teaching individuals how they can use meditative practices to find more peace, happiness and joy in their lives.
Book your free consultation in St. Petersburg, FL here to get started on your meditation journey today!
Frequently Asked Questions About How To Meditate
Even with a better understanding of meditation, you may still have questions about its safety, effectiveness, and practical application. This section provides answers to some of the most common questions about meditation.
Can Meditation be Harmful?
Meditation is generally considered safe and beneficial for most people. However, there are some potential risks and side effects to be aware of, especially for people with certain health conditions or mental health issues. This subsection explains the possible risks and benefits of meditation, including:
The potential for negative experiences such as anxiety, panic, or disorientation
The importance of seeking guidance from a qualified teacher or mental health professional
How to find a meditation practice that is safe and appropriate for your needs
How Long Does it Take to See Benefits from Meditation?
The benefits of meditation can vary depending on the individual and the type of practice. This subsection explores the timeline for seeing benefits from meditation, including:
The immediate effects of relaxation and stress reduction
The long-term effects of increased self-awareness, compassion, and emotional regulation
How to set realistic expectations for your meditation practice
Is it Normal to Feel Sleepy During Meditation?
Feeling sleepy or drowsy during meditation is a common experience, especially for beginners. This subsection explains why you might feel sleepy during meditation and offers tips for staying alert and focused, including:
How the relaxation response can trigger drowsiness
Techniques to increase energy and focus during meditation, such as breathing exercises or visualization
How to adjust your posture or environment to promote wakefulness
Can Meditation Help with Anxiety and Depression?
Meditation has been shown to have positive effects on mental health, including anxiety and depression. This subsection explains how meditation can help with anxiety and depression, including:
The impact of mindfulness on emotional regulation and cognitive flexibility
The benefits of meditation for reducing rumination and negative self-talk
How to integrate meditation into a comprehensive treatment plan for mental health conditions
How Can I Find the Right Meditation Technique for Me?
There are many different types of meditation techniques, and finding the right one for you can be a process of trial and error. This subsection offers tips for exploring different meditation techniques and finding the one that works best for your needs, including:
The importance of starting with a basic technique such as breath awareness or body scan
How to assess your preferences and goals for meditation
How to seek guidance from qualified teachers or resources to deepen your practice
By addressing these common questions about meditation, you can develop a better understanding of its benefits and potential pitfalls, and feel more confident in pursuing a meditation practice that works for you.