There are many guidelines out there for how to meditate. But it’s also good to understand what not to do in meditation. Here are 10 common pitfalls that keep you from getting the full benefit of your practice.
1. Engaging in a power struggle
Your mind wants to use your meditation time to think about your unpaid bills, but you would rather focus on a white light image. Guess which thoughts are going to win? The thoughts about bills. Every time. The more you resist them, the more they will persist. So if you want to make meditation feel a hundred times easier, practice leaning in to the unwanted thoughts, and surprisingly, they will start to go away on their own.
2. Grading your meditations
“This morning’s meditation was amazing.” “Yesterday’s meditation sucked.” “The meditations from last week were OK.” Stop labeling your meditations and comparing them to one another! Five years from now, there will be no one meditation that stands out for being incredible—or horrible. But the feeling you will have as a whole from meditating for that long will be noticeably and positively different from the one you have right now.
3. Being inconsistent
The best way to feel virtually no results in meditation is to be an inconsistent meditator. The problem here is that people think the value in meditation needs to be sourced within the individual meditations themselves when actually the true value of meditating is only ever found in your life outside of meditation and only as a result of meditating consistently.
If you find yourself with a bullhorn and posterboard with a pro-meditation slogan scribbled on it while barking about the benefits of meditation to anyone who will listen, you’re going to have the opposite effect. The best way to get your friends and family to pick up the daily practice of meditation is for you to quietly meditate every day like clockwork and let them see the benefits naturally and organically unfolding within you.
5. Getting single-meditation-itis
You had an amazing meditation. Now, you unfairly compare all of your other meditations to that one pinnacle experience. And if you haven’t been able to get back to nirvana, you begin judging the boring meditations as being ineffective, or you become insecure about your abilities. Like showering, the overwhelming majority of meditations are going to be uneventful. But, also like showering, you will notice a tangible effect that follows each meditation, because you feel clearer and more focused. And if you happen to have the occasional moment of bliss in meditation, treat it as an exceptional surprise rather than a hard-fought goal.
When meditating, there is no need for a play-by-play dictation of experiences, as if you’re Marv Albert calling a basketball game. In other words, if you’re having thoughts like: “Now I’m just sitting here thinking,” and “Now I’m falling asleep.” “Oh, no, there’s that annoying thought about my ex again…” just allow yourself to engage nonchalantly in your thoughts, and you’ll eventually lose awareness of the fact that you’re meditating—which, by the way, is when you’re really meditating.
7. Looking for perfection
You are afraid to miss a meditation. Or the environment has to be perfectly quiet, or dark, or distraction-free in order for you to meditate successfully. To liberate yourself from the burden of perfection, try purposefully meditating in noisy and distracting places. Eventually, you’ll make yourself resilient to most noises and distractions.
8. Treating it like an emergency room
Do you only meditate on the dramatic days? If so, you’re giving the power of meditation too much credit. It can still be effective, but understand that meditation is less emergency medicine and more preventive maintenance. By waiting until you really need it, the last thing you’re going to feel like doing is meditating and, ironically, it won’t seem to work fast enough or be effective enough in the midst of all the drama.
9. Having an agenda
You enter into your meditations with a to-do list: “I need to figure out the solution to this problem,” or “I want to feel this particular way afterward.” These expectations actually work against your interests, because they keep your mind in judgmental mode, particularly if what you want to happen doesn’t end up happening. What’s really happening is your body’s intelligence is in charge, and you’re merely the facilitator of the experience. Let your intelligence do it’s job, and just sit back and enjoy the ride.
In the gym world, "cheating" is when doing pull-ups or bench presses, you’re not going all the way up or all the way down. Or, you’re swinging your entire body to perform the exercise instead of using your core to do the work. To the untrained eye, your efforts may look sufficient, and your number of repetitions are high. But if cheating becomes the norm, you’re ultimately not going to get the results you’re looking for (plus, you risk injury). A meditation cheat is when you’re meditating consistently, but short-changing yourself on the time. Let's say your commitment is to meditate for 15 minutes a day, but you regularly stop after 5 minutes, or 8 minutes, because it feels like nothing is happening. That's cheating. Just like in the gym, it's happening because you are being outcome-oriented instead of process-oriented, not realizing that you’re only cheating yourself. If you decide to meditate for 15 minutes, then sit for the entire 15 minutes.
Light Watkins is a Santa Monica–based Vedic Meditation teacher, mindbodygreen class instructor, TEDx speaker, and author of Bliss More, How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying. He grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and graduated from Howard University with a bachelor's in communications. Watkins recognized his passion for teaching meditation after meeting his Guru in 2002. Following years of daily meditation, Vedic studies, and apprenticeship, he traveled to India to be trained in the ancient ways of teaching meditation. His students have used meditation to treat symptoms of PTSD, hypertension, sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, and cancer.