Like playing golf or making the perfect boiled egg, meditation sounds a lot easier than it actually is. After all, you just sit there with your eyes closed—until, inevitably, you can’t stop thinking about your endless to-do list, or your leg starts to cramp, or you have to use the bathroom.
Sure, there’s a whole lot more to meditation than simply sitting still, but it doesn’t have to be so difficult. “At the most basic level, meditation is simply about thinking thoughts, then letting go of them,” says Suze Yalof Schwartz, founder of Unplug Meditation. “It’s about learning to distinguish between thoughts that serve us and thoughts that don’t.” Yet all of us—even the pros—experience some growing pains when we begin.
If you want to take advantage of the science-backed benefits of meditation—better sleep, stronger relationships, less stress, and a healthier heart, to name a few—check out what meditation and mindfulness experts struggled with at first. Then use their practical advice to overcome obstacles of your own.
1. I couldn’t stop thinking.
When I first started meditating, I had the misunderstanding that I wasn’t supposed to have any thoughts. I constantly thought I was doing it “wrong” because I could not stop thinking! And the more I judged myself, the less likely I was to meditate.What worked for me: When I learned that meditation includes observing our thoughts but not attaching to them, I stop judging myself as a bad meditator. To help me disengage from my constant to-do list going through my head, I kept a journal next to my meditation pillow. When I had a thought I wanted to remember or let go of, I would simply open my eyes and write it down. Then I’d close my eyes and come back to my breath. Giving myself permission to design a practice that worked for my very active mind was very helpful. — Christine Hassler, life coach and author of Expectation Hangover
2. I didn’t want to just sit there.
When I first started meditating, I had the same three doubts many people do: I can’t sit still, I can’t turn my mind off, and I don’t have the time. What worked for me: All you really have to do is focus on your breath, whether it’s for one hour, one minute, or even 16 seconds. You could even accumulatively meditate all day long: standing in line at Starbucks, sitting in traffic, waiting for a meeting to start. And you don’t have to sit still—you can move around and meditate at the same time. — Suze Yalof Schwartz, founder of Unplug Meditation
3. I kept falling asleep.
I started meditating when I was a sleep-deprived, stressed-out sophomore in college. I meditated twice a day, in the morning and afternoon for 20 minutes each. But most afternoons when I tried to meditate, I would fall asleep! What worked for me: I slept longer and had some coffee or tea before meditating. — Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World
4. I didn’t have enough time.
My biggest excuse was “I don’t have time.” Then I thought about it rationally: If I have time to watch “Goat Babies in Pajamas“ on YouTube, I can certainly choose to take five minutes to meditate. Some days it’s more, some days it’s none, but I now see meditation as an opportunity to tap in, not another thing to fit in.What worked for me: I set an alarm for the time I have carved out to meditate, or I physically write it in my day planner, usually midday. (I’ve learned early morning doesn’t work for me—I know it’s supposed to set up the day powerfully, but all I can think about is coffee!) There is no right or wrong way to meditate—just do it! — Bethany Lyons, co-founder of Lyons Den Power Yoga
5. I didn’t want to “do nothing”.
When I began meditation, the very idea of sitting still and “doing nothing” was a huge obstacle. What I soon learned was that I was training my mind when I meditated, not “doing nothing”. I began to learn that meditation gave me the chance to gain perspective, listen to my inner wisdom, and make more conscious choices about how I wanted to show up for my life.What worked for me: Begin with “mini-trainings” of 10 minutes of meditation each day, and include simple practices like focusing on the experience of drinking a cup of coffee or walking down a hallway. — Janice L. Marturano, executive director, Institute for Mindful Leadership
6. I thought meditation had to be formal.
The one thing I found most difficult at first was making time for formal sitting meditation. I first got into it at the end of my last year at university, and after graduation I started working for a large company. I loved the work, but my days were long and I no longer had as much time to dedicate to formal sitting like I had as a student.What worked for me: The key was turning how I understood meditation upside down. Instead of complaining that I didn’t have time for meditation, I got interested in how I could develop awareness, calm, and kindness whether I was in meetings, on the train, at the gym, or working online. And I started hacking together little techniques for each of those different places. I still did formal practice, but I made it secondary to the more on-the-go style. — Rohan Gunatillake, director of Mindfulness Everywhere and founder of Buddify
7. I wanted to move around.
I started meditating when I was six years old, so the big obstacle for me was just sitting still! And it wasn’t just six-year-old me: That itch to move continued for quite some time. The non-meditating mind runs around at 100 miles per hour, and the body often wants to follow it. Only in recent years have I been able to relax the mind to the point where my desire to move about has lessened.What worked for me: People don’t want to hear it, but meditation takes a lot (a lot!) of time before it starts to become “easier”. Trying meditation three times and saying it doesn’t work for you is like going for a run three times and being frustrated you didn’t lose weight. In the same vein, if you meditate every day for a number of weeks, it becomes easier to do and you start to see results—you’ll be more present, calmer, more focused, and, dare I say it, kinder. So the best way to settle into meditation is to be patient and give it a chance to take root. — Lodro Rinzler, Sonima meditation expert and author of How to Love Yourself (and Sometimes Other People)
8. I couldn’t quiet my mind.
Racing thoughts was the biggest hurdle to consistent meditation for me. I could sit down, but then I was left with this interior world of thoughts. And my thoughts were particularly mean-spirited. When I closed my eyes and tried to quiet them, they became even louder, even more mean-spirited. What worked for me: I overcame this obstacle by giving my intellect something to do—in my case, repetition of a mantra. The ego always needs to be “doing”, and repeating a mantra guides my mind to a deeper, less active experience. — Jeff Kober, meditation expert with Buick’s 24 Hours of Happiness Test Drive
9. It hurt my legs and back.
When I first started trying to meditate, my calves and feet would fall asleep with the most painful pins and needles ever, and my back would hurt like crazy. What worked for me: My breakthrough came when I went on a retreat and the teacher showed me how to prop myself up with cushions and blocks so I could sit with proper elevation and support. Because we were meditating all the time on that 14-day retreat and I was finally sitting in correct alignment thanks to the props, my spine got stronger. I’ve never had problems since! — Brett Larkin, yoga and meditation teacher
10. I kept thinking, “How much longer?”
When I first started meditating, I was definitely not a “natural”. My mantra in those days was “How much longer?” My mind was like a monkey, jumping around all over the place, from my to-do list to the pain in my hip to my endless list of self-criticisms.What worked for me: First, I made an agreement with myself to meditate every day for 21 days, no matter what. If I hadn’t made this commitment, I’m pretty sure I would’ve given up out of sheer frustration. Like any new habit, it takes time for our neural pathways to rewire, so we are slowly building our attention muscle—the same way you build muscle by weight lifting. We also need to be a bit patient with ourselves as we learn a new skill. Once I was able to give up expecting my mind to be quiet and stop judging my experiences, it all seemed to flow a lot easier. — Lynne Goldberg, founder of OMG! I Can Meditate
11. I wasn’t consistent.
The biggest challenge I remember as a student of meditation was inconsistency. I seemed to oscillate between rigorous practice and irregularity. The problem? I was trying to fit in meditation.What worked for me: Whatever we build into our lives—make a consistent and unquestioned fixture in our schedule—occurs. Whatever is fitted in only gets done part of the time. So if you want to deepen the consistency of your meditation practice, build it into your life. Then it won’t easily get pushed out by life circumstances, variable moods, or waning energy. — Jeffrey Rubin, Ph.D., psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and author of Meditative Psychotherapy
12. I didn’t want to bring up emotions.
From childhood, I learned to repress (rather than express) feelings such as fear, anger, and disappointment. Over many years, we develop maladaptive coping strategies to keep these emotions buried, such as workaholism, consumerism, or drugs and alcohol. The difficulty I found in meditation is that when I stopped to focus inward, the repressed emotions would surface, and I’d feel anxious and unable to focus or sit still—what psychologists refer to as “neurotic anxiety”.What worked for me: No one wants to feel those emotions they’ve been running from since childhood. It’s an ongoing process, one I’ve been working on for more than 20 years of daily practice. What’s key for me: a supportive community of friends and working one-on-one with great meditation teachers over the years. I highly recommend both. — Josh Korda, teacher at Dharmapunx NYC
13. I kept thinking about my to-do list.
My biggest hurdle at the beginning of my practice was stilling my mind. The moment I’d sit down to meditate, my to-do lists and other thoughts would start to run through my head.What worked for me: Over time I learned to allow the thoughts to come and go, rather than push them away. I’d witness the thought and then return to my mantra or my breath. I learned to accept the thoughts as part of the practice. — Gabby Bernstein, New York Times-bestselling author of Miracles Now
14. I quit after two weeks.
My first meditation experience was a weekly class in college. The instructor would walk around and thwack us on the back with a bamboo stick each time we raised our hands to signal a thought drifting into our mind. Well, I had lots of thoughts. (Ouch!) Needless to say, I only lasted two weeks in that class.What worked for me: Later, I learned that it’s normal to have thoughts—whether it’s “I’m not doing it right” or thinking about your love life. Let the thoughts come, then gently let them go. And stay the course: When you have a consistent daily meditation practice rather than have only sporadic tastes of that blissful present awareness, you begin to experience that bliss more and more in your everyday life. — Davidji, Grokker meditation expert
15. I kept judging myself.
The greatest challenge in meditation, and my life, was what I call the “trance of unworthiness”. On some level I was always evaluating how well my meditation was going and concluding it needed to be better. This paralleled my life where I had an ideal of who I should be and chronically felt I was falling short, imperfect: I should be more generous, less self-centered, less judgmental. The effect of feeling insufficient was a lot of striving and rarely relaxing and enjoying the gratification of the present moment just as it was.What worked for me: I became mindful of how a sense of personal deficiency and failure was a pervasive source of suffering. Rather than judging myself for getting caught up in obsessive thoughts, I would stay mindful and find the fear or hurt or longing that was driving those thoughts. — Tara Brach, meditation teacher and clinical psychologist