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Spiritual Practices

Why People Don’t Meditate ... Even If They Want To

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Why is it so hard to jumpstart a meditation practice even when you really want to? There are generally two reasons why people don’t meditate.

When I first started meditating every day, most people thought I was weird. It was seen as a counterculture thing back then, not far removed from the psychedelic subculture, and probably just a passing trend kick-started by the Beatles’ sojourn in an Indian ashram. Only it didn’t pass, and lives were changed for the better, so curious scientists wondered why.

Before long, one study after another documented the benefits of meditation and the practice went mainstream: physicians prescribed it for high blood pressure and other ills; psychotherapists recommended it for anxiety and stress reduction; corporations and hospitals created meditation rooms. Then Christians and Jews adapted Eastern procedures—replacing Sanskrit mantras with words and phrases from their own traditions, for instance—and unlocked the vaults of their mystical past.

Now, if you say you meditate before breakfast every morning, no one bats an eye. Everyone, it seems, knows it’s a good thing to do.

This stamp of approval should make meditating as common as stopping at Starbucks for a caffeine fix. Instead, for a great many people, it’s more like cutting down on carbs: they know it would be good for them, but they don’t get around to doing it.

Why People Don’t Meditate

Why don’t they? There are many reasons, of course, but in my experience two stand out.

The most frequently mentioned excuse for why people don’t meditate, predictably, is lack of time. Even during a pandemic, virtually everyone feels that he or she has too much to do and too little time to do it in. Yet they always find time for things they value, whether it’s exercising, watching their favorite TV show, reading the Sunday paper, or taking their kids to a playground.

Which is why I always tell such people that if they really understood the value of regular meditation they’d find the time—if not an hour, then half an hour; if not half an hour, then fifteen minutes, or ten. All it takes is a little spiritual time management to make space to nurture our souls.

The real problem with those who say they don’t have time to meditate is that they don’t fully appreciate the logic of its value, and they haven’t yet experienced it in their lives. Americans are pragmatic, bottom-line people. But we’re also outwardly driven, deluded by the idea that fulfillment comes from what we do rather than what we are. Part of the reason why people don’t meditate is we think that ticking off items from our long to-do lists is more valuable than turning inward in silence.

Maybe the pandemic will change this, but as a culture we haven’t learned that there’s a direct line from inner well-being to the quality and success of our actions. Meditation is not an escape from responsibility or accomplishment; it’s a performance enhancer. By reducing stress and quieting the mind, it helps us access latent reservoirs of energy and creativity.

[Try out: “Accessing Your Creativity Meditation.”]

When people see proof of that premise in their own lives, they’re motivated to make time for meditation, just as they make time for other life-enhancing activities. The key is to do it long enough for its impact to become clear.

If you need a role model, consider Mahatma Gandhi, a rather busy fellow who was trying to drive a colonial power out of his homeland. At the start of one especially busy day, Gandhi reportedly said, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

Contemplate that for a while.

Why People Don’t Meditate (the Right Way)

The second reason why people don’t meditate even when they want to is they don’t know how. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say, “I’ve tried to meditate, but it doesn’t work for me,” or, “I’m not good at it.” When I ask if they’ve ever been taught how to meditate by a qualified instructor, the answer is usually no. For some reason, people think they ought to be able to pick up the practice on their own.

Well, you can pick up computer programming or scuba diving on your own too, but if you want to do such things well and get the most out of them, it’s a good idea to get some proper instruction—and getting some tips in a self-help magazine or trying to remember a guided relaxation from a stress management webinar is not proper instruction. As a result, the meditation experience is likely to be unsatisfying.

Then there are those who essentially make it up on their own. Having heard that meditation quiets the mind, they just try to, well, get their minds to shut up. And that’s virtually impossible. So they try harder, and that effort leads to strain and maybe a headache. As a result, we find situations like this: Someone suffers from anxiety; she decides to meditate to reduce that anxiety; but she hasn’t been properly instructed, so she gets anxious about her meditation; she tries harder to get it right; it becomes an unpleasant chore; she concludes it doesn’t work for her and gives it up.

The point is, an effective meditation practice should begin with proper instruction. Look for a form with an honorable history of proven use; that’s taught by a well-trained instructor; that can be performed with ease on your own; and that produces both immediate and long-term benefits. If you do that, you’ll see results in your life and you’ll have incentive to continue.

There are other reasons why people don’t meditate. One is, “Life is good, so I don’t need it.” That’s like neglecting diet or exercise because you’re not sick at the moment. Then there’s the opposite: “I’m under too much stress now.” To which the best response is, “Duh! What better reason to do it?” But shortage of time and lack of proper instruction are the main obstacles, and they’re easy to overcome if, like Gandhi, you recognize that investing some time in meditation pays dividends.

That recognition may not come immediately. So stick with it long enough to give peace a chance. Then you may find yourself asking why people don’t meditate more often.

Keep reading about meditation: “Meditating With Your Anger.”