At this point, the benefits of meditation are fairly well known. Celebrities, CEOs, athletes and more swear by the focus, stress-relief, and clarity they say meditation offers them. We have every reason to make meditation a regular part of our routines. So why do we find it so hard to meditate?
The truth is — meditation is hard!
It’s as simple as that. A lot of people decide to try meditating after hearing how great it is for relaxing and clearing a busy mind. So they expect it to be a relaxing process itself. But really, meditation is more like working out than it is going on a mental vacation. In fact, it’s basically a workout for your brain. And just like any other workout, progress is made when we stretch our capabilities through discomfort.
So if you find meditating difficult when you first try it, you’re on the right track. Meditation is rarely easy for people their first time around. The good news — research says that over time, meditating becomes easier and easier. Not only that, but our brains actually become more efficient and use less energy for greater concentration over time .
What Happens in the Brain As You Learn to Meditate
Many studies have been published detailing the effects of meditation. Fewer studies have explored how our brain adapts to the process of meditation over time.
One study sought to do just that by using functional magnetic image resonance (fMRI) technology. The fMRI brain scans helped researchers compare the neural activation levels in the brains of non-meditators and experienced meditators .
The study divided participants into three groups: experienced meditators, non-meditators, and non-meditators incentivized with a cash prize to ensure a lack of motivation didn’t skew non-meditators results.
The researchers found that regardless of experience, the brain regions most often associated with attentional control increased in activity. Brain regions associated with mind wandering, called the default mode network (DMN), showed decreased activation.
When comparing the brain scans of non-meditators to experienced meditators, researchers confirmed what many of us have long-known from our own meditative practices. Non-meditators showed increased activation in regions of the brain associated with maintaining focus than experienced meditators.
Researchers found that the amount of neural energy activation in the brain had a direct negative relationship with the number of hours of meditation experience a person had. In other words, the more time a person had spent meditating, the less neural activation (or effort) they required to maintain meditative focus.
Additionally, experienced meditators showed decreased activation in the default mode network regions of the brain when a distracting sound played. This suggests that expert meditators were able to regain focus from distractions more efficiently and effectively than non-meditators.
What does this all mean?
Altogether, this study suggests that it physically takes more effort and energy to meditate when first beginning a meditation practice. The truth is, most of us will find it hard to meditate at first. But over time, we’ll be able to clear our minds and focus on the present moment with less effort.
5 Tips to Make Meditation Easier
As we’ve mentioned, most people find it hard to meditate. So if you’re struggling, know that your experience is completely normal. If you find meditating difficult, it doesn’t mean meditation isn’t for you — it means you’re getting better! There are plenty of things you can do to make meditation easier as you get started as well.
1. Start with short meditations.
Don’t worry about what your meditation teacher says is the “right” length of time to meditate. Start with what you know you can accomplish! Even just five minutes of meditation has been found to have benefits, so do what works best for you.
There is no “right” amount of time to meditate or perfect time of day. That means it’s up to you to do as much as you feel will encourage you to continue your practice.
2. Begin with focused attention and guided meditations.
It’s often best to begin with a meditation that invites you to focus your attention on something. This could be a breath meditation, where you focus on inhaling and exhaling. Another focus-based meditation is a body scan, where you concentrate on the sensations throughout your body.
Focused attention meditations are typically easier starting points for people learning to meditate. This is because they give us something to focus on rather than meditating on “nothing.”
3. Consider that meditation isn’t about perfection.
Far from it. Many people try mindfulness meditation believing that it will be easy and should help them relax. But the truth is that meditation is training. It’s about cultivating present moment awareness so we can clear the busy mind.
Our minds are used to being busy, so it can be challenging and uncomfortable learning to dissolve those habits. There is no “perfect” way to meditate. If you work to regain your focus as thoughts, emotions, and sensations pass through you, you are meditating correctly.
4. Explore different types of meditation.
There are many types of meditations for beginners out there, so don’t give up if your first session is frustrating! Below is a short list of meditations with varying styles and purposes — explore to see which appeals most to you.
- Mantra meditation (practitioner uses a word, phrase, or sound as the focal point of their meditation)
- Walking meditation (practitioners mindfully observe the sensations in their body and breath as they walk)
- Loving kindness meditation (practitioners silently repeat a message of goodwill and love to themselves 3-4 times, then repeat the message for three loved ones, then extend the message to all people around the world.)
- Focused attention meditation (practitioners focus on an external object, like their breath, a candle flame, a smell, or a sound)
- Zen meditation (practitioners cultivate an open neutral state of mind. As thoughts and emotions enter, the practitioner observes, then lets them go as they return to an empty state of mind. This is a form of open monitoring meditation.)
5. Recognize that it takes bravery to meditate.
Meditating isn’t easy. It takes courage to face and accept the present moment, which can come with accepting our anxieties, worries, and self-doubts. It can be hard truly sitting with uncomfortable feelings and fears we have. But in sitting with our emotions and thoughts, we can reclaim our power and choose how much they affect us.
Looking for support as you take the first steps on your journey with meditation? Explore Muse’s meditation app with over 500+ guided meditations. With collections targeting stress reduction, confidence, sleep, mental health, and more, there’s sure to be a meditation that speaks to you.
- Read the study on neural correlates of attentional expertise between expert and novice meditators HERE >>