Mental health maintenance has a concrete impact on physical health, so it’s worth examining one’s available tools. Some may want to reconsider meditation as a form of self care, especially if you’ve found in the past that meditation doesn’t work.
Paul Harrison shares his perspective on making meditation more effective, with Supportiv. Harrison is a meditation teacher in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and the creator of TheDailyMeditation.com.
As a meditation teacher, I frequently hear from people who have tried to meditate, but for whom it just didn’t work. Some say they simply didn’t find meditation relaxing, or that it didn’t have any observable effect on their mental health. Still others say they’ve found the experience painful, and that it brought up upsetting memories and uncomfortable feelings.
Believe it or not, finding meditation downright painful is pretty common. Research conducted by University College London (UCL) revealed that over a quarter of people who regularly meditate have had a ‘particularly unpleasant’ experience from it, including feelings like anxiety, fear, and sadness.
If you’ve tried meditating without benefit, you might wonder whether meditation simply doesn’t work, or whether there’s something about your experience that keeps you from settling down.
As a meditation teacher I’ve found that the answer is most often simpler than that: you may have just tried a form of meditation not suited to you.
While there are some people for whom meditation is altogether unsuitable (such as people with epilepsy, for whom meditation may induce seizures), the vast majority of people can experience wonderful benefits from meditation. You may simply need a little trial and error to fit your personal style.
Here are five tips for when you’ve tried meditation but it didn’t work:
1. Switch meditation technique.
One mistake beginners make with meditation is trying one technique, finding it unhelpful, and giving up entirely. This is akin to trying one type of food, not enjoying it, and starving yourself for the rest of your life.
Just as there are many different styles of food, there are many different forms of meditation too. Indeed, if we consider the many different visualization techniques used in Tibetan Buddhism, there are several thousand different forms of meditation. Of these, more than 31 meditations are in widespread use today.
Just because one single form of meditation was ineffective for you, doesn’t mean the rest will be. Perhaps you’ve tried seated breathing meditation and it didn’t work; try using a movement meditation, Nataraj, tai chi or qigong. Perhaps you’ve tried meditating in a group and that didn’t work; maybe switch to meditating alone. It can take a little experimenting to find the best meditation technique for you.
2. Stop using guided meditations.
Ever since meditation became a billion-dollar industry in 2019, numerous companies have put significant effort into marketing their meditation products. Because most of these products tend to be cellphone apps, newcomers to meditation have been misled to believe that all meditation is guided meditation.
Unfortunately, research reported by Harvard Health suggests that apps may not be as effective as traditional meditation exercises. So, if you’ve only tried using guided meditations before, stop listening to recordings and try a more traditional form of meditation instead, such as mindfully observing the breath.
3. Some meditations work differently for men and women.
For years it was assumed that meditation worked the same way for both men and women. Recent research, however, shows that some forms of meditation are less effective for men.
In one study, researchers at Brown University discovered that men struggle more than women to observe and label their emotions, which is a core skill used in mindfulness. For this reason, men who struggle to meditate might find it easier to stop using methods like Vipassana (which involves observing and labelling emotions) and instead focus on alternatives like mindful walking and Zazen (Zen breathing meditation).
Again, the point is that if your meditation is not working for you, the best idea is to switch techniques before giving up entirely.
4. Withhold judgement.
Some of the effects of meditation are intangible and elusive. It can be difficult to notice the effects of meditation after just one session. Sadly, many people decide their opinion on the practice after their first experience, and so prevent themselves from going any further.
This, however, is a self-defeating attitude. It makes little sense to stop running just because you didn’t get in shape after your first jog. Equally premature is to stop meditating simply because you didn’t quickly reach enlightenment.
The general suggestion is not to judge meditation at all until you’ve practiced daily, for twenty minutes at a time, for a minimum of five to eight weeks. This seems to be the amount of time most scientists use when researching the effects of meditation, although you may need to build up your practice over an extended period of time.
5. Don’t assume that negative emotions mean negative results.
If there is one thing that puts people off of meditation, it is that they may experience negative emotions during their practice. The belief is that if meditation produces negative emotions, it must be inherently harmful. This, however, is a fallacy.
Meditation can seem to “produce” negative emotions, because it involves letting go of intentional thinking – and we, humans tend to put lots of energy into avoiding uncomfortable emotions.
While it might be uncomfortable at first, there are many times when negative emotions need to come out. Suppressing emotions, after all, can harm your health. Sadly, all too many people bottle up their emotions only to experience mental health struggles later on.
If you’ve experienced negative emotions from meditating, ask yourself: “Was this entirely bad?” Sure, it might not have been the relaxation that you were seeking, but was it harmful or helpful for you to become conscious of your deeper emotions? Often, when negative emotions come out during meditation, it’s because they need to.
If you find that meditation isn’t working for you, consider treating it as you would regular exercise. If one style doesn’t suit you or you find it painful, switch to a different method. If you find the experience unpleasant, be more gentle next time, just as you would switch from sprinting to a light jog if your legs ached after a run. And if you don’t see immediate results, don’t assume you’ll never see any.
Exercises for mental health (of which meditation is one) require just as much time as exercise for the body—sometimes more. So don’t be too quick to judge meditation. Give yourself the opportunity to feel better with it, and before long, you will likely see the benefits.
Contributed by Paul Harrison