Dealing with resistance to meditation

Sisyphus, Copyright Dorje-d, Some Rights ReservedYou know how it is. There’s something you really, really need to do — go out for a run, or get to work on a homework assignment, or start writing the next post in your blog, or get down to your meditation practice — but before you do it you’ll just have a cup of coffee, or check one more article online, or… my goodness, is that a cobweb over there? I really must do some tidying!

We’ve all been there. The mind sets up resistances and finds excuses to avoid doing what you think you should be doing. And this applies to meditation as well. You suddenly find all these other things that seem intensely compelling, and before you know it there’s no time left for your practice.

You may even be aware — intensely aware — of the fact you’re engaged in avoidance maneuvers, and you torture yourself as you indulge in a constant stream of distractions in order to stay off the cushion. You feel the power of the thought, “I should be meditating — I need to meditate,” at the same time as you experience an even more powerful feeling that you just don’t want to. Not yet. Not now. It’s very painful.

Even when your meditation practice is a source of great pleasure, you can find yourself avoiding it. Even when you know that your life it immeasurably richer, happier, and more fulfilled when you meditate regularly, you can find yourself avoiding the cushion. Even when you’ve promised yourself you’ll meditate every day, you find yourself avoiding that darned cushion!

There must be reasons of course, and we can end up torturing ourselves by engaging in psychoanalysis. Sure, there may be some part of ourselves that doesn’t want to change. Sure, it may be that we’re avoiding some kind of painful experience. Sure, we may be reacting to the fact that we’re using too many “shoulds” in our life and subtly or not so subtly coercing ourselves to meditate. We can spend hours coming up with such theories, and often we feel a bit happier once we’ve come up with a story that might explain why we’re not meditating, but the thing is, we’re still not meditating. We’re just involved in a slightly more refined way of avoiding meditation.

So here’s what you can do instead of torturing yourself.

When you find that you’re deferring your meditation practice — you just don’t feel like it, or you’d really like to be meditating but for some reason keep putting it off — become aware of the resistance itself. What feelings are present? Anxiety? Restlessness? Where are those feelings located? Perhaps in the pit of the stomach? Maybe some tension in the back of the neck? Become aware of those emotions and physical sensations, and make them into an object of awareness. In meditation there’s almost always some object that we use as the focal point for our experience. That could be the physical sensations of the breath, or it could be a visualized image, of the sound of a mantra, but it could just as easily be the feelings, emotions, and physical sensations associated with not wanting to meditate.

It’s important that, as you become aware of those sensations, you approach them without judgment. These are simply objects of awareness, just as the breath is an object of awareness in the mindfulness of breathing practice or your emotion connections are objects of awareness in the development of lovingkindness meditation. It’s unhelpful to become aware of the feelings, emotions, and physical sensations associated with not wanting to meditate with the intension of banishing them or “fixing” them. Just notice them. We should approach them with kindness, empathy, and a desire simply to be with them.

And you know what? You’re now meditating. Even if you’re standing in the kitchen, coffeepot poised to pour yourself a distracting cup of joe, you’re meditating. Even if you’re sitting at the computer, having just let go of the desire to read “one more article” (yeah, right!) online, you’re meditating.

At this point you may simply want to continue in place, paying attention to the feelings of resistance. Or you may want to sit somewhere quietly — maybe on your meditation cushion — and also notice your breath. Perhaps you could even, as you notice the sensations of resistance, wish yourself well: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.”

You’re now meditating. And the feelings of resistance may have passed, and you just keep going with your regular practice. Or they may persist and you’re meditating with those sensations and emotions as your object of meditation. It doesn’t matter. You’re now meditating. The resistance is no longer an obstacle to your meditation practice, but a means.

33 Comments. Leave new

wanted to recommend this to think about the things we tell ourselves that stop us from doing new things, things we could be doing, etc. i think if you really, really read it and think about how all people avoid things it might, well, open you up to a new idea. i dunno. this helps me to think about exercising. on another note i’d like to know to more about the prophet and the years he spent meditating. i like how this article shows you that you find little moments of peace all day long.

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Hi,

I followed your introductory course in August (Thanks Sunada) and have been meditating pretty consistantly first thing in the morning ever since. I alternate between doing Metta Bhavana and Mindfulness of breathing and also alternate between guided meditations using the course material and self-guided sessions.

Over the last couple of weeks I have found myself increasingly feelign resistant to sitting and when I do meditate it is a bit grudgingly with a feeling of ‘better get this over and done with’ rather than being entirely present for the session.

I really appreciate the advice above as one thing I do think will help is to try to bring mindfulness more into my everyday experiences rather than just the sitting time.

One question – I can see the benefit of meditating on the emotions underlying the resistance in the moment that they arise but are you also saying that this is something to focus on during ‘formal’ mediation practice too? That when I do sit, instead of only trying to focus on the practice (breath, loving kindness etc) I could try also to deliberately pay attention to any resistant feelings that arise?
Thanks

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Hi, NicB.

When something “comes up” in meditation, like a strong resistance, it’s often beneficial to give it our attention and even to make it into the focus of our practice for as long as is necessary. We can get hung up that in, say, the mindfulness of breathing practice we’re supposed to be focusing on the breath, but sometimes there’s other stuff to pay attention to. It may be that your resistance is arising because there are parts of your experience you’re not allowing to be in your experience because you’re very intent on keeping the breath as your focal point. If there’s a part of you demanding attention, it’s probably the kindest thing to give it that attention. Perhaps the resistance is a form of protest — “Stop ignoring me!”

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Hi Bodhipaksa,

Thanks for your speedy reply!
It definately does feel as though I am ‘ignoring’ sometimes in meditation and using the focus on the breath, or whatever, to push the thoughts away. Will try to be kinder and allow them to be and see how that goes…

Best wishes,
Nic

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THANK YOU, SOOOOOOOOOOOO MUCH, FOR THIS ARTICLE. I’ve been resisting meditation for nearly a year now. So what did I do instead of meditation? a google search that led me to you….I will share it with some friends as well. thank you thank you thank you!!

Mariama

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What’s the deal with not wanting to meditate? « on the precipice
August 29, 2010 4:52 pm

[…] “Dealing with Resistance to Meditation”, Wildmind Buddhist Meditation (provides some helpful tactics, i.e., using resistance as an object of meditation itself, from a choiceless awareness perspective) […]

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One thing I’m surprise you didn’t mention here is simple habit and routine. I meditate first thing in the morning, and (at least during the working week) I have a very fixed morning routine. This makes it much easier to get meditation done; I don’t even think about not doing it.

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EXCELLENT! I keep hearing about just being with a disturbing feelings but never really knew what that meant. However what you wrote really clicked for me. My question is how to you deal with things like not wanting to exercise or do a project at work. I can see how you can become aware of the feelings behind the resistence, say boredom. As you said with meditation you can focus on the boredom and that focus becomes a meditation itself. However it doesn’t seem like focusing on boredom is going to get you to exercise or work on a project.
I would appreciate any thoughts you have.
Thanks.

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Hi, Tom.

There are several stages to the arising of resistance:

  1. Perception (e.g. being reminded of the gym)
  2. Gut response (e.g. tight feeling in the gut)
  3. Cognitive response (e.g. aversion to the thought of going to the gym, and even to the reminder that the gym exists). This response includes not just emotions (aversion) but also thought, such as rationalizations about why we shouldn’t go, or how we’ll “go later.”
  4. Action (or inaction) such as finding something else to do instead.

The way to use mindfulness in order to break into our habit of avoiding the gym is to become aware of stage 2 — the gut feeling (technically known as a vedana). If you focus on your gut feeling, sensing where the unpleasant sensations are located in the body, and acknowledging that it feels unpleasant to be reminded of the gym) then you’ve broken the chain, and at least temporarily you have the freedom to choose a different cognitive response, and hence a different action.

So you sense the unpleasant gut feeling, but you’re free to think about how your feelings will change as you exercise, or how good you’ll feel in the future when you look at your fit body, and so you can now talk yourself into exercising.

Does that make sense? I guess you’ll have to try it to find out.

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It was funny, I went to copy the URL of this site so I could re-read it later and just as I was about to, I realized that too was resistance! Thanks very much for the helpful article :)

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These are simply objects of awareness – so instructive. It helped me to transform my Netflix obsession into an object of meditation. When U watching a movie U becoming a part of the movie – a virtual existence within the movie. It’s because my brain is stressed during normal business hours – I’m a programmer. It demands relaxation after work. Ego’s gone when I’m watching a movie. But this is a negative result since we replay negative emotions while watching movies. Acknowledgment of things that enslave your mind is the key to meditation. Let them come and go like waves. They push, we gently pull obstacles aside. Isn’t is a wonderful experience.

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I just wanted to add my gratitude for this article. The advice is so helpful, thank you. It’s also good to know that there are other people out there who struggle in the same way I do. I am looking forward to working with this practice and hope that my efforts benefit the whole.
Namaste.

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Hello again, I also have a question. I find that when I try to focus on the physical sensations associated with a feeling I just seem to end up still lost in my head “thinking” about the “feelings”. Does this make sense? I would appreciate your comments. Namaste.

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It’s just a question of practice, Julie. Keep coming back to the actual sensations in the body, and it’ll become easier to stay with them and not get lost in thought. Try doing this while walking, driving, working, etc.

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Really enjoyed reading artical and everyones comments,,,,,, even though Im trained as a mindfulness and meditation instructor , i too feel resistant at times especially when ive just come home from work,im tired and its a freezing cold night and its my(personal) weekly meditation group meeting….Ive stayed at home promising myself ill go next week….. Thanks, now i can gaze kindly within to see what my resistance is really trying to tell me….and go more regularly to my meditation group.

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Thank you so much. I’ve been a practitioner for many years. Yet I still feel resistance. This article was such a relief, such a fresh breaze… Thank you!

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Thank you, this article has helped me enormously.

In all our times of emotional imbalance; I now further understand the need for the individual to first stop; acknowledge and love the emotion; lean in and listen to what it is saying; learn from it; but never fight it. I am sure with daily practice throughout my life both within and without meditative practice this lesson will help me master emotional disturbances better and help bring all things in my life toward unity.

Thank you.

Love, Derek.

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Eileen Cain
June 26, 2014 4:55 pm

I’ve noticed that resistance to meditation is usually due to what we may call “selfing.” I’d rather be involved in my stories, focused on myself. Meditation is unselfing.

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that was beautiful. thanks for that.

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Thank you for this article and also the very helpful comments. Not only am I struggling with resistance but I also drop into negative behaviours. So when I feel this brick wall I turn to numbing (smoking). It’s like I go from one extreme to the other. It’s like I turn to the dark side and the shame and guilt add to the resistance.

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Lovely sentiment and a helpful article, thanks for putting it out there.

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What happens if you can’t do it for more than 10 minutes without getting bored? I’m a fidgety, restless person and I can’t concentrate on my breathing because it’s, well, it’s breathing! I can’t do it 😞

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Hi, Vicky.

It’s OK to get bored. The thing is, you don’t have to believe your thoughts. You don’t have to believe the thought, “I can’t do this.” You don’t have to believe the thought, “I should just give up.” You don’t have to believe the thought, “I can’t concentrate on my breathing.” These thoughts aren’t realities. They’re just resistance. Stop believing them and your resistance will be decreased.

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I try really hard, but my mind wonders too much and I can’t live in the moment, I like my daydreams. I like to write and daydreaming is a good way to do that. I get dead confused because people say I shouldn’t daydream and I should live in the moment, which I can find quite boring, if I’m not doing anything, I enjoy getting lost in my thoughts, but people who do mindfulness say that it’s wrong and only the present is the only thing that matters. Is there anyway to meditate without being mindful all the time? Is it worth it?

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Hi, Vicky.

I could give the same answer as last time. You’re telling yourself stories (such as “I can’t live in the moment”) and choosing to believe them. You don’t have to do that. Step back from your thoughts and realize that you’re in the grip of a con artist :)

Daydreaming can be fine. I like to write too, and writing (fiction, at least) is a kind of controlled daydream. But it’s all a question of context, isn’t it? For example, if you’re in the middle of a conversation with a friend, and you’re not paying attention to them because you’ve spaced out, then that’s not very helpful. If your daydreams tend to disconnect you from the richness of actual experience, then you’re impoverishing yourself.

You said, “I try really hard, but my mind wanders too much.” Meditation isn’t about “trying hard.” And it’s not about somehow stopping the mind from wandering. It’s about making a gentle effort to come back to our present moment experience once we realize it’s been wandering. Mind-wandering is just part of the process.

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I live in the moment when I’m interacting with people, whatever living in the moment means. But if I’m commuting to work, I’d rather just daydream on a story, or is thinking thoroughly about a plot a kind of meditating? Can meditating also be focusing on a subject (ie plots, characters, a book), does it always have to be about the breath? I’m a kind of person who gets bored easily if they have nothing to do, nothing to keep them stimulated, my mind is active 24/7. I’ve even woke up at 2am to write a simple plot of a new story on my hand! The walking meditation thing sounded appealing, but then it was about feeling your feet in your shoes whilst I much prefer to find birds or pine cones. Can meditation also be studying something? Looking at a star and wondering at what stage of life its in. I was the girl at school who finished her work early and was never given something constructive to do whilst others finished theirs. My mind is like the A19, there’s always cars on it, even at 2am!

Meditation doesn’t have to be focused on the breathing, but doesn’t sound like you’re interested in meditation so I’m wondering why you’re asking these questions.

I’m trying to get interested, it’s just extremely difficult for me to do. I like the things meditation promises, less anxiety, less depression, more creativity, less anger, better moods. I’ve been using Calm for two months and I don’t think it’s working. You have to understand I’m impatient to the extreme, and if I don’t feel like it’s working, I’ll drop it, but I really want to stick with this. I can’t do the mindful thing if I’m not doing anything, but I can focus (sometimes). I just need help, I’m sorry if my questions are silly or contrary or annoying, you’re the only meditation person who has replied to me. If I know someone who is an expert in things I’m interested, they get bombarded with questions, I’m sorry. There’s a poor physicist on instagram who I feel needs to drink everytime I ask him stupid questions. I just need help with meditation, I don’t want to give it up.

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So are you saying that you suffer from anxiety, depression, etc? You’ve never mentioned any of that before.

In fact I find that having a “conversation” with you is weird. When I address things you’ve said, your next reply reads as if it’s been written without any reference to that. You don’t seem to connect. It’s very frustrating. This is the first time you’ve written anything that seems to have engaged with anything I’ve said, so I guess that’s progress.

But all that makes me wonder whether when you say “I live in the moment when I’m interacting with people” that’s actually the case. You seem to be lost in your own stories and to have difficulty actually connecting — at least with me. Perhaps it’s the same with other people as well. Anyway, if you want to engage, that’s fine. I’ll continue to reply. If you want to continue to keep writing as if nothing I’ve said is of any consequence, then I don’t see any point in continuing to respond to what may be, for all I know, a moderately well-programmed chat-bot.

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I’m sorry if you think I’m a chat bot, whatever that is. I can give you my instagram name if you want. I just thought with you being an expert you could help me. I do have depression and anxiety, and it’s hard to live with sometimes, but it’s not something you mention to a person. I only wanted advice, I’m sorry if I’m incoherent or odd, I usually just say what’s in my head at the time. I’ll not bother you.

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Well, depression and anxiety are things people talk to me about all the time, especially when they’re hoping that meditation might help. Mostly up to the point of mentioning those things you’d written telling me why you couldn’t meditate or weren’t interested in learning to meditate, so I was confused about what you actually wanted.

And I don’t think you’re a chat bot (which are scripts that mimic interaction with human beings) just that if your interactions have been confusing because you never refer to anything I’ve said to you. Can you see why that would be confusing?

But now you’re actually talking, even if it’s to say you don’t want to talk, it seems there’s an actual connection, even if it’s an uncomfortable one for you. So I’m happy to continue, and to address your desire for advice.

And I’ll start by saying that I’ve already given you some advice, more than once. You’ve never referred to what I said, so I’m at a loss. I don’t know whether you’ve tried out what I’ve suggested, whether it didn’t register, whether it didn’t make any sense to you, or what. It seems to me that you actually talking about the advice you’ve asked for and been given would be a good next step.

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I don’t like talking about my mental health too much. And sorry if it’s confusing talking to me, I acknowledge what you say, I just assume you’d know that without having to say it. I have a habit of listening to what people say and not giving them a sign I heard them, even if I have. A friend of mine said it was like talking to a child. But I do listen, I might not look at you or start picking leaves off the ground but I do listen. That’s probably something that needs addressed. Anyway, my main goal of meditation is to learn to focus, I can focus if I’m interested in something but if I’m not, then I get bored and need stimulation. I’m going on night shift for two months (11 hours over night) and I want to be able to get things done. It’s also NaNoWriMo tomorrow and I want to be able to write without giving into distracting thoughts. I’ve tried focusing on my breath, but it’s boring and my mind wanders away to something more exciting. I’ve tried bodyscans but I’m not sure if I’m doing it right (I have an internal monologue going on – “there’s an intch in my foot,” etc). I also have a habit of creating a future person who might not exist, not in the way I want him to, I can’t seem to let him go. He makes me feel safe and he’s sort of my inner voice explaining my own moods to me. Yesterday, instead of a 10 min breathing, I sketched a pine cone (I collect pine cones) and though I did have thoughts but I was too busy to pay much attention to them. Can sketching and writing be meditation? If I sketch and write about what I see or feel? Thanks.

“I don’t like talking about my mental health too much.”

That’s understandable, although anxiety and depression are common, and not wanting to talk about experiencing those things makes them worse, so you might want to work on that. Also, though, you were trying to get me to persuade you that meditation is something you should do, without saying why you wanted to do it (and while giving lots of reasons you didn’t).

“I acknowledge what you say, I just assume you’d know that without having to say it.”

Sometimes I do that too — assume that people know what I’m thinking. But of course they don’t, and so miscommunications happen. Or people think you’re just ignoring them. It’s kind of narcissistic, really. Two people talking past each other is not communication. We need to actually engage with each other.

Anyway, meditation can certainly help with focus. And with depression and anxiety. You’re still showing little sign, though, of having taken on board anything I’ve said previously. Saying that “the breath is boring” is a story. You keep believing your own limiting thoughts, which are simply trying to manipulate you. There’s nothing intrinsically boring about the breathing. In fact it can be fascinating and beautiful. Lots of people think pine cones are boring. I’m sure you know that’s not true. I get the impression that you want meditation practice to change you, but you don’t actually want to practice. That’s like wanting to be good at drawing without ever picking up a pencil.

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