Can I meditate?

waterfallPresumably, if you’ve got this far, you’re interested in meditation. But you may be wondering whether you’re “cut out for it”. I hear a lot of people saying things like, “Oh, I could never meditate; I’m too easily distracted”.

I’d like to reassure you that anyone can meditate, and that you don’t need any special abilities to follow this path.

In fact, the “I’m too distracted to meditate” attitude really betrays a misunderstanding of what meditation is about. (It’s OK to start out with misunderstandings, incidentally. How could we not start out with misunderstandings of something we know little or nothing about?).

The idea behind meditating is not that we’re seeking to have “perfect meditations”, like an Olympic gymnast going for a perfect 10 in a competition, but that we’re doing some basic work on developing our minds, more like when we go to the gym and do some exercise.

When we go to work out, it wouldn’t be a very helpful attitude to think, “Oh, I can’t work out, I’m not strong enough or fit enough”. The whole point of working out, as we know, is to start from where we are and to develop greater levels of strength and fitness.

It’s the same deal with meditation. If we’re very distracted, or very anxious, or we keep getting irritated by sounds in our environment when we’re trying to meditate, that’s just what we’re starting with. That’s our raw material.

Meditation helps us to become aware of these habitual tendencies, and also helps us to work with them so that they become less prominent in our lives, so that we become a bit less distracted, less anxious, more accepting.

And just like working out at the gym, where we don’t make some sudden leap to athleticism, in meditation we change gradually. Breath by breath, meditation by meditation, day by day, we work changes within our hearts and minds; changes that accumulate over time.

It’s worth bearing in mind that lots of research has shown the benefits of meditation. For example, a study by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin looked at what happened when workers in a tech company meditated for eight weeks. One of the major findings was that those people’s brains changed. Activity was lowered in parts of the brain associated with negative emotions, and was increased in parts of the brain associated with feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Also, the participants in the study were given a flu vaccine at the end of the study and were found to have an improved immune response. One important thing to realize is that there was nothing special about the participants in this study, or in the many other studies that have shown the benefits of meditation. They were ordinary people with ordinary jobs and ordinary lives.

It’s possible to change from being a very anxious person to a very confident person; to move from being habitually stressed to being more laid-back; to move from being prone to bad moods to being happier. We just have to do the practice.

96 Comments. Leave new

  • What are your thoughts on Transcendental Meditation?

  • Hi Bodhipaksa,
    I suffer from social anxiety and depression (for many years, take an antidepressant daily) and part of these disorders is panic and alot of physical symptoms,like shaking and trembling when nervous,lots of muscle tension etc. I have always been drawn to meditation and have done mindfullness with psychologisst and also done a proper mediation course with a triratna meditation group. My problem is like a few others have mentioned, that I find myself relaxing deeply in my meditation, and can feel alot of tension releasing but when i finish…I am very anxious and agitated and almost a little “high” at times, and this can last for days and worries me.(im usually a very flat person, and never overly happy etc) There are some are positive things in this state..I seem more open to people to a point, but the agitation is quite bad, and i feel quite depersonalised, and bad enough that I end up stopping mediatation all together, until I get drawn back to try it again, which I always do. I have spoken to seasoned meditator in the city I live ,and they suggested that I try and doing some grounding techniques when this happens, but it really is a state that I seem to get into.

    I dont want to give up mediation, but I am scared that I could possibly lose it if I keep going…then of course I have searched the net and found the scary stories of mediation induced psychosis etc etc. and I worry.
    Not that i have ever experienced psychosis.

    This tension release thing feels quite huge and I realise we hold emotions etc in our body…but like I is almost like Im gettting a whack of serotonin or something and then agitation after deeply meditating, then feeling very vuneralbe after.

    I dont try and push my focus too much …I try and allow whatever comes up to just be there and gently focus on the breath. I just dont get it…I want to be able to relax my body without losing the plot.

    Thank you in advance

  • Hi, An.

    Apologies for the long delay in my replying. Life got a bit busy and the notification for your comment got buried in my email in box.

    What you describe is very interesting. It’s not something I think I’ve experienced myself, except perhaps for times that I’ve become a bit “intoxicated” with feeling good after meditating and I’ve lost my sensitivity to others. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced depersonalization through meditation, and in fact my practice has involved something more like “repersonalization,” since in my youth I was afraid of being in touch with my emotions.

    I say this just so that you can be aware of the limitations of my advice!

    You wrote, “they suggested that I try and doing some grounding techniques when this happens, but it really is a state that I seem to get into.” I’d be interested to know more about the grounding techniques that you’ve tried, and that (apparently) haven’t been very successful. Because I would probably recommend something similar, and there’s no point my suggesting exactly the same thing.

    When you say “it really is a state that I seem to get into” I’d suggest bringing to mind the principle of conditionality. Things happen when the conditions for them to happen are present. So these states are things that are being cultivated. And it may be hard to find ways not to cultivate them, or to cultivate something different, but I’m absolutely confident that you can do this, and I’d just encourage you not to assume that these states are inevitable.

    Do you cultivate compassion for the part of you that is experiencing fear, or that are in pain? I find that the most powerful practice I’ve ever done. Simply put: notice your fear, and notice that it involves suffering. Identify, as best you can, where this suffering is manifesting in the body. Accept it. It’s OK to suffer. And send it thoughts of lovingkindness in the usual way (“may you be well,” etc.). It’s a powerful practice, and I suspect it may be helpful to you.

    Anyway, if you could say a bit more about those grounding techniques, I’ll see what comes to mind.

  • Hi Bodhipaksa,

    First of all I would like to thank you for your advices and for sharing your experience with us. Secondly, I’ve come across a strange experiences in meditation in the last month, everytime I focus on my breathing in the nostrils area and let go of everything my body has a strange reaction, I feel like a kick within, my face is deforming and my head is moving and shaking.These reactions last only for a few seconds then everything it settles down for one minut then again body reactions and so on for 1 h.It is strange because it is not something that I can control and I am not supposed to control them since mindfulness means to be aware and to accept things as they are.
    Are you familiar with this type of exeprience?What should I do?

    Thank you

    • Hi Aurel.

      I am indeed familiar with that kind of experience. For perhaps two years I had a twitch in my back when I meditated or was doing any form of chanting. Sometimes it would happen when I was simply relaxing in bed. The twitching was very regular, and completely out of my control. It eventually passed of its own accord. I’ve known other people to have similar experiences. I just accepted it was happening, although sometimes it would disturb other people who were meditating with me.

      I think this is a form of what traditional meditation texts call “pīti,” or rapture. There are forms of pīti that are more like tingling, or flowing energy, or even intense pleasure. This kind happens not to be pleasurable — at least not in my experience. But it also seems to be quite harmless, and probably even a sign that something positive is happening in your meditation practice. Pīti is one of the jhäna factors, and it begins to emerge as we become more relaxed.

      So I think your instinct just to be aware and the accept the experience is the right one.

      Just as an aside — and this may not apply to you — it turned out that I had a vertebra out of alignment, and I had the distinct sense that my body was trying to realign my spine. I now go to a chiropractor regularly to keep things straightened out. Now I wouldn’t like to generalize from that, but it would be interesting to see what happened if you got checked out by a chiropractor.

      By the way, if you appreciate having somewhere to go where you can ask these kinds of questions, feel free to make a one-time donation, or even better a regular subscription, to support our work as part of our Sit : Love : Give project. I often spend hours each day responding to queries like yours.

  • Thank you for your answer Bodhipaksa!

    I am familiar with the pali term “piti”, I know that this is also one of the seven factors of enlightenment but it is translated in english as joy or rapture, as you said. I really didn’t know that piti may be manifested also in this form.Thank you again for clarifying this matter.
    I let you know about my alingment of vertebrae, you made me curious.


  • It’s not one of the traditional forms of piti, and along with the other more minor forms of piti described in the literature, it’s not the full-on piti that one experiences in jhana, but it has the same quality of energy release taking place as the body relaxes that you find with the tingling and rushing forms of piti, so I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.

    One time on retreat, my back was giving me hell, and I’d been having a lot of this twitching. And then I had one meditation were something “let go” in that area of my back. There had been a spontaneous realignment of the vertebra because the muscles pulling it out of alignment had relaxed. And for many months afterwards I had huge amounts of blissful energy running through that same area of my back.

  • Hi, i have trouble during meditation.

    Focus on my breath is becoming really hard because on my heartbeat that keep distracting me, so the whole experience is frustrating. How can I overcome this situation?

    • Hi, Jack.

      This kind of problem arises because of thinking that the aim is to notice the breathing and nothing but the breathing. If you change that notion, then you can happily notice both your heartbeat and your breathing. Just relax your attention and notice both sets of sensations. Watch them perform a dance with each other…

      If you appreciate having a place to go where you can ask questions about meditation, please feel free to give back by making a single donation or recurring contribution through our Sit : Love : Give program.

      All the best,

  • For someone who is experienced in meditation, as I am, what is a good length of time (if there is one) to meditate? I’ve been involved with a non-Buddhist group whose members (unfortunately) pride themselves on being able to meditate for hours (a minimum of three, but sometimes much longer). Even after 23 years, I still struggle to keep at it for more than a hour or two. (They recommend three hours at least twice a week, in addition to an hour during the other mornings and evenings). If I experience a good one-hour meditation, should I feel satisfied that I did that and be done with it, or should I make efforts to have longer sessions? I often feel the one hour was a good effort.

    • My goodness. Being able to do an hour is fantastic. Not many people are able to set aside that amount of time for meditation, even if they could potentially do so (and many, especially those with children, could not). I think you should rejoice in the hour of meditation that you do.

  • Thank you, Bodhipaksa.

    Your replay will give me much comfort in my future efforts. My life is a bit of a mystery. I’ve been given a lifelong dilemma that has not left me in my adult years. As a result, I have very little in material things (career, family, money), but enjoy and abundant spiritual life. I am the exact opposite of miserable. I am happy, even though I am bound by a life of solitude. The meditations have been nice. They are a gift from somewhere, from somebody. I knew little about it when I started this path, but then it took hold of my throughout my 30s and 40s. It came into my life at the exact time that I needed it. It is the exact timing that it had come into my life that leads me to conclude there is definitely someone “watching over” me. This life is no accident. I’d still like to meditate deeper and for somewhat longer times than I practice now, but reading your response has helped me to put everything into perspective: I am on the right course. Thank you, again.

  • Bodhipaksa,

    I have read every comment word for word beneath this article, and I have come to the conclusion that meditation has quite a bit of substantial evidence for being effective. I can corroborate this with my own experiences, but that would distract from the information I seek. I know it works, and though I could set aside my curiosity, I would rather sate it for my sake, and for the sake of the many others who will weed through the mountain of comments on this page and perhaps others. Additionally, I have many friends of very mathematically rigorous minds who frequently voice things to the effect of “I would consider meditation if I knew exactly what it would do to me physiologically speaking,” or “If I understood the neuro-chemistry behind meditation, I would be willing to undertake it. To me, such an act is akin to medication for the mind, and as such is altering.” While I’m not necessarily trying to persuade them to join me, I would at least like to provide them a fulfilling answer to their questions. Such would set many minds at ease. That said, I’ll get right to it.

    Why and how does meditation work, at the most intricate level that you can explain it?

  • I have been going meditagion class for the last 2 years at my local kadampa centre, however over the last month ive progressed with my meditation doing twice daily in my flat, but on a couple of occassions it has felt like there is something in my flat, i am vedy aware and can hear n feel the presence of something while meditating, it is scaring me, i dont want go give up meditating as im getting lots of rewards through it, but this sense of something been there scares me, ??

    • Hi, Lee. This is just your anxiety finding odd noises to construct a story out of. Just notice the presence of anxiety and continue with the practice.

  • Hi Bodhipaksa and everybody! A comment on depression and meditation was made right near the top of this list… I have experienced depression for most of my life. In desperation, and knowing that it had to be the solution, every few years I would try to meditate. The depression would intensify to a frightening degree, and I’d give up. I tried several styles, thinking I had simply not found one that suited. Finally, 10 years ago, a Zen teacher got a message through to me: Sit through it! Which I did, with enormous fear and difficulty. Those few weeks of practice were the darkest and scariest weeks of my life (and, like any human I have gone through some bad times). And then one day, I realised it had lightened just a bit. I now practice vipassana style. The depression is still a part of me, but becomes gradually less intense and doesn’t last as long. It comes and goes, arises and passes. I am so grateful for the teaching I have had and the support I get from the vast and largely silent world sangha.
    Peace and metta and warm thanks to all of you.
    Don’t give up. It is worth persisting.

  • I also develop tears in only one of my eyes during meditation.

  • Hi Bodhipaksa
    a couple of years ago I found myself feeling very depersonalised for a long period of time and since have suffered very physical consistent feelings that I can only relate to what people describe as anxiety/ high adrenaline for most of my waking life, this of which has caused me to feel depressed at times.

    I have since become interested in meditation and have been meditating very occasionally (less than once a month) since this event and intend to find more time to do so as I am sure that it does/will help relieve this pain that I now carry.

    When I meditate I concentrate on my body and the feelings that I notice, and one that keeps occurring is a heavy, almost painful feeling in my chest like I want to cry. When I pursue this feeling in my chest and concentrate on it my face begins to contort and I am on the verge of tears, yet I never manage to cry and I become too aware of the event and I open my eyes.

    It feels like I am expressing something through this event and it can feel somewhat nice and I believe that if I continue it might begin to release the grip of these ill feelings I’ve been having up to date but I cannot progress through this feeling, do you have any advice? or more importantly is this something that can be explained/has been described before?

    Thankyou for your time

    • Hi, Jono.

      First, I’m glad you’re exploring meditation. The pattern of practicing less than once a month is less than ideal, though. It’s a lot better than nothing, but there’s a huge benefit to practicing more regularly and consistently. There’s a kind of momentum build up as your “meditation muscles” develop.

      What you’re describing in terms of an uncomfortable feeling in your chest is very common. We call these sensations vedanas, and they can be pleasant or unpleasant. They’re neither good nor bad — they’re just “a thing.” What we aim to do with them is first, simply experience them without reacting, and second, accept them with compassion.

      Your comment, “I never manage to cry,” might suggest that you’re trying to cry. There’s nothing wrong with crying, but don’t try :) If you cry, then that’s fine. If you don’t cry, that’s also fine. Just allow the uncomfortable sensations in your chest to be there. Take an interest in them. Notice where they’re located, what shape they are, what texture. Notice how they change, moment by moment. And send them loving and compassionate thoughts: tell them things like, “It’s OK. It’s OK. We can deal with this. I know you’re in pain but I’m here for you. May you be well and happy.”

      These feelings are often the result of a sense of loss. That doesn’t mean you’ve actually lost something. It can be that you’ve wanted something, or that you have some hope for the future and expect not to have that hope fulfilled. The loss or the expectation has probably not been brought fully into consciousness, and so you have the feeling but don’t have any “event” to connect it with. Sometimes understanding what’s prompting the unpleasant vedana can be helpful, sometimes it’s not. The important thing is just to accept the feelings with mindfulness and compassion.

  • Yesterday night I sat for meditation after taking weed. Within seconds, my neck start moving left and right in very high speed as well my body start jumping for 2-3 inch from floor, speed was so high that time, a normal person cant do the same. as at that my one of friend was witnessing me, he told me about all this. he got afraid and he called me back. what does it indicates any one please help me.

    • Maybe your body is telling you that you shouldn’t smoke weed before meditating, Manoj :)

      Apart from that wiseass reply, I’m afraid I don’t have any answers for you.

  • Hi, Bodhipaksa. I have been meditating and I have noticed, that my hands get all cold and tingly and then I start doing routines, very coordinated timely yoga routines, some I have not done before. I took a bit of yoga classes before, so I am familiar with some of the routines. I just submit myself to this energy, and it just directs my hands, legs, and whole body to complete a yoga routine for about an hour, sometimes more. It usually starts with my neck doing rotations. It even directs my hands to massage problem areas in my body, and sometimes seem to do a routine that to me appears to be cleansing the body of unwanted energy, like,I’d be moving my hands around problem areas and then flick them away from me like I am getting rid of pain/sickness or just negative energy. I usually come out of it feeling relaxed and joyful. Is this normal though? I haven’t come across anyone sharing the same experience, although I have read that sometimes the body, during meditations will do actions to get rid of negativity. Does this mean I have a lot of negativity in me that I need to get rid of? Thank you for your time and for this website.

    • It seems that almost everyone who has unusual (or even common) experiences in meditation wants confirmation that they’re either specially wonderful or specially bad :)

      What you’re describing is certainly not common. It is fairly common to experience involuntary movements, but they’re not usually as elaborate as doing yoga asanas. But think about it: if you’re walking down the street, are you consciously saying, “OK, let’s lift the left foot, put more weight on the right foot, learn the body forward, swing the left arm forward,” etc., etc? Walking is essentially involuntary. You want to walk somewhere, and some part of your brain that’s outside of conscious awareness takes care of the walking for you. Your conscious mind is probably thinking about something else entirely.

      So I think it’s something like this that’s going on for you. Your conscious mind is doing one thing, while some part of the brain that’s not accessible to conscious awareness has decided that it’s time to do yoga. I don’t think it has anything to do with “having a lot of negativity inside you.”

      I’m not sure what it’s best to do about this. I’m assuming you are able to exert conscious control over these actions, so if you think it’s best to do sitting meditation rather than yoga, then make a gentle but conscious effort to stay sitting, and to be aware of but not respond to the urge to do yoga.

      And maybe you should do a yoga class?

  • I have been meditating for a while now but during this evening’s meditation I felt a presence near me but not just any presence. It definitely felt like the presence of an ancestor. I also felt that there was more than one. Also I felt wind past my left ear even though the night was still. Time appeared to have moved very quickly as well.

    Very odd and the only time this has happened .

    • Hi, Nick.

      Odd experiences like this can happen in meditation. It’s a sort of dream-like state where imagination and reality become confused. It doesn’t really mean anything, and it’s nothing to be concerned about. On the positive side, this probably means that you have a good imagination, and that can be useful. You can try imagining that the Buddha is sitting beside you as you meditate, for example…

  • Hello! I’m a freshman in college and I decided to look into buddhism a bit more since the whole practice of it really interested me. I read a lot of background information on it, and decided that it would be a good idea to meditate for the first time! I read a bunch of different articles on ways you can meditate and decided to start with a breathing technique. I turned off my lights and sat up against a wall in my room with my legs crossed and just started really focusing on my breathing. I was really heavily into my meditation, around 20 minutes of meditation and I got this overwhelming feeling that came over me. I felt like there was a presence right in front of my face, staring at me. Almost like a giant eye just looking into me and I was so frightened I opened my eyes and haven’t been able to shake this feeling off of me.

    • Hi, Kara.

      You don’t say who taught you to meditate. Have you tried asking them for advice? (Or maybe the experience you describe happened while listening to one of the guided meditations here?)

      All I can say is that in meditation it’s possible to have dream-like imagery and experiences arise in the waking mind. It’s like when you were a kid and you were sure there was something scary in the dark. It all felt very real. But there’s no need to take those experiences seriously. There was nothing going on but your imagination.

      All the best,

  • Wow I’m surprised not many folks come to this site anymore…too bad as it seems quite valuable…

    I started meditating about 15 years ago and prior to that practice I had done Tai Chi (which I really need to get back into).
    Today I cannot go a day without my meditation time…some days I’ll meditate for 20 mins some days 50 mins…but I find it balances me physically, mentally and spiritually.
    Does it make me more compassionate?
    I’d like to think so…only wish it could help me be a little more “self” compassionate…that’s an area I seem to struggle with…

    Anyway…great info and I appreciate you getting the word out about the benefits of such practices

    • We have about a million and a half people visit our site every year, Cate, and the trend is upward. I’m not sure what makes you think it’s otherwise. Thanks for your kind comments, though, and I hope you get better with the self-compassion! It’s a tricky area.

  • Dear Bodhipaksa, I am finding your ‘letting go into joy’ course insightful and greatly therapeutic. I have only been practicing meditation for a few months and while I could only maintain a few seconds of ‘no thought’ at first, I now have attained much longer periods, sometimes more than a minute. The times I am successfully practicing are beautiful and the peace lasts for hours. I have however noticed that at other times of the day my ego seems stronger than ever – more destructive perhaps than before I was practicing. My mind ruminates and creates negativity until I can once again calm down, create space and find mindfulness once more. I have been wondering if this is normal – that one’s ego can actually become stronger in the early stages of meditation practice at the times when alertness subsides.

    • Hi, Richard.

      Yes, that’s quite common! I’d strongly advise making sure that you include metta (kindness) meditation and/or compassion meditation in your meditation routine. Also try to be aware of the qualities of kindness and compassion throughout the day. I’m not sure what goes on to create this situation, but I suspect from my own experience that we can become more sensitive to bodily feelings (like hurt, frustration, and anxiety) and that this can kick off reactive emotional patterns of anger etc. It may also be that we’ve gained a measure of security from the mind’s endless chatter, and that parts of us feel threatened by having this form of addiction taken away from them.

      • Wow, yes of course. These are very good points and make perfect sense. In my own case I’ve had to deal with some unusual and challenging events recently which have probably left me feeling vulnerable. The mind/body is probably dealing with them by using old egoic patterns. I will certainly look into the kindness and compassion meditations. Thank you Bodhipaksa,


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