When meditation seems impossible


My partner goes for a run and comes back looking despondent. ‘I struggled all the way round,’ he says. ‘It was as if I’d never run before.’ He has run several times a week for 3 years now.

‘I know how you feel,’ I say. I’m not thinking about running, though, but meditation. I’ve been meditating for some years now, but when I sit down sometimes it feels impossible. My head itches and the items on my ‘to-do’ list compete for attention. There are odd bodily sensations that could be illnesses in the making. And if all else fails, there’s my good old tinnitus.

Outside responsibilities of work, family and friends, I tend to navigate by feelings. I do things that feel good and avoid things that don’t. This modus operandi has its drawbacks. ‘When did you last use that windsurfing board?’ friends ask. Or ‘I haven’t heard your djembe recently.’ Then there’s my Arabic dance gear languishing at the back of the wardrobe.

With all these activities, pleasure and interest waned. And because these were my motives, there was no reason to carry on. But I’m not meditating for pleasure and interest. Or am I? When I started out, I had ideas of self-improvement. But now I’m told there’s no self to improve. Perhaps I’m trying to re-create an experience I once had, where the veil between me and the world – a veil I didn’t know was there – fell away for half a day.

Who knows? When I’m swamped with difficult feelings, I certainly don’t. And I’m not used to spiritual discipline. The only precedent in my experience is kneeling on the hard, polished floorboards of the school hall to recite the Lord’s Prayer. We prayed with straight faces because Miss Borman rapped you on the knuckles with a ruler in front of the rest of the class if she caught you smirking.

So, when the going gets tough, why don’t I just get up from the cushion and make myself a cup of tea? Well, sometimes I do. But what about those times I don’t? For inspiration, I ask my partner why he finishes his runs. He says it’s because he remembers what life as a couch potato was like.

I’m not blessed by a recollection of the quality of life before meditation. But I am blessed by the anxiety that sends its sinuous tentacles into each and every meditation, reminding me how unmanageable my life can get. So I sit on in fear. I sit on in the shadow of Miss Borman, who believed in our own good even if she had a funny way of showing it. I sit on in the hope that ‘this too will pass’ even though I don’t know it will. I sit on in the hope that the practice will do the ‘me’ I persist in believing in ‘good.’ I sit on to keep myself and the world company. I sit on out of habit and in doubt, feeling like an idiot. I sit on out of gratitude and joy. I sit on to find comfort at least in discipline. I sit on without knowing why. I sit on.

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6 Comments. Leave new

  • This is a very refreshing and interesting article, thank you! I read your previous article about retreats and, like this article, what I like about it is that you tell it how it is. I like the fact you struggle with retreats or meditation. It’s all very honest and matter of fact I like that. I dip in and out of meditation and find it difficult to do. So it’s good to read about someone that has their problems too, yet it all ends up being very positive. Thanks again and keep writing!

  • Thanks for your own honesty, Gordon, and for taking the time to post. I’m reassured that my piece has struck a chord with you. Meditation can seems such a private, almost secret thing: it’s difficult to know what other people are experiencing, and hard sometimes to accept and sit with one’s own struggles. But here’s to us both carrying on regardless! Or perhaps I should say regard-full.

  • Dear Mandy, your article reminds me how difficult meditation can be, and then exposes our personal reality in terms of mental agitation. I never imagine before starting meditation how agitated I was. Since then, I have been struggling to stop my mind over and over. It is simply so difficult and dissapointing. I have quit several times, then go back again until this year when, after suffering more than a year of terrible things including unemployment and a partner break-out, I decided to never again stop my practice and to overcome agitation no matter what it takes.
    After several tries of keeping my mind on breath, I started to feel terrible headaches in the center of my head, my skin was so dry, I had pains in different parts of my body, however i kept meditating every day, and kept a meditating world combined with breath attention the most of the day possible until I overcame the problems. Today, I use different phrases for my day-meditation while not sitting to overcome old anger and pain, and keep the attention on breath almost all day, as much as possible, so when sitting, everything goes smoothly.
    I know I still have a lot to go, however, mental noise has gone, I am a lot more stable emotionally and mentally, I feel more intelligent, and take things of life very differently, and my health is improving. Sitting on meditation is easier now. Breath meditation, what a miracle and gift given to us by Lord Buddha!

  • Thank you for sharing your experience here, Jose – it sounds as if you have fostered great consistency in yourself and developed a practice that is a real resource to you. I relate v much to what you say about having no idea how agitated you were before starting meditation. My own mind was a shock to me, too: I had a self image that meditation has gradually undermined. Also, I’d always associated meditation with ‘nice’ states like calmness, but instead I still often feel as if I’m uncovering a hornet’s nest. Your story is very inspiring.

  • I can empathise very much with these posts. When i first started exploring meditation (maybe 15 years ago) I recall it was because I wanted to feel ‘better’. The relationship with medidation came and went over the years, and on reflection I realise that this is because when I sat I actually met myself; no hiding behind the usual distractions and avoidances. This was often to hard, so I retreated back into attempts at unawareness. However, once you’ve seen, you cant unseen, so I was always drawn back. Towards the end of last year I went on my first retreat, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In meditation I had no escape from my ruminating mind, but also no escape from a developing awareness of the things I needed to speak, to change, in my world outside meditation. Despite the discomfort of sitting with these things, I have managed to persist with sitting most days, and have begun to speak the things that needed to change with then people who are important to me. My ruminating mind is still very much active, but now I sometimes find myself ruminating about something which has already been addressed – then can remind myself that I’ve spoken it and its actually dealt with so I can let it go. My sense is that some things can be just let go, but others need to be addressed first before I can ‘unhook’ from them. Although the process of meditation continues to be frequently very hard, it appears to be giving me some sense of what to speak and what to let go of, and also the sense of grounding which gives me the courage to speak when i need to. My heart goes out to all of you wrestling with similar experiences

  • Dear Martin

    I’m very interested in what you’ve written here – thank you so much. It sounds as though meditation is giving you a growing and very precious sense of yourself in relation your world and the people in it.

    These last ten days, my partner has been away (for the first time in ten years) and I feel as if I am on a solitary retreat. I am finding the extended communion with myself difficult. ‘Attempts at unawareness’ (such a good way of describing it) abound! It’s a rich time, though – there is clarity there too.

    Thanks once again for your thought provoking post.


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