Overcoming Obstacles to Meditating

Overcoming Obstacles to Meditating

My mind is too busy to meditate….
It’s a good idea to free yourself from the self-defeating thought, that if thoughts arise, you’re not good at meditating.

We’re wired to generate thoughts. We’re also wired to turn our attention inwards and to relax into meditative states.

One of the first things Yoga Teacher trainees learn, from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, is: Yoga is the state in which the mental-emotional fluctuations are still.

As yoga practitioners, we discover the connection between the breath and our “state”—how calming the breath, calms the citta vrittis, the mental-emotional fluctuations, creating a quiet mind, and a more relaxed body.

However, as we embrace a meditation practice, it’s helpful to remember that the essence of life is pulsation, movement, and our thoughts are pulsations of consciousness. It’s natural for thoughts to arise and subside, even when you’re meditating.

There are many ways to work with thoughts. One effective way is to cultivate some detachment and witness them—label them “thoughts” and then take your attention back to the breath or whatever you’re using as a focal point: a mantra or a center in the body (the heart, for example).

Or, you might let our awareness cycle from the breath, to sensation in the body, and then to sounds.

Notice the difference between being present with the breath, sensation, and sound versus lost in thinking. We discover it’s a very different scenario to be aware of thoughts rather than aboard the thought train.

As we cultivate detachment from thinking, we can take our attention from the content of thoughts to the nature of thoughts, seeing them as energy, as evanescent, impermanent arisings. We can become aware that thoughts are not necessarily true and notice the power they have to shape our reality if we believe them.

With an understanding of what thoughts are made of, we can watch them arise and subside, rather than attach to them. We can relax into meditation. Eventually, we become more aware of what’s beyond thoughts—Awareness.

It’s important not to judge yourself during or after meditating. Give yourself credit for having followed through on your intention to sit.

Also know that cultivating dispassion is not the only way to work with thoughts. The Sufis, for example, recommend “drowning your thoughts in love.”

What works for you in meditation depends on your temperament, your belief system, where you are in your practice, and other factors.

I’m not “spiritual.”
Fortunately, you don’t have to be “spiritual” to reap the documented benefits of a daily meditation or yoga practice.

For many people, words like “spiritual” and “God” have a negative charge. Regardless of the identities we ascribe to ourselves—“spiritual” or “not spiritual”—it’s best to approach meditation and yoga as practices, without the labels.

If you have a strong aversion to spirituality, I recommend reading Waking Up by Sam Harris.

I don’t have time to practice.
We only need to practice for a little while every day before we begin to notice shifts. We might notice that our day goes better when we sit to meditate, that we’re less reactive or more present, that we feel content even when life is challenging, or we’re more acutely aware of beauty.

When we begin to experience the benefits of practice—a deeper sense of well-being, more steadiness, more peace and contentment—we’re then motivated to deepen our practice.

When we embrace a regular meditation practice, our meditation energy unfolds in a way that is unique and beneficial to us.

All of the research, articles, and blogs on creating a new habit say the same thing: practice every day, even for just a few minutes, so your new habit becomes a natural, easeful part of your daily routine.

I get bored.

As Doctor Timothy McCall says: Every time we do something, we increase the likelihood that we’ll do it again.

Ask: Who knows I’m bored?

Widen your awareness and shift your attention away from the thoughts to the more spacious awareness that knows you’re bored.

I’m too tired to practice.
It’s a good strategy to listen to a (short) guided meditation when you’re tired, or lay in savasana (corpse pose) and plug into a guided deep relaxation, called “yoga nidra” (yogic sleep) that takes you into deeper layers of your being, the subtle and causal bodies.

A guided body scan helps you strengthen your concentration muscle, your ability to focus your attention, and it offers you the opportunity to become intimate, perhaps for the first time, with your own awareness.

When doing a body scan, you might notice how profoundly varied your states of mind are, how they are impacted by fatigue, the time of day, what you have read or eaten, pleasant and unpleasant interactions with others, health issues, and many other things. You may find you can just be present to your thoughts and the sensations in your body. Then you can start to take your attention from your body and your thoughts, to awareness.

These kinds of practices are likely what you need when you’re tired; they enable you to reinforce your meditation habit with minimal effort.

If you’re a little tired but not exhausted, you might try a short meditation and see what happens. My main meditation is first thing in the morning but I often sit for a shorter time late in the day or before bed. It’s nice to do a concentrative practice (the breath and mantra, for example) to quiet the mind before sleep. When my mind is tired, it can be easy to catch the meditation current that takes me inside.

I’m traveling early in the morning which is when I usually meditate.
When you have to get up extra early to travel, it works to bring ear plugs and do your daily mediation as your plane is taking off or when your train is pulling out of the station. You might also opt for a guided audio meditation on travel days.

What’s most important when you’re getting started?
What’s important when you’re getting started is to practice every day. It can be a short practice. It can be guided. It doesn’t have to be seated meditation; it can be a body scan. The important thing is to cultivate the habit of tuning in every day.

It helps to practice at the same time every day so meditation becomes part of your daily routine.

It’s important to be gentle with yourself, flexible, and realistic (rather than self-critical) about how much time you can spare on certain days.

Finally, having an intention to meditate, understanding why you are meditating, can help you cut through these and other obstacles that may arise.

For me, the simple understanding that meditating is the most important thing I do every day powers my practice.


*Ganesh, shown in the photo, is the beloved Hindu deity who is worshipped as the remover of obstacles. When we practice, we remove the obstacles, the limiting beliefs or egoic tendencies, that prevent us from knowing ourselves as being, consciousness, and bliss.