Episode 25

Published on:

17th Jan 2023

Q&A: Meditation Stinks for Me. Can I Get Its Benefits in Other Ways?

Today we're taking a listener question from someone who just doesn't like to meditate. They've heard nonstop about its benefits, but when they've tried it, meditation actually makes them feel more stressed. Does everyone have to meditate? Is there a cheat code to avoid the act itself, but still get the benefits? In today's show, we get real about mindfulness, meditation, and how our cultural messages about what both of those mean may be a little out of whack. Join us for some specific ways to incorporate all that's good about mindfulness into your life without once having to 'clear your mind."

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Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper


Dr. Andrea Bonior: Meditation. Do you do it? Do you feel like you should do it? Does the idea of it make you anxious? Have you tried it and found that it just doesn't work for you? Is there any way to bypass actual meditation and still get the benefits of meditation? Today we're taking a listener question about meditation. Specifically, what about when it absolutely stinks for you? What happens when meditation makes you feel worse no matter how many times you try it? Are there ways to get the benefits of mindfulness without it? If you've ever wanted some real talk about meditation rather than someone telling you like an old Nike commercial that you've got to just do it, you'll want to tune in to today's show. Welcome, everyone. How are you today? I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this is Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel, Incidentally, it's also not a show about proper care for your lateral nail folds. So on to today's show. Today we're taking a listener question about meditation and how bad it is, at least in the way it feels to our listener. Thanks, as always, to the listener narrator who read this email that came in. It's all about a team effort here, right, Buster? Yes, the tail is wagging. Team effort. Okay, on to the letter.

Listener: I try to take good care of my physical and mental wellbeing, and I think I do a pretty good job, even though these past years have been extra tough. But the one thing I just can't seem to do is meditate. I never stop hearing about how good it is for me, and honestly, I've been trying it, uh, since I first took yoga as a teenager, but I just can't get the hang of it. The nature of it bothers me, honestly, and I think makes me feel stressed. My mind is anything but still, and I can't get it to quiet. Maybe I feel ill at ease with myself, which sounds like a problem I should address, but I also think it's possible that maybe it's just not my style. Is there any way to get the benefits of meditation without actually doing it?

Dr. Andrea Bonior: I was really happy to get your question because it's such a common conundrum, and I think there are a lot of misconceptions about meditation out there. First, the misconception about what meditation really is or what it needs to be, the ways it has to be done, but also the misconception that it has to be the end-all, be-all of mental health, that thou shalt meditate or else face certain emotional doom. So I'm looking forward to trying to help with this and clearing some things up today. Now, I've been helping people incorporate mindfulness, including various types of meditation, into their daily lives for a long time. I also would never claim to be the ultimate meditation specialist; there are many folks more devoted to it than I am, more skilled at it, more knowledgeable of it, and I very much want to be able to have them on some day. There are also many different varieties of meditation, including some practices that are more spiritual in nature. And there's Transcendental Meditation, which has a lot in common with the mindfulness types of meditation that are used in clinical work but does have some differences. And I admittedly am not the best one to be able to get into the weeds on those differences. But I do have a lot of expertise in mindfulness techniques more generally. And I'm also pretty well versed in teaching the basics of meditation and helping dispel some of the myths out there and helping folks find a way. To fit it into their lives. In between doom scrolling social media and yelling at people in traffic and wondering whether or not they should bother to put on pants for that conference call. So that's what I'll focus on, dispelling myths and trying to help you listener, with the fact that classic meditation just isn't working for you. So where to begin? First, you talked about getting your mind to quiet, but I take a little bit of an issue with that. Meditation doesn't have to involve a quiet mind because that's immediately talking about trying to change the nature of your thoughts. And that's not really what meditation is about. Meditation is about the noticing, the observing. Your thoughts may be screaming banshees, but with meditation you're not trying to quiet them as much as you're trying to gain some distance from them, the detached perspective. As an observer, we just talked about this with our cognitive defusion episode and so it could be that you heard that and thought, I get it now, or maybe you didn't hear that at all. Heck, maybe you, the original letter writer, aren't even hearing this. But for anyone listening, obviously, cognitive defusion and meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, go hand in hand. It's about the curiosity and the gentleness. It's about being non judgmental. It's about acknowledging and observing your thoughts rather than getting them to change in time. The gentle observation can lead to a quieting because the thoughts don't have as much power to be loud anymore. They don't activate your nervous system or your threat response as much, so they may very well seem quieter. But if you're expecting that your mind is just supposed to be blank when you meditate, that's definitely not the case. You can observe your thoughts, even the nagging, loud, annoying ones, and you can gently watch them pass. You can bring yourself back to your breath if you feel yourself being dragged along on a wild ride with your thoughts. You can picture your thoughts as a passing parade, or as leaves on a stream, or as passengers on a bus that get on and off. Meditation is not supposed to be about clearing your head completely. It's also not about being perfectly still. It's about your awareness and your attitude toward your thoughts, whatever those thoughts may be, and bringing yourself into the moment by not letting those thoughts drag you into some cycle or put you on autopilot into behaviors or reactions that aren't the best for you or getting you to act against your values. So it's about observing those thoughts but not following them where we don't want to go. Mindfulness isn't about beating your thoughts into submission so they shut up. It's about labeling your thoughts as thoughts and observing them and opening your whole self up to an awareness of what your breath is doing, what you're feeling in your body, and grounding yourself in the moment. That said, meditation and noticing and bringing your awareness to your breath may not be for everyone. The awareness of the breath in particular can be tricky. I have had clients who have anxiety symptomology related to their breath or their breathing, whether panic disorder or history of worrying about hyperventilating. And when they over focus on their breaths, they sort of paradoxically get nervous that their breath isn't right or that they aren't breathing as deeply as they should be. Now, for some of those clients, they can learn to disempower those thoughts much like you disempower any negative thought. Again, the cognitive defusion that we talked about in a recent episode. But for other folks, it just doesn't work out that way. Focusing on the breath just isn't a helpful place for their attention to be. Or for some others, it's the stillness that's disconcerting. They are naturally fidgety. And, um, the idea of sitting and meditating or lying down and meditating is not a state that their wiggle worm bodies can accommodate. Now, certain folks would argue, well, that's the whole point of meditation, that the wiggle worms can learn to be more still. But I think there's a fine line between helping someone build that muscle of stillness versus making somebody absolutely miserable by trying to turn them into something that they just aren't. Yes, it would be wonderful for my physical health if I became a really good breaststroker. But am I meant to spend my time trying to become a good breaststroker, especially with the absolute lack of talent involved? Or are my doggie paddling ways enough for my purposes of recreation and survival? If I'm in a body of water, I'd say they are enough. I kind of view the meditation practice as similar. Do you have to be sitting still in an ashram to get benefits? No. Even if sitting still in an ashram offers you something more intense and more valuable in certain ways, it might simply not be possible in other ways or compatible with you, or worth it. So let's think for a moment about the benefits of mindfulness that can still be gleaned and put into practice and that don't involve our classic stereotype of sitting still. Remember, what is the basis of mindfulness? Is it that your arms aren't moving? Is it that you're in a certain position? Absolutely not. So let's start with moving your body in a mindful way, taking a walk or moving however it is that you can move, getting into the rhythm of that movement and noticing that movement and noticing your surroundings changing as you move. Your senses matter a ton in mindfulness. So if you get thrown off trying to focus on quiet or on your breath, instead, focus on what you notice in your senses. What are five things you see in the room? What's the texture of your clothing and how does it feel against your skin? What are the smells that you're taking in through your slow breaths? If you're zipping to your coffee or eating something, try to slow down and notice the taste. What are the sounds that you hear, even distant soft ones? No such thing as distant soft sounds in my house. They are aloud and they all seem, uh, very, very near. But attuning your senses to what's happening around you, even while you're moving around, or especially while you're moving around, can help bring you to the current moment and bring you away from the fast forwarding or the rewinding that our brains often want to carry us away on, which is what we're trying to get away from when we practice. Mindfulness rituals can be a big part of reminding yourself to be more present in the moment. So instead of expecting yourself to lay down and focus for ten minutes on your breath, think about building mindfulness techniques into regular habits, like when sipping your coffee, as we mentioned before, take a moment to really notice how the heat of the mug feels in your hands and slow down. Or something simple like when you brush your teeth, remembering to notice your breathing, or to close your eyes and set an intention to keep in mind for the day. These are very different types of mindfulness techniques, setting an intention for your day versus noticing your breath. But they both help to achieve the idea of grounding yourself in the moment, keeping you from being carried away by your thoughts, helping you feel more conscious of the here and now rather than cycling around on autopilot. And the thing about building mindfulness into regular rituals is that you're much better able to turn the habit into something permanent because you're connecting it to things that are going to keep happening anyway. So it's going to become a more natural part of your day. And speaking of brushing your teeth, a lot of people find repetitive movements really helpful for mindfulness. So again, that stereotype of having to lay still just doesn't apply here. I, and many other people who knit, for instance, find that repetitive motion to be really soothing and to help get into a Zen zone, so to speak. That's why I can knit a sweater in a week and then take eight months to weave in the ends of the yarn and actually finish the darn thing. Other people find this repetitive movement zen through scrubbing something or cleaning, and let's spend a moment being so very happy for those people. You can experiment with any type of repetitive movement. What it can help do is help your brain find a rhythm. Obviously, yoga can be really good for this too, which it sounds like you already do, or at least you've already tried. And as we'll get into in a moment, maybe that is enough. Doing yoga, maybe that's what works for you. So I really encourage you to go bigger in terms of your interpretation of what meditation means. There are all kinds of ways to incorporate mindfulness, and none of them have to look like what we classically think of when we think of meditation. I'd be remiss, though, if I didn't say to maybe try out a larger variety of guided meditations, looking online, looking in apps, because there's a whole spectrum of those two. It could be that just finding the right music or the right person's voice or the right pacing or the right intention or vibe that that could be helpful for you and something would connect anew to make you like it. There are loving, kindness meditations, and gratitude meditations. There are body scans and visualizations. There are meditations for all different types of emotional states and lots and lots of different guided meditations run by different people online. So explore a little more if you're up for it, and it'd be really helpful to watch your interpretations. Are you being compassionate and nonjudgmental with yourself? Are you being a big old ahold to yourself? Condemning yourself as you're trying to meditate when meditation should be about gentle curiosity and acceptance? Are you constantly saying, I'm not doing this right? Are you constantly berating yourself that you have to do it at all? Because, as mentioned, it could very well be that you're just doing mighty fine without meditation, especially if you can incorporate simple mindfulness techniques here and there in your life. It sounds like you take care of your well being with a lot of intention. Maybe that's enough. Hopefully, in listening to this, you'll start to figure out whether your issue with meditation is that it's just not a great fit for you, or that maybe you could tweak it a bit to make it a better fit, or if you're truly trying to run from your thoughts. You mentioned that possibility of being ill at ease with yourself, but I'm thinking honestly that that would probably manifest in other ways besides just meditation being tricky for you. But I hope some of this today can spark some thought. That thought doesn't have to be quiet. It doesn't have to be perfectly orderly. It can be messy and loud and wild. Hey, we've come full circle if any other listeners have any questions about meditation or about anything at all. Of course. Send me a note. Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to, like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told them where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper. Cover up by Daniel Merity and my studio security? It's Buster the dog. Until next time, take good care.

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About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every Tuesday and Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.