How to Meditate If You Can't Sit Still

In western culture, inactivity is seen as unproductive and lazy.  Anyone who is idle for too long, without producing something, is seen as ineffective.  Activity is prized over everything, regardless of whether that activity promotes growth, either personal or global. It’s important to note that even inactivity from an entertainment perspective is valued more than actual sitting in silence.  For example, in the United States it is deemed more favorable to watch a 30 minute situation comedy than to watch a sunset.  

The thought of being still and silent with your thoughts is not an ideal that is nurtured in this country. This is an important point to bring up because the inability to sit still for meditation is not accurate. We all have the ability to sit still for extended periods of time.  Each of us has either been to a movie, a religious service or been on an extended car ride.

The premise that anyone is unable to sit still to meditate is inaccurate.  We can all sit still, therefore something else must be going on.  It has been my experience teaching students to meditate, that it is not the inability to sit still, it is the inability to sit un-entertained.  Of course, this inability is a learned behavior and can be unlearned.  In fact, the constant need for entertainment is often indicative of something more unsettling, something that can be remedied by meditation.

Alone with your Thoughts

By indicating instances where you are able to physically sit still, it’s clear that the issue must be with your thoughts.  You can sit still. You just find sitting still with your thoughts to be difficult, boring, etc..

As I mentioned earlier, it then must be that you have difficulty sitting without being entertained.  Why is that?  Determining that answer will help you become “able” to sit still.

The more important question is, 

Do you want to be entertained, or do you need to be distracted?

Are you able to distinguish the difference?  If you want to be entertained, you want to feel something; it may be laughter, excitement, enjoyment or adventure.  If you are looking to be distracted, then there is no conscious decision.  You simply don’t want to think or feel what you are currently feeling.

For example, if you decide to go to the movies, you are selecting a film based on how you want to feel, depending on the genre of that movie.

But if you are in front of your computer, following a trail of YouTube videos or mindlessly scrolling through your Facebook feed, you aren’t actively looking to experience something.  You simply don’t want to think about (or procrastinate) what you are doing.

For many people, the thought of letting their minds be free and think about whatever it feels like, is terrifying.  They feel they will be at the mercy of thoughts of failure, worthlessness and loneliness.  

While it seems cliche, when learning how to meditate, you may have to sail through a storm before you are able to experience calm.

When you are first learning to meditate, your mind will wander; sometimes a great deal.  It is that wandering that many people get frustrated with.  They expect that the moment they sit down with the intention to meditate, their mind will magically become calm, and once it doesn’t, the restlessness starts.  It’s not a physical restlessness, it a mental restlessness.

It goes back to the perception that is the premise of this post, you aren’t unable to sit, you are unable or frustrated with not being able to instantaneously calm your mind.

Solutions for Dealing with the Frustration

Begin with the understanding that you will not experience peace of mind immediately

Meditation is called a practice for a reason.  The goal is never to reach an end point, to be perfect at calming your mind. Each session is a success in its own right.  The act of taking time to sit still with your thoughts is the “success”.  Whether you have to redirect your mind back to your breath or mantra one time, or one hundred.

You always have an anchor  

Your thoughts will wander.  That is the nature of your mind.  But you can use your mind to focus your attention back to your breath or to your mantra.  Your mind can only have one thought at a time, and therefore when you bring your attention back to your breath, you will be bringing you mind away from whatever thought had caused your mind to stray.

Understand that in the beginning, you may need to redirect many, many times. However, as you become more and more proficient, those times will diminish. It’s also important to point out that regardless of proficiency, your mind may wander more at some times than others.

There are times when I too, a meditator for 37 years, need to keep redirecting my mind back to my breath.  It’s no slight to your ability to meditate, it simply is, as it is.

Know When to Stop

If you find that your frustration is high because you keep needing to redirect your thoughts back to your breath, simply end the session…without judgement.

Obviously, don’t give up altogether.  Just return the next day, or later that day, to try again…to practice.

You can sit still

Sitting still is not the issue, when it comes to meditation.  Even if you are the most active person in the word, you have the ability to sit still.  The real issue is a lack of desire to sit with the feeling that you are not meditating “perfectly”.  No one meditates perfectly, not even the most trained.  No one meditates perfectly because perfection is not the goal.

Your mind will not magically become placid the first time you sit down to meditate.  And you will not immediately be able to collect your thoughts without needing to redirect them.

Simply know, the very act of taking time to be with your thoughts, to calm your mind, is success.  As you practice more and more, your sessions will become easier and easier.

Simply trust the process and don’t give up. 

Thom WaltersComment