Why Is Meditation So Hard?

Photo by Colton Sturgeon

The door opens.

Sanjay walks into a room nervously. There, a monk sits on a raised platform, already deep in meditation.

Quietly, Sanjay takes his shoes off and sits cross-legged in front of the monk. He closes his eyes. “OK, just focus on my breathing,” he tells himself.

Almost at once, his mind starts to fire in all directions. His nervousness got worse as his insecurities start to take over. No matter what he tried to do, his mind simply refuses to settle down.

Suddenly, he hears a deep, baritone voice: “Any questions?”

Sanjay opens up his eyes, and sees the monk smiling at him.

“This is hard for me,” admits Sanjay.

“Me, too,” says the monk. “After doing daily for sixty years, it is still hard.”

Who is Sanjay? His full name is Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, professor and a writer. He is also a popular personality on CNN, and so you might have seen him on TV.

The monk? Dalai Lama.

“After Doing Daily For Sixty Years, It Is Still Hard.”

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism has trouble meditating.

Surprising, right?

When I first read about Sanjay’s experience with the Dalai Lama, I felt a little startled.

I mean, if even the Dalai Lama finds it hard to meditate, then there must be hope for the rest of us, right?

I do wonder why so many of us find meditating to be so hard.

Intuitively, it doesn’t sound like a difficult thing to do at all. I mean, how hard can it be to sit down and think about nothing, right?

Why Is Meditation So Hard?

I found this little gem on Reddit the other day (paraphrased for clarity):

I can spend hours and hours watching TV and browsing stuff on my phone. But, I can’t carve out a few minutes for silence. Why?

Then, the answer hit me: I am afraid of my own thoughts. I fear to face the things that come into my head when I’m doing nothing.

This really hits home for me.

I am amazed at how much my mind wanders when I close my eyes in total silence. Ugly fears and difficult thoughts would surface, kicking the brain into anxious overdrive.

And guess what? It’s easier to crowd those thoughts out with Netflix and your iPhone (or, in worse cases, drugs and alcohol.) After all, when I am distracted, I don’t have to deal with those issues.

I do, however, find this to be weird:

Why, when left on its own, does the brain floods itself with negative thoughts?

We want to be happy. But our brain seems to make us anything but.


The Problem Of Negativity Bias

The first answer lies in one of the most pervasive facts about human psychology:

The bad has a stronger impression on our minds than the good.

For example, if you ask someone about a childhood memory, it is easier for him to recall a bad experience.

This is true even for someone who has had a happy upbringing.

Why is this so?

One word: evolution.

For thousands of years, our surroundings have trained our brain to do one thing well:

Sniffing out danger.

Call it the survival instinct. We pay more attention to the bad things – you know, things that may harm or even kill us.

This is useful when there’s a lion behind the bush looking to make a quick meal out of the distracted caveman.

We no longer live in the danger of getting pounced by lions. Perhaps the Negativity Bias has outlived its use?

The Problem Of Emotional Baggage

The second reason behind negative thinking is this:

Cumulative life experience

As time goes by, we collect experiences, good and bad. However, the brain remembers more of the bad ones than the good.

What happens then as we grow older?

Our emotional baggage gets heavier. What a bummer!

Now let me ask you this:

Have you ever repeated an incident in your mind about what you did (or what someone had done to you), over and over again?

And when that happens, do you ever ask yourself: “Why did that happen?” Or, “What should I have done instead?”

That’s the result of your brain trying to figure out how to get caught in that unpleasant situation again.

Again, this is your survival instinct at play. Sometimes useful, but at what cost?

Our happiness, yours and mine.

The Problem Of “Inclination To Action”

Let’s revisit our cave-dwelling ancestor.

In his life as a hunter-gatherer, taking action is safer than thinking.

A moment lost in deliberating an action could, well, get him pounced by the lion. When he sees something that resembles a lion from a distance, it’s safer for him to run first (and think later).

Indeed, in that situation, spending a minute thinking if he should run could get him mauled.

Fast forward to modern times. There are no threats of getting mauled by lions.

Still, we are the descendants of fast action takers. The “Inclination To Action” is ingrained inside our brain.

In our busy lives, both at work and at home, “not” acting is not an option. You can’t sit around doing nothing. You always got to do something.

And when you try to meditate, guess what? You are up against your brain’s default mode to “act”. You feel uncomfortable. Maybe even somewhat unnatural.

Your mind’s “Inclination To Action” is useful in a world where there is danger lurking in every corner. Alas, it makes your life harder than it should be.

How To Make Meditation Easy

Meditation is hard because the brain’s defaults to negative.

The Negativity Bias, emotional baggage and the Inclination to Action are in your way.

Our brain’s instinct for survival is now our biggest impediment to happiness. How ironic!

How to meditate easily?

I could try to remove my Negativity Bias. But it’s tough.

I could try to let go of any emotional baggage that I have. That could work, after years of therapy. Maybe?

I could fight my Inclination to Action. But again, it won’t be easy.

What’s easy?

So, here was what I had figured out.

Instead of taking on the 10,000-pound gorilla that was my highly evolved brain, here was what I did:

I set a low bar for myself.

This is what I mean:

The mental muscle you’re working on is the one that brings your attention back to something.

And I will consider the meditation success if even if I bring my attention back only once.

So, it doesn’t matter if I spend nine of the ten minutes meditating thinking about my work, my partner, or Netflix…

…as long as I am mindful enough to regain my attention (at least once), then it’s a success.

This has worked for me.

It will do the same for you.