How to Meditate When You Can’t Sit Still

Eyes gently closed, breathing slow and even: meditation always looks so peaceful, at least when others are doing it.

But in our chronically distracted, phone-addicted world, sitting still for 10 or 20 minutes is difficult and often causes your brain to jump between misguided thoughts. Meditation teachers say that you should recognize these impulses and then return to your breath or what you are concentrating on.

But what if you can’t find your way back? What if you’re just plain frustrated?

“It’s a common feeling,” says Dan Harris, co-author of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics and founder of mindfulness app 10 Percent Happier. But, he added, “Distraction in meditation is not evidence of failure.”

Still, it can feel daunting at the moment, like you’ve failed or somehow missed the point. But the benefits of mindfulness can outweigh the frustrations; Even brief bursts of meditation can help people become more focused, less anxious, and less depressed, even those who have the greatest trouble concentrating in daily life.

“Mindfulness helps people for a variety of reasons, including helping them learn how to regulate attention,” said John Mitchell, associate professor at Duke University and an expert in mindfulness and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Much of the research on distraction and meditation comes from ADHD experts like Dr. Mitchell, who have shown over the past 15 years that it can be particularly beneficial for people with attention deficit disorders — despite the particular challenge that sitting still poses. And the discoveries made by these experts can benefit anyone looking for help in becoming a skilled meditator.

But you have to start – and that can be the hardest part. We asked meditation teachers and clinicians for advice on how to start—and stay with—a practice.

The first thing you need to know is that you get distracted over and over again. This can lead to some negative beliefs about your brain. Everyone struggles with it at first, said David Austern, clinical assistant professor in the psychiatric department at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. However, this feeling of being “bad” when meditating is often more acute in people with attention issues.

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There is no good or bad meditation. ‌That’s just not the point‌. Every time you get distracted, you start over, so noticing the distraction is actually proof of success, says Jeffrey Warren, a meditation teacher with ADHD and co-author of “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.” “The best thing you can do is notice where you are and accept who you are,” even if that gets sidetracked every 10 seconds, he said. You are human and you are allowed to be human. That is the beauty of meditation. It’s about being human and being in that moment — no matter how distracted that moment is.

Another tool to ward off feelings of failure during meditation is something experts call “loving-kindness meditation,” which can help you forgive yourself when your mind wanders. It is about offering words of encouragement and kindness to yourself and others during meditation. “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be free from suffering – these are the classic meditation phrases, so to speak,” said Dr. Lidia Zylowska, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota and one of the first to study how meditation can benefit people with ADHD

You can also practice this type of meditation simply by showing yourself compassion and kindness when you feel your attention wandering. When you find yourself trying to memorize the names of all five Spice Girls instead of meditating, you feel pride and love for a brain that only wants to think about the pop groups of the ’90s. This can develop a more supportive and kind attitude towards your distractible mind in everyday life.

Mindfulness and meditation are related but not the same thing, said Dr. mitchell Mindfulness is the practice of being attentive and aware in every moment. It’s noticeable when your brain starts repeating the blunt thing you said in a work meeting when you should be paying attention to how your spouse is relating their day — and then shifts your attention back to listening. Mindful meditation takes a set amount of time to actively focus on being present—often by focusing on your breath.

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dr Zylowska often starts her patients with mindfulness exercises that they can do without extra time in the day. For example, you can brush your teeth mindfully by spending those two minutes noticing the taste of the toothpaste, the feel of the brush against your gums, or the brightness of the light in your bathroom. Since you’re (hopefully) already used to brushing your teeth, you’re more likely to do the exercise.

Mindfulness practices are also generally very brief—which is especially helpful for the chronically distracted. one of dr Zylowska recommended exercise for beginners takes only two seconds. Every time your phone rings during the day (or you get a text or work notification), take a deep breath before answering. This breath gives you a moment to check your breathing and find a sense of stillness before engaging in a conversation.

Many meditation apps default to 10, 15, or even 30 minute meditations. That’s probably too long for beginners, especially those with trouble concentrating, said Dr. mitchell

Mr. Harris and Mr. Warren have a motto they often come back to with new meditators: “One minute counts.” “Shame is a terrible motivator,” Mr. Harris said. If you try to sit for 30 minutes because you feel like you should, you’re not going to stick with your exercise, he said, adding, “If you find it excruciating, take a smaller bite.”

Start with three to five minutes and work your way up from there, Mitchell said. It’s a skill that you must develop, and the more you do it, the better you’ll become.

“You don’t have to be seated on the cushion to reap the benefits of meditation,” said Mr. Warren.

Incorporating exercise allows people to release energy, said Dr. mitchell “When people walk, they engage their bodies,” which can improve their ability to focus.

dr Zylowska recommends walking in nature – even in the city – whenever possible. “Nature is such an inducer of present moment awareness,” she said, adding that even perceiving animals like poodles and squirrels can keep us in the moment. Mr. Warren also loves activities like yoga and tai chi, which allow you to move your body but at a pace that allows you to be mindful of what you’re doing.

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Or just count your steps or focus on matching your breathing to the rhythm of your steps, suggested Dr. Mitchell before.

“It’s normal to get bored while meditating,” said Mr. Austern, no matter who you are. The human brain is wired for new things. This makes it even harder to suppress the urge to check Twitter while meditating (super quick – just a peek!).

“One way to combat boredom is to focus on being curious,” said Dr. oysters To inspire curiosity — especially curiosity in your current moment — try noticing things you’ve never noticed before. Are there bird calls you’ve never heard? How does your breath feel as it moves through your nose hairs? Do you think that when you exhale, those hairs blow like trees in a breeze? Sure it’s weird, but these thoughts will hold you in the moment.

It’s also worth being curious as to why exactly we want to check our phones during meditation. There are generally two reasons, said Dr. oysters One is that our brain craves the dopamine rush of novelty. The other is that we may be afraid of missing an important email. Take a moment to note what drives your desire, then acknowledge the feeling and return to being in the moment.

dr Zylowska notes that many of her patients don’t realize that it’s normal—even expected—to struggle with meditation and mindfulness. Accessing a psychotherapist trained in mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy can save you from frustration. The same goes for joining a meditation group or working with an accountability buddy. ADD.org lists weekly online meditation groups for those with similar journeys to focus.

AC Shilton is a Tennessee-based freelance journalist and sheep farmer.

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