Why your mind is ‘too busy’ to meditate, and what to do about it.

October 26, 2020

I remember my first time trying to meditate. Actually, my first minute even. 

I sat down on a pillow on the floor, my legs awkwardly crossed at the ankles, and I tried to watch my breath.

Which I found to be impossible. That single minute seemed to last an hour. And it wasn’t very fun. Terror is the word that comes to mind actually.

Is this my brain? This perennially rambling nonsense machine?

But that was then. Today, I average over an hour a day (often in one continuous sitting). and besides finding myself enjoying the fruits of my labour, I also find myself enjoying the labour itself. Not always, but quite often.

Lately, quite a few people (all young) have told me that their ‘minds are too busy’ to meditate. And quite uncomfortable with the prospects of being left alone with their thoughts even. They tried it a few times, found it uncomfortable, and then gave up.

Which I can relate to. But it’s very much like saying you can’t ride a bicycle because you haven’t learned how to balance it yet. The balancing act of ‘riding a bike without falling over’ comes with the learning of the skill of bicycling itself. That’s why, as a kid, you start with training wheels. You ease into it, gradually.

And you might be helped by easing into meditation as well. So if you’re also currently unable to sit still but want to give meditation a shot, here are some meditation training wheels:

Tip 1: Pick an object that comes natural to you

You don’t need to focus on the breath to meditate. It can be anything, really. The breath is just there, always available for us to observe. There’s nothing magical about it. In the past this wasn’t a problem for people because they were less cognitively stimulated. Pre-Internet brains weren’t reprogrammed by the social engineers of Silicon Valley to keep you in a state of perpetual, cheap dopamine driven, distraction. Being present and attentive might’ve come more natural for them.

As a beginning meditator, you need to pick something to observe because learning to ‘just observe something’ is the first skill we need to attain in meditation. The first goal of meditation is what Asian cultures call ‘taming the monkey mind’: the mind that’s frantically and continually going from thought to thought, to sensation to emotion, to another thought, and so forth. And not knowing it’s doing that.

The first major sign of progress in meditation will be when your attention can stay fixed on your object of mindfulness, unwaveringly. This is called access concentration. And it is a prerequisite to insight meditation, amongst others. Without strong concentration skills, we won’t be able to observe our mind (like we do with vipassana) or evoke certain mind states (like we do with Metta for example) because we’ll basically just be continually distracted. 

So if your monkey mind is that frantic, and if watching the breath is too big of a leap, start with something easier and less alien to you. Just pick your favorite sense, like sound or vision.

Here are some specific objects that usually help people:

- Music: Pick a song and give that your full, undivided attention. Note when you start thinking about something else, and bring your attention back to the song. (Not too energetic please, no Rage against the Machine)

- Movement: Go do some yoga. Yoga, at least what we in the Western world perceive as yoga (the asanas), is meant to prepare the body and the mind for meditation. Focusing on the physical movements itself is a great way to practice concentration, and you’ll find that you can more easily transition into actual meditation having done some yoga beforehand. This could be any form of (mindful) movement by the way, there’s nothing magical about yoga itself. Tai chi, running, walking, swimming. All great.

- Sight: Look at something. Could be a tree, a coffee mug, or your significant other. Anything. Go and mindfully observe that. Again, note when your attention drifts and gently pull it back.

You’ll find that after first getting started with these, transitioning to the breath will become almost natural.

Tip 2: Pick the right moment

In our age of cognitive and information overload, where the demand on our brain outweighs the supply, our minds are often overtaxed during the day. The working memory part of our prefrontal cortex (our ‘conscious thinking’ and self-regulating brain network) is already performing at, or over, design capacity. Simply put, our brains are tired and wired, on the regular. This forms an extra burden to overcome for aspiring meditators. 

The main reason why retreats exist is because they allow you to focus all your attention on meditation. It’s a great example of designing the environment (no distractions, as cognitively undemanding as is possible) to facilitate a desired outcome (ultimately: nirvana). Now what would be the opposite of that, an environment designed to almost diametrically oppose the development of a clear, calm mind? Well, our hyperconnected, ‘always on’, Western society comes pretty close.

So when you’re sitting down to meditate during a regular (busy) day, naturally, by virtue of how our brains work, all sorts of ‘worldly stuff’ will come up, starting with the more immediate, pressing concerns of the day (e.g. “Oh, I have to remind Alex to send me those files”). This isn’t that bad if you’re an experienced meditator, who can quickly shift towards observing these sensations without becoming engrossed by them, but as a newbie, this can be overwhelming. This is what I experienced all those years back, sitting in my apartment for my first minute of meditation ever.

But while only practice will eventually give you this ability, picking the right moments during the day to meditate will help you gain the first level of meditation (access concentration) much quicker.

So, pick moments where your mind is most at ease. This will be after activities that will have given your Central Executive Network (remember, the ‘conscious thinking’ part of our brain) some much needed R&R (rest and recuperation). For example, after you’ve woken up (but before checking your social media and the news). Or after a walk, nap, shower or exercise. Basically any non-input, non-thinking time.

Tip 3: Don’t set a timer

Timers can be a burden in and of itself, something to fret about while trying to concentrate. “Oh my god, do I have to do ten more minutes of this?!” This is especially important for newbie meditators who can’t sit with boredom (you’ll learn that skill later, and it’s very valuable in and of itself). 

Solution: Don’t keep score. Meditation is a single player game anyway. You’re not competing with anybody. So just sit down and ease into it. (If you do want to count your minutes, which really is nothing more than a vanity metric, you can remember or write down your start and end times).

Tip 4: Guided meditations

Guided meditations can be great. Listening to a voice is just less boring. A guided meditation can almost be like a story, and we humans like narratives. Sam Harris Waking Up app has a terrific 28-day, 10-minutes a day, Introductory Course.

And it doesn’t even need to be a guided meditation at first. You can even go and listen to a TED talk, as long as you do that with your full, undivided, unfragmented attention.

So, feel free to try any or all of these suggestions if you want to start meditating. 

Having the ability to remain focused, calm, kind and a clear thinker in the midst of the onslaught of entropy that you’ll likely encounter on a daily basis in your life really is the superpower in our age of distraction, and I myself haven’t found a better tool for this than meditation: the art of sitting down and learning to see what’s actually there.

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