As much as I'd like to be the person who meditates so much that they're constantly in a Zen state of mind (or at least can quickly get into a state of Zen), I can't do it. Even when I do it "successfully" — meaning I do a meditation all the way through without giving up and checking my Instagram feed — I don't always feel like it does anything for me.
But, does meditation really work for everyone, anyway?
"People meditate for different reasons — to improve focus, for relaxation, or for spiritual awareness — so it’s difficult to say whether everyone will benefit from starting a meditation practice," says Joel Minden, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chico, CA. "I think it’s helpful to be clear about your goals and intentions before starting to meditate regularly, because then you can evaluate whether the practice is useful."
Dr. Minden says he usually recommends meditation for people who struggle with emotional distress, as it can help people be more aware of their emotions.
"With regular practice, this awareness can transfer to emotionally-charged situations in daily life," he says. "Instead of falling into old patterns of being driven by overwhelming emotions in the moment, it becomes easier to slow things down, briefly consider options for responding to the emotions, and make choices that are more consistent with long-term values."
Plus, for the most part, most of us can start meditating, whether or not we actually end up liking it. Dr. Minden says that in theory, meditation is simple: It usually involves directing your attention to an internal process, and then redirecting it when your mind wanders. And in theory, it's also good for you. Some research has suggested that it can even strengthen the parts of your brain that regulate emotions.
But some people, like me, get frustrated with it because we get distracted and notice our minds wandering a lot, and throw our hands up and say we aren't good at it. For us, Dr. Minden suggests trying to approach it from a different angle.
Rather than viewing meditation as an ability to master, it’s helpful to accept that some days will be more challenging than others.
Joel Minden, PhD
"I find that, rather than viewing meditation as an ability to master, it’s helpful to accept that some days will be more challenging than others, so consider valuing the process itself," he says.
In other words, if you're struggling to really commit to it, don't look at it as a failure every time you sit down to meditate, only to spend the whole time thinking about what you have to do the next day.
"At a certain point, you may decide that meditation isn’t what you hoped it would be, and there’s nothing wrong with discontinuing the practice if it doesn’t appeal to you," he says. "I do, however, think that, if you’re serious about giving meditation a try, it’s good to maintain the practice for an extended period of time, and not give up just because you’re struggling to tolerate the challenging thoughts and feelings that emerge from time to time. This experience is normal."
But for those of us who care more about the destination than the journey (and there's no shame in it), it might be frustrating to try to enjoy the process. Instead of being harsh on yourself for "failing" meditation because you can't quiet your thoughts, you might get more out of meditation if you give yourself a chance to process all the feelings and thoughts that come up when you're trying to meditate.
So if you're trying to meditate and you find yourself thinking about a fight you had with a friend, or you can't get your mind off something that happened that day, maybe it means you can use this quiet time to work through whatever that is. You don't have to meditate if you feel like it does nothing for you, but just know that getting distracted or giving up doesn't mean that you're completely hopeless at it.
"It can be helpful to view meditation as a valuable process, rather than something to love or hate," Dr. Minden says. "If you’re deciding against meditation because you don’t enjoy it, consider changing the way you think about meditation itself. That alone can make the practice much more rewarding."