Can’t Focus When You Meditate? You May Be Making This Mistake

For months now I’ve been struggling with my meditation practice. Every time I set a timer and sit down, I always feel unsuccessful afterwards. I struggle to concentrate, my mind keeps racing along, and ultimately, I end up disappointed by the results.

I realized that I went in to every single session with the goal of relaxing, and because of this mindset, I never achieved it.

Meditation is usually used synonymously with relaxation. Most people, myself included, start because they have anxiety and too much stress and need a way to manage it. When I tell people that I enjoy meditation the response is usually, “Wow how relaxing! I should do that because I’m so busy!” But a lot of times meditation isn’t relaxing at all. My fears frequently come to the surface and I have to confront them. Sometimes I will remember a painful or embarrassing memory and feel shame all over again. Whatever the thought, it is difficult to sit there and let them happen after a lifetime of trying to avoid dealing with them.

Most of the time, however, meditation isn’t relaxing simply because my mind won’t shut up. It’s racing around thinking about an episode of Friends, or a mean client at work, or a person who flipped me off on the freeway for no reason, what I plan on eating later, and all kinds of irrelevant things that could wait until I’m done.

Finally, I took off my headphones after contemplating another “unsuccessful” session and finally it clicked. I just labelled it as “unsuccessful,” but what would make it “successful?” Am I successful if I have trippy visuals? Or if I have a past-life regression? If I achieve supreme bliss and become one with Brahmin?

What if my constant judgment and labelling is what’s really holding me back? I’m not relaxed because I spend the entire time berating myself for NOT being relaxed!

The goal of meditation is not relaxation. The goal is to let go.

This means letting go of judgment, expectations, desires, anxieties, past pain, and the need to change things.

As I thought about meditation not being a relaxing practice I started to reconsider my “unsuccessful” session. My practice has stagnated because I meditated with a goal to achieve perfect concentration and bliss. Each time I sat down on my mat I was disappointed that I did not achieve these things. How could I when I was beating myself up every time I had a thought? All these thoughts kept pestering me when I was trying to be at one with the Self. Each time one surfaced, I would get annoyed at my brain for wandering, and then lose focus.

Meditation is about non judgment.

The biggest mistake we make is when we label things as good or bad. Let the thoughts come and receive them without judgment. Feel them, then let them go. Whether it’s an itch, a pleasant smell, or an annoying noise, try to notice without labeling. When you hear something, just think “sound.” If you feel a sensation, think “feeling.” Even when paying attention to the breath, simply think “in” and “out” rather than “breathing in” and “breathing out.” (A simple mantra to avoid labeling the breath is ‘So Hum.’ Silently think So on the inhale, and Hum on the exhale. Notice how these sounds are similar to the sounds of the natural breath.)

When you begin to notice the habit of judgment you become aware of how harmful those judgments can be. It’s shocking to realize how quick we are to judge things as good or bad. As you know, all things are impermanent. Appreciate the positive and be patient with the negative knowing both will pass. Above all, be kind to yourself because you’re only human. Be kind when your brain tries to race around and fix things—that’s what egos do. Patiently bring yourself back every time, knowing that each time you bring yourself back is indeed progress and should be celebrated.

Love and light,

Also see:

Why You Need to Start Meditating
Habits to Quit if you Want to Move Forward

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