Why Isn’t Meditation Working for Me?


Meditation is popular, but not without its own set of problems. Today Mr. Wunderlich talks about ten problems he experienced – which are fairly common ones. And about some solutions, too. Maybe meditation might work for you afterwards.

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Thank you for your attention, yours truly, Mr. Wunderlich

Read the transcript

Meditation is mighty popular right now. Like I said in the episode titled „Do I Have to Meditate to Be Spiritual“ everyone and their toy poodle meditate nowadays. And this isn’t even a joke! There is the quite real „Satori Institute for Dogs“. I’m not making this up. You can google it.

I like it! (I mean the popularity, not the institute for dogs) When I started back in the eighties, meditation was a very awkward topic in any talk. Now? Now I can brag with thirty years of experience! Honey for my ego!

Generally speaking this expression „meditation“ is not very useful. In English ‚meditation‘ can be anything that’s not professional sports or talking or making love.
If you see someone on a park bench staring at a fixed point in the distance, you may say: „This person is meditating“.
Even if in this person’s brain right in this moment devilish plans are plotted on how to conquer the world with something he or she will cook up in the kitchen.

If anything static is done in quietude – that can be meditation. Why shouldn’t dogs meditate, too? Even if we loosely define meditation as a method to focus your mind on the moment, there are still many options.

This is very much centered around Zen meditation, please excuse this – it was the choice I made. I do not know very much about TM or Vipassana or any other school, but I assume that all beginners problems are similar.

So. You think, meditation is not working for you. Can that be fixed?

I’ve collected ten of the problems I experienced with meditation. Most of them myself.
I think these are fairly common ones.

Problem 1: I can’t control my breathing or I can’t breathe normally when I concentrate on it

Many forms of meditation use concentrating on your body while you breathe. Sometimes it’s about watching your breath, sometimes you count each breath.
Counting your breath is very powerful. I still use it when my emotions are too intense. It’s a very good way of coming back to the present moment. Because in any present moment you are breathing.

Oxygen and carbon dioxyd have to be in balance in our blood. An imbalance has psychogenic impact. If you hyperventilate – for example – you are eliminating carbon dioxide. You may get dizzy, your hands or your feet begin to tingle, you can get headaches or even experience fatigue.

Let’s combine this with problem number two!

Problem 2: My pulse is accelerating too much or decreasing too much

That is, in most cases, the result of problems with your breathing.

If you involuntarily control your breathing, you can change the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxyde in your blood slowly. This can lead to changes in your pulse.

Don’t get me wrong: If your pulse decreases to a certain point, that’s perfectly normal!
But if you begin to feel dizzy, stop controlling your breath instantly!
Don’t control your breathing anymore!

Breathing happens to you, even if you try to stop it. You simply observe it, while it happens to you.
But I know for some people this is not working.
This is not a mistake, it’s something we can fix.

Meditation is not about breathing. This technique is only a little helper.

You can concentrate on your posture instead. Observe how it tends to change in microscopic increments and correct that.

I am correcting my posture all the time. Today my problem was the left shoulder. This doesn’t mean that I meditate in a wrong way. It means that my left shoulder is a part of my meditation.

Problem 3: I can’t stop thinking

That’s the most common complaint. And I think it’s based on a misunderstanding. Meditation is not the opposite of thinking. Your thoughts are not your enemy. They are not made by the evil ‚Ego‘ and they are not the greatest hindrance between you and quietude.

Thinking is just what your brain does. Your heart is there to beat, your guts are there to process your food, your feet are made to transport you.
Thoughts are just the things your brain is producing. Thoughts are fine. Everyone thinks all the time.

If you are sitting down to meditate and concentrate the first thing everyone’s brain does is to use the silence to think very, very loudly!

Don’t care. Let your brain think. You wouldn’t try to control your heart beating or to stop your natural bowel movement. Just don’t listen to much on what your brain is thinking. Let the thoughts come and go. They are a part of you, but they are not you. Don’t fight thinking!

If you keep concentrating on sitting there will be moments between two thoughts.
These moments are enough. That’s meditation. Don’t think about thinking.

Problem 4: Sitting for a longer period hurts

Some meditation techniques are all about relaxation. Most are not. In Zen we use a posture that is more like a balance between tension and relaxation. Like dancing, for example.

I tried to meditate lying down, but it’s almost impossible. It’s so easy to daydream, to doze, even to fall asleep! The sitting posture is helpful. In a sitting posture your whole body meditates, not only your brain.

The best posture for meditation is the full lotus – I’m sorry. Many years ago I was capable to sit in this manner. Then there was a ski lift and a beginner and a knee bent in the wrong direction – don’t ask!

The lotus distributes your weight evenly on three points and your hip is tilted in the right angle automatically. It’s difficult, but any healthy person can achieve it. It may take months or even years, but you can get there.

Speaking of health problems: I had pain sitting for quite some time. Because of another medical condition called Scheuermann’s disease. My first sesshin was the worst! I couldn’t sleep at night because my back was so tense. I tried too hard to do everything as good as possible!
Now I just sit with my little hump and don’t care if someone tells me that’s wrong.

If you are sitting and your back or your legs or your neck begin to hurt, change your posture a little bit. That’s okay. You don’t have to endure physical pain. Though a little pain can point you in the right direction, never try too hard – like me and my hump.

You will find the right posture through try and error.
Be nice to your body and be patient.

Problem 5: I am not achieving any progress

This one is … complicated. Thirty years ago it was a very normal complaint. Nowadays even beginners already know a lot more about meditation. They expect their teacher to answer:
„Well, you are not here to make progress, you fool! What do you want to achieve? Stop being so ambitious! That’s just your ego talking!“

Something like that. Something like Mr. Myagi: „Right hand: Wax on. Left hand: Wax off“, you know. I am guilty of saying things like that. More polite naturally.

But the truth is: Everyone who starts to meditate does this to achieve something. There’s no way around it, that’s just a human thing to do.

Meditation tends to deny you exactly that one thing that you most urgently want to achieve. If you meditate to be calmer, meditation can make you angry. If you meditate to be better at your job, meditation will confuse you. And if you meditate to climb up a spirital ladder, you will get stuck on the first step for a long time.

My expectations were disappointed, too. My meditating didn’t impress anyone. Especially not THAT girl. And it hurt and it was boring and my first teacher died and why should I do this nonsense anymore?

But after a while I noticed that I felt better on days that started with meditation. And it became a new habit. I sat down before I even began to think about progress.
I just did it. Still do it. That was all the progress I needed.

It’s taking longer as you may expect, but the journey will begin.
Clip „Wax on. Wax off.“

Problem 6: I get so tired

That happens. More often than you may think. People can fall asleep in their posture, keel over and start to snore right in the middle of the dojo. Happens. It’s fun for everyone: The person snoring may catch up on its sleep and all the other meditators can meditate about their need to laugh out loud.

First of all: You cannot meditate when you are lying down. If you look for relaxation you may be happier with dancing or listening to music. Yoga or autogenics could be other alternatives. Or you listen to guided meditations. The „escapisms“-episodes at this podcast, for example.

Second of all: Don’t close your eyes. I know that many Vipassana teachers recommend this, but I think it’s much easier in the long run if you get used to half-open eyes. You just look at an imaginary target point on the floor five, six inches before you.

Third of all, a truth too simple: Most people who get very tired when meditating, don’t allow themselves enough sleep. It’s a fact of modern life – sleeping has a bad reputation.

Some teachers will tell you that you will need less sleep when meditating. I don’t know if this is true, but I don’t want to quit meditation for a longer period to find out. In case that’s true, well, fine. I need eight hours. Period.

BTW: If you meditate to sleep less, than you are on a very bad trip away from your body.

Problem 7: I am bored

This happened to Buddha, I’m quite sure. Happens to everyone. Sometimes meditation is boring, even after 30 years. But boredom is fine.

You are bored because you lack stimulation. And that’s good! That’s a part of meditation, congratulations! If you are bored then you are at least not plotting to conquer the world with something you will cook up in your kitchen.

But the lack of stimulation is just the start. The thing that’s so painful is the craving for relief from this boring situation.

You could use your time so much better than just sitting there and doing exactly nothing! Even watching paint dry seems to be an exciting adventure right now! Anything to end this!

If you are bored while meditating than: Just be bored. Enjoy being bored! Boredom is so much better than … cardiac arrest! Sorry, bad joke.

No, really: Your boredom will end sooner or later. Don’t concentrate on it. Go through the valley of boredom. And if it’s really too painful: Make yourself a distraction.
Try to find out how many different smells are in the room. Or how far away the most remote sound is you can hear. This will keep you in the moment.
And if that doesn’t help and it still is hurting: Count sheeps. Build polygons in your imagination. Think about your favorite super villain. Is it Magneto? Is it Lex Luthor? Daydream!

It’s not like distractions are forbidden, but it’s much better to be bored. You can postpone your walk through the valley of boredom, but you can’t cancel it. There will be a time when distractions won’t ease the pain anymore. That’s not only true for meditation, btw.

Problem 8: I am always getting sad when I meditate
…is similar to problem 9: I am always getting aggressive when I meditate

These two have to be taken serious. There is a popular meditation phrase saying: „If you are placeholder while meditating, than placeholder is the content of your meditation.“ Heard that one? Like: If you are getting sad while meditating than your topic is sadness.

This may help. But it might not. If you always, every single time get sad or aggressive or anxious or too emotional when you sit down to meditate, something else might be going on.

Though meditation is sold as the cure for any problem right now it is no replacement for psychotherapy. These are two completely different things.

You can’t heal serious psychological problems with meditation alone – don’t believe these promises!
If things get worse for you every time you meditate, I would recommend: Search for help! Talk about it with someone.

There is nothing to be ashamed of when you need help. We are social creatures, we all need support.
Psychotherapy can help and medication can help, too.
Psychotherapy helped me and medication helped me, too.

Problem 10: I am making things wrong!

That was exactly my feeling all the way through my first retreat. From the first day to the tenth! I even packed my suitcase, twice!

I was supposed to look at one point in the small cubicles they used at this place. But instead I sometimes looked around. Everyone but me seemed to be so deeply into meditation! I was the worst! And then I felt bad for looking around. Another mistake no one made but me! I was sure, I will never learn this. Ever!

If you feel this way, then let me tell you: Meditation dojos are focus points of the imposter syndrom!

Because we think about meditation in these worshipful categories.
Sure, there is the full lotus and the right posture and the right breathing and the right thinking. But that’s just very meta, you know? These things are fine tuning. You’re doing great simply because you are trying.

You don’t have to be a good son or daughter anymore! You don’t get grades for the right posture. Your feeling of failure comes from your education or from school or from the competition at your job. Meditation is not a place for competition.

It’s not true that you can’t make any mistakes either, but do not try too hard!

For this problem and for many of the others, keep in mind: Meditation is not about you.
You have to start it, for sure, but it’s not about you at all.

And let me add two other things:

First: Maybe nothing I said helped you. Mediation may really not working for you. That’s fine.

You don’t need meditation to be spiritual or to be a complete human being.
This meditation hype will end someday. And the next big thing could be just right in your alley!

Secondly: It’s okay to start meditating in your own four walls. Alone. And to use blogs, YouTube, books or even podcasts as an introduction. You can begin that way. You can even make meditating your habit that way.

But you have to find someone to teach you sooner or later. And, even more important, you have to find a group of people to meditate with. A sangha, as we call it. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is really important.

Many of the problems we talked about will not happen when you’re meditating with your sangha. And other people in your meditation group or your teacher could help you, if they do arise.

Without other people you could develop your meditation in the wrong direction. You could get overwhelmed by your experiences and starting to think that you are God’s gift to mankind, for example.

That’s exactly how Magneto became a super villain. Or Lex Luthor.
So: Don’t be like Lex Luthor – search for a meditation group!

Okay. This episode was exhausting.
My favourite sentence today: Meditation is not about you!
Because it’s about life. Life itself!