Why it’s difficult to make meditation a habit

You are convinced that meditating regularly would be good for you. Maybe you have practised it before and felt the positive effects it had on you. You are prepared: you have downloaded an app, bought a book, or sought out some websites with guided meditations.

You really want to meditate but then - you don't. Or at least not as often as you'd like.

Sound familiar? The same is true for many people who struggle with keeping up a regular meditation practice, even though they know the benefits. I also struggled with making a habit of meditating after my first mindfulness course. I had clearly felt the benefits but somehow daily life just took over again and I didn't really meditate for many months, although I sometimes thought about it.

At first sight, there are the obvious obstacles, such as a lack of time. But when you look a bit closer, this is often not the real reason. Almost nobody is that busy that they cannot carve out a few minutes for meditation. On the contrary, most people daily "kill time" for several hours by reading the news, watching TV, or just endlessly scrolling on social media.

So what are the underlying reasons for not staying on track?

Why willpower is not working

It might sound strange, but the problem could be that you want to meditate. Very often, wanting to do something means that you are using willpower. The "want" then really is a "should". Very subtly you convinced yourself that something is good for you, even though you don't like it all that much. For many people, going to the gym, or eating salads instead of burgers is something they do purely on willpower. You do it because you think you should.

For some people, willpower can get them very far. But for most it runs out fast - often as soon as something more interesting or exciting comes along. Meditating for half an hour, or watching an extra episode of your favourite Netflix series? Hm...

What can happen next is that you feel guilty for not having chosen "what's good for you". You get into a vicious cycle of willpower and guilt; you are thrown back and forth between thoughts like "I should really do this", and "Why don't I ever succeed in doing what's good for me?". The result is often that you just get more and more stuck.

Perhaps you can investigate for yourself; what are my real reasons why I want to meditate? Is there some element of "should" in it? How can I replace this with something kinder?

Using a kinder approach

An alternative to using willpower is to see it as a gift to yourself. Something that you offer to yourself, with no strings attached, only because you feel you deserve it.

The verb here is "may" instead of "should" or "want". Seeing it like this can also free you from guilt if you skip it. Because it's no longer a subtle obligation.

Most of us are already hard workers - and that's why we experience so much stress. It's easy to start seeing meditation as another "to do" on your list, and you do your best to get it done. But in reality, practising mindfulness doesn't have to be hard work at all, on the contrary. It's an occasion where we can learn how not to work hard.

Seeing meditation as a mini holiday, or a gift to yourself, is a much friendlier way of treating yourself, and it's also what has kept me meditating for many years now.

Meditation is not “doing” something

A very common misunderstanding is that meditation is about “doing something to reach a certain state”. We easily think we need to make an effort to get rid of, or reach beyond thoughts, feelings or discomfort and attain a state of emptiness or bliss or something like that.

Meditation is not about doing something at all, it is about being who you already are, and there is nothing you need to do for that. It’s as if you would be asked to take a step towards yourself. You wouldn’t need to do anything to take that step, because you are already standing exactly where you are. So rather than “doing” or “working” you could see meditation as “relaxing or resting in being who you are”, without trying to change anything.

Perhaps looking at meditation in this way can help you to actually practice it?

You don't need to do it all alone

Have you ever experienced a meditating in a group? You might have noticed how nourishing and healing it feels. When several people meditate together it gives a feeling of connection and inner peace. Since our nervous systems communicate and influence each other, several regulated nervous systems in the same room can have a positive impact on each other. Furthermore, regularly meditating in a group is motivating when you know that each week you will be held accountable for your meditation practice. This is why it is recommended to start in a group, just like how starting to run is also often taught in a group, so that obstacles and difficulties in meditation can be discussed and things can be adjusted. It's helpful from time to time to tap back into this group feeling so that you can boost your mediation habit and deepen your practice, for example by joining a retreat or a meditation group.