Why People Don’t Meditate?
You’re probably familiar with meditation’s many positive outcomes.
In fact, you probably extoll its virtues to anyone who you believe could benefit from it, which is just about anyone!
But have you ever recommended meditation to someone–a friend, a family member, or maybe a client–and met with resistance?
Not everyone knows about the benefits of meditation, and lots of people have a hazy or inaccurate picture of what meditation is.
If you’ve heard any of the ten responses listed, you know there is some misinformation floating around about meditation.
People from all walks of life are practicing meditation and mindfulness – executives, health professionals, teachers, celebrities, soldiers, and athletes.
In the past few years, pieces on meditation have inundated popular media, leading to thousands–maybe even millions–of people giving it a shot. Still, there are many people that either don’t try it or don’t continue after making a brief, cursory attempt to meditate.
Here are some of the most common responses people have to the question, “Have you tried meditation?”.
Excuse 1 – “What’s the point? It’s just a New Age fad.”
Meditation is not just a fad – it’s something that people from all over the world have been doing for centuries. People have been practicing meditation in search of peace, happiness, transformation, or to have more control over their lives. See our related article on the History of Meditation.
The point of meditation is to gain control over our most precious tool: our mind. The state of our mind is the most crucial factor in determining our success and our happiness. A person can have “everything” and yet feel miserable, anxious, inadequate, or any of a host of negative internal states.
Conversely, a person can have very little and yet feel at peace and content in their mind. In athletic performance, business, career, and relationships, we see this again and again: no amount of skill or resources will bring us success and happiness if our mindset does not allow for success and happiness.
Meditation helps us master our mind by working on one of its key aspects: our attention. You can think of attention as a sort of “flashlight” of consciousness. Whatever we shine our attention beam on will be noticed and given a chance to grow. Whatever we withdraw our attention from is left in the dark and begins to wane.
By mastering our ability to put our attention on the things we want (and keeping it there), and removing our attention from anything that is negative or not serving us, we gain the ability to create what we want in our minds and in our lives.
So, to return to the question above: what is the point of meditation? To train our attention. As a byproduct of the practice, we also get several health benefits, stress release, and–if we are doing it successfully–we will also bring ourselves a sense of peace and contentment.
Meditation’s ease of use and many benefits make it a powerful and lasting tool, not just a fad.
Excuse – 2 “Meditation is just a fancy name for relaxation, napping, or self-hypnosis.”
Relaxation is one of the basic effects of meditation; however, paradoxically, it is also one of its conditions. It also relaxes tensions in the body and calms the breath.
Meditation uses relaxation coupled with regulation of attention (purposeful and directed focus), and introspection (looking inside rather than outside) to guide us to deeper states of consciousness.
Some people conflate the many guided “body scan” meditations with meditation in general. Although body scans do indeed incorporate mindfulness meditation, full meditation goes a bit deeper and helps to prevent stress in the first place.
In other words: relaxation is an appetizer; meditation is the main course.
Meditation is also not hypnosis. Self-hypnosis is usually induced by verbal self-suggestion (spoken or in the mind), where we direct ourselves to think, see, and feel certain things. It makes use of imagination and the creative power of the mind. We use affirmations, imagination, and visualization to create a particular state of mind.
It does not challenge our conditioning but works from within our conditioning, and its purpose is to alter our mental states. Many of the “guided meditation” videos and audios out there is a sort of self-hypnosis or relaxation.
In meditation, we typically don’t use imagination or evoke emotions (except for some types of meditation, like Loving-Kindness meditation). We usually focus our attention either on a particular object (focused attention meditation) or on observing the reality of the present moment, without any attempt to add to it or alter it (open-monitoring meditation).
The purpose is to quiet the mind and allow it to perceive reality for what it is. It brings us insight, enlightenment, and comfortable silence in the mind, and it will enable us to break free from our conditioning.
Excuse 3 – “Meditation is too hard. I can’t calm my mind.”
Unlike many other endeavors in life, the success of our meditation efforts depends entirely on our attitude. It doesn’t matter how much skill we have or how much we’ve practiced meditation; if we go into it without strong expectations or an attachment to rigid goals and “timeframes,” then meditation will be a success.
Meditation is not a thing – it’s a process. This process brings several benefits, but it is also its own benefit. The key is to learn to enjoy the process. Practice letting go of self-criticism, comparison, and expectations as soon as they arise. Once you figure out that meditation is not an achievement to collect, you’ll find that it’s not hard – nor is it easy – it’s simply an enjoyable and wholesome process.
Often people feel that meditation is hard because they believe they should be fighting their thoughts, or actively trying to empty the mind.
“The only thing we do in meditation is to consciously withdraw our attention from engaging with thoughts by focusing it on something else.”
There is no fight, no repressing, and no forcefulness about meditation. Fighting with thoughts will simply strengthen them and lead us to an agitated state. The only thing we do in meditation is to consciously withdraw our attention from engaging with thoughts, by focusing it on something else. With this gentle refocusing, the mind slowly calms down.
Meditation is simply the process of continuously regulating our attention. The emptying of the mind may happen as a result of that, but we should not be holding on to that expectation or working towards it as a goal. We are not actively trying to “empty the mind,” but merely placing our attention on a single point, moment after moment. As a result, our consciousness gets stabilized, and we arrive at a calmer and more enlightened state.
When someone tells you they don’t meditate because it’s too hard, give them this mental exercise:
Imagine you are trying to get some work done, and suddenly some music starts playing next door. You can hear it clearly, but you can’t do anything about it, so you try to “stop hearing” it. The more you try to stop hearing it, the louder and more obnoxious it seems. However, if you make an effort to focus your mind on something else, you will eventually find that you forgot all about the music.
Don’t think about emptying the mind or making it quiet. Simply follow the meditation instructions and let everything else be.
Related to the “it’s too hard” response, some people believe that they need to have a quiet mind to meditate. They’ll say, “My mind is too restless, there is no way I can meditate.” Does that reasoning ring any bells?
Yet, this is like saying that being fit is a requirement for going to the gym.
Having a “calm mind” is not a requirement for meditation. In fact, having a restless mind is even more reason to meditate! Saying you need a quiet mind to meditate is like saying you need to be fit to go to the gym, or you need to be relaxed to go to the spa.
When you meditate for a while, you will realize that nobody has an inherently calm mind. Everybody can benefit from some meditation.
Excuse 4 – “It takes years to truly benefit from it.”
Research shows that meditation results in significant physical and mental health benefits after as little as eight weeks of daily practice (Horowitz, 2010).
Of course, a Buddhist monk with 20,000 hours of meditation will have reaped more benefits than a person who started doing 10 minutes a day one month ago. Still, meditation has benefits at every level from beginner to guru.
If you want to attain enlightenment or achieve a fearless state beyond all suffering, then it will likely take a long time to reach your goal. However, if all you want is better health and a bit more peace and balance in your life, then here’s the good news: many people start experiencing these after a few weeks!
So, if someone laments the long-term nature of meditation’s impact on your life, remind them that at least some of meditation’s many benefits are immediate, for the practice itself is the benefit.
You will find that you feel at least a little bit better after each meditation session – whether you feel more relaxed, more focused, more rested, or all three. And the even better news: this life-changing tool is free; all it costs is your attention.
Excuse 5 – “I don’t have time to meditate.”
He or she might believe that, but it’s almost certainly not true!
If a client tells you they don’t have time to meditate, ask them to try this exercise:
During one week, take note of all the unproductive time that you spend in front of a screen (TV, smartphone, or tablet). Set aside just 20% of that time for meditation, and you’ll have more than enough time to meditate at least once a day.
Some busy executives have not missed a meditation in years. If meditation becomes a priority in your life, you will find time for it. You can start with as little as one minute a day and gradually increase your involvement.
Some people even notice that they have more time after they start meditating. Suddenly they gain clarity about what is important in their day-to-day life, and they stop spending time on things that don’t truly serve them.
Excuse 6 – “Meditation is boring.”
Meditation might feel boring to some people, but what they don’t realize is that their experience is almost entirely dependent on the attitude they bring to meditation.
If you try meditation, expecting to have an exciting and entertaining experience, you will probably find it boring. Meditation isn’t really about fun, but that’s not a bad thing.
In our modern world, where it is so easy to get fun and entertainment on demand, there are millions of people carving a little bit of time out of their busy days, every day, to practice meditation.
Perhaps they stick with it because they find that the peace and enjoyment gained from meditation is unlike anything else they experience in daily life. Meditating is a rare pleasure, one that does not depend on anybody else, and that somehow never feels repetitive.
That last part of the sentence may have caught your attention; if not, go back and reread it.
Here’s a quick refresher on brain chemistry:
Dopamine, the “pleasure chemical” of the brain, is released when we engage in pleasurable activities like sex, eating good food, watching or playing sports, taking drugs, earning money, listening to music, etc. With time and repeated exposure to the same pleasures, a tolerance for dopamine is built into the neurons, so the reward for the repeated pleasure gradually diminishes.
Get your favorite ice cream and eat it three times a day, every day, and you’ll know what I mean. After a couple of weeks, the pleasure you get from it is a fraction of what you’d get if you ate it once a month (psychologists refer to this concept as “hedonic adaptation.”)
At this point, you either continue eating every day out of sheer habit – even though it’s not good for you and no longer brings you a meaningful reward – or you switch to another source of pleasure.
This is true of most pleasure-inducing activities; however, research has shown that the dopamine produced by meditation does not suffer from the “down-regulation” of pleasure experienced in sex, food, money, etc. (Sharp, 2013). Unlike these other sources of pleasure, meditation is not only free and easy but gets better the more you do it.
Tell the “but meditation is boring” people to try again, but not to approach meditation with a hungry mind or with strong expectations. Expectations will keep your experience on the surface when the real benefits are found at a deeper level. It takes time to let go of all the unnecessary baggage, but as much as possible, meditation newbies should try to leave it all aside and go for it with an open mind and an optimistic attitude.
Explain meditation as similar to going to the gym. If you think about it, running in one spot and picking up heavy objects is not exciting. If you only do it for the sake of the results (nicer body), it will be a constant battle between the desire for the result, and your unwillingness to go through that boring and strict training. However, if you learn to enjoy the process itself—and work to get better at it—then you are more likely to keep at it long-term and give yourself the best possible results.
Excuse 7 – “You need to be spiritual to meditate.”
Many people may be put off by meditation’s association with religion or spirituality.
Meditation is an ancient practice, and it was indeed created/discovered within religious contexts, to achieve spiritual goals; however, for most techniques – especially those prevalent in the West – there is nothing inherently religious about them.
If you want to use meditation as a simple body-mind exercise, you are in good company. Many people practice meditation exclusively for health and well-being benefits.
You can practice meditation without needing to believe in anything in particular. A Christian or a Muslim can practice it without any conflict with their faith. The same goes for atheists and agnostics. Practicing meditation will not make you religious, just as doing stretches will not make you a Yogi.
There are thousands, if not millions, of Christians that meditate.
You can also assure any hesitant beginners that they don’t need to follow any rituals or wear unique clothing to meditate. Some people choose to do so because they find it helps them prepare the mind for meditation, but they are absolutely not essential to the practice.
Also, let them know that meditation doesn’t require the inclusion of a mantra. There are several different meditation techniques, many of which don’t prescribe mantra repetition.
Excuse 8 – “Meditation is escapism.”
Some people are under the impression that meditation is escaping your current reality and attempting to leave your problems behind.
Anyone that has done meditation for a decent length of time knows that it’s the other way around; meditation makes many things that you are trying to run away from—in your life and in yourself—painfully clear.
The Oxford definition of escapism is: “The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.”
Escapism requires something that gives you either distraction (like TV, social media, games) or unconsciousness/hindered consciousness (like alcohol and drugs).
On the other hand, meditation removes all distractions and gives you heightened awareness, which makes it a pretty ineffective escape plan. If you start meditation with a “runaway” attitude, you will soon find that you’ve made a fundamental mistake. Everything you try to escape from is right there, in your mind, waiting for you.
However, you can point out to skeptics that skilled meditators actually can escape some of their problems with meditation: once a practitioner gets skilled enough, they can bring their attention to a peaceful place, inside their consciousness, which is beyond all problems. (Shame on them, right?).
However, the real problem solver here is the practitioner’s attitude, not their actions. Meditation is not a fix-all; it simply provides a tool to control one’s mind and attention; what a practitioner does with it is their choice.
Meditation helps you get to know yourself and assists you in seeing things more clearly and practicing greater control over your mind. If you use this “power” to turn a blind eye to that which requires real action outside yourself, it is a reflection on you, not the practice.
However, it is exceedingly rare to find practitioners who use meditation to try to escape their problems; instead, they find that it enables them to be more self-aware and more in control of their internal resources.
In conclusion, you can counter this point by showing that meditation is not running away from your problems, but it will take you to a place that is deeper than your problems.
Excuse 9 – “Meditation is selfish.”
If you look at meditation as merely one of the many suggested methods to achieve a selfish, isolated form of happiness, then you may see it as selfish.
Yet does simply striving for happiness make one selfish? Do we not pursue other selfish pleasures in our lives? Are we not setting aside time for ourselves and engaging in self-care in other ways? If so, meditation – even from the most limited understanding – is just another way of doing what we are already doing, only more efficiently.
But honestly, meditation is no more selfish than eating, sleeping, or taking a shower. It is one of the essential daily activities that allow human beings to live full, functional, and meaningful lives. Yes, meditation is done alone, and yes, it does not “produce” anything tangible; but what you get through the practice will positively affect those that interact with you and the output of your efforts in both your personal and your work life.
Excuse 10 – “It will make me emotionless.”
Although it may seem silly to those knowledgeable about meditation, some people worry that meditation is a one-way ticket to an emotional wasteland, where they may as well be robots for all their emotional expression.
However, you know better; meditation will not remove or deny your emotions, but it will make you less of a slave to them. You will gain a greater understanding of them.
You will hold the knowledge that at any time, you can follow the wave of an emotion or to simply let it be and hold your space. This is one of the aspects of the life-changing inner freedom that meditation can bring you.
It’s true, you will be less reactive to your emotions – but in a good way. You won’t lose the capacity to feel; instead, your feelings will be even more apparent than before. You simply start to operate from a deeper place inside yourself, a place that is larger than your emotions and concerns.
A Take-Home Message
In this article, we outlined some of the major misconceptions that your clients or acquaintances might have about the practice of meditation. You may find that people are hesitant to engage in meditation for a wide variety of reasons, but each one can be broken down, mitigated, or dismissed entirely.
We hope you will be able to use the knowledge in this article to craft an uplifting and encouraging response to someone who holds to one of these common myths about meditation, allowing word about the benefits of meditation to spread to an even wider audience.
Finally, if you are now convinced and would like to find out more about the ‘How to’, this meditation techniques for beginners article is the best place to start.
We’d love to know your thoughts on the subject. What other excuses or justifications have you heard to explain why people don’t practice meditation? What additional information do you share with those apprehensive of beginning a meditation practice?
How do you convince your clients to give it a shot, or another shot if the first time wasn’t successful? Let us know in the comments!
As always, thanks for reading!
About the Author
Courtney Ackerman, MSc., is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working as a researcher for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, well-being in the workplace, and compassion.