“I can’t meditate. What should I do?”

If you’ve ever tried meditation but couldn’t make it work, this is for you!

In it, I answer a question I originally heard asked of Dan Harris and Sam Harris in a live interview.

I was quite disappointed with their answer at the time, and was reminded why at a recent conference I attended.

So I thought I’d take a stab at it myself. :-)

I hope you enjoy it. More important, if you’re in a similar situation, I hope you find it helpful and encouraging.


[ transcript ]

Hey, it’s David Levin. Author of Raise Your Inner Game, co-author of QBQ! the question behind the question, founder of Raise Your Inner Game Academy.

I was at a conference recently. The Mindful Workplace Summit out in California. It was a lovely event. Interesting speakers. Interesting attendees. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The main impulse there, no surprise, is that people want to learn how to bring mindfulness training into their companies. And by that, they mean meditation training, for the most part.

And it’s a beautiful impulse, I must say. Meditation is incredibly helpful for people, or it can be. If you’ve read Raise Your Inner Game, you know how I feel about that.

But the truth is, for the vast majority of people inside an organization, it’s not going to work. Typically, only 10-15% of people are going to want to do it in the first place. And of those, probably three quarters of them are not going to be able to stay with it. That’s just a fact. And I didn’t hear anyone at the conference disputing that.

Now, their interest, is primarily with the people who want to do it and can stay with it. And that totally makes sense.

My concerns are though are with the people who can’t because now they have two painful problems.

First, they have whatever it is that drew them to meditation in the first place. Typically they’re feeling stressed out, overwhelmed. Too much on their mind. It’s messing with their sleep. Making them crabby. Keeping them from taking care of themselves., from being the person they want to be. So they have all those issues.

But now they have a second problem, too, which is that they feel ashamed for not being able to do it. “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I meditate?” So they’re beating themselves up for that, and they really just have no idea what to do now to get things feeling the way they want.

I remember a couple years ago I was listening to a podcast with Sam Harris and Dan Harris, talking about meditation. A woman got up, and with real emotion spoke to this exact problem. She basically said, “I’ve tried meditation a bunch of different times. I can’t make it work. What should I do?” And you could hear the frustration and almost desperation in her voice.

Now, I’m a big fan of both of these guys. I love them, I love the work they’re doing helping people bring meditation into their lives. But I was super disappointed with their answers. And they were thoughtful, and supportive, and caring, and all that good stuff. But they didn’t say what she and so many people like her need to hear. Which is this:

“Can’t meditate? It’s fine. Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to meditate. You can just work on the mindfulness piece instead.”

That is a message you just don’t hear coming out of the modern mindfulness movement, and it just seems like a mistake to me, honestly, because it leaves so many people struggling and with no way forward. And it doesn’t need to be that way. But there are two main reasons I see for why you never hear this message.

One is what I observed at the conference. The people who are talking about meditation have been profoundly helped by it themselves, and so their dream is to share it with others. And you can totally understand that. “Meditation helped me. I want to help others do it.” So it makes sense, but they’re not thinking about alternatives.

The other problem, and really the bigger problem, is that virtually everyone in the space, as I said, equates mindfulness with meditation, at least in the impressions you get and the messages you hear. Mindfulness is meditation. So when someone finds they can’t meditate, they naturally assume that that they also can’t learn mindfulness and get the benefits of it because they’re one in the same, right? If I can’t do one, I can’t do the other. But that’s simply not true. Mindfulness and meditation are completely different things. And you can do one without the other.

Mindfulness is simply having your attention on what’s happening in the moment, rather than being off in your head somewhere—thinking about things, worrying about things, and so on. It’s just noticing and being engaged in what’s in front of you. That’s really all it is. Now, some people feel it also requires an element of compassion, and I don’t disagree with that, but at a practical level, it’s still just about, like I said, having your attention on what’s in front of you.

And the skill involved in that is called Cognitive Control. Which just means being able to direct your attention. To put it where you want rather than having it flit around like it tends to do. It really is about that simple. Mindfulness is simply Attention Control.

And the vast majority of the problems that draw people to meditation—again, stress, overwhelm, lack of focus—can all be fixed by developing attention control—by learning to direct your thoughts. When you’re having trouble sleeping because you have too much on your mind, you can just shut that down. “Nope. Not time for that. Time to rest.” And it actually works. When you’re feeling stressed out and distracted, having a hard time focusing, you can bring your attention back, “No, not going there. Working on this now.” It’s surprisingly easy to learn, and you can do it without a minute of meditation.

Now, meditation helps develop cognitive control, at least some types do. And it helps in other important ways that basically nothing else does. So I’m not saying you shouldn’t meditate. Again, if you’ve read my book, you know that’s true.

All I’m saying is that if you can’t make meditation work, for whatever reason, you can get basically all the benefits you’re looking for by working on the mindfulness, attention-control piece instead. And that’s what you should do.

So that’s what I wish Dan and Sam had said. It’s the message I wish the whole mindfulness community would be more clear about. And it’s what I wanted to say to you today. If you are one of those people who’ve tried meditation and can’t make it work, don’t worry about it. It’s fine. Just work on attention-control instead.

So, that’s it for this week. If you are hearing this somewhere other than my site, come on over—davidlevin.com—put your name on my list, I’ll let you know about other things like this when they come out. Otherwise, thank you. Keep up the good work. I’ll talk to you next time.

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