‘I’m bad at meditating’: Why there’s no failing at mindfulness, and it’s okay to suck at meditation

Don’t worry, our brains never shut up either

And relax (or not) | Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash

Mindfulness and meditation, like every other self-care trend, had a renaissance during the pandemic. Maybe your friends started posting about being “in the moment”. Perhaps you dabbled in it yourself.

But now that it’s been a year, your daily meditation reminders are just another thing to stress about, and the last time you actually practiced, all you could think about was the pain in your neck from working on the kitchen table.

Mindfulness can easily get swept into the pile of toxic productivity and toxic positivity that’s amassing with each day of lockdown. Which is ironic, because these things are the antithesis of what meditation is about. 

Here’s our no-nonsense breakdown:

What is mindfulness?

Let’s get the basics out of the way. Mindfulness is the everyday application of the old (and somewhat pretentious) saying Carpe diem; it’s being present in the moment, instead of getting caught up in your own thoughts or feelings. 

Are mindfulness and meditation the same thing? 

Meditation is where you train to be mindful. Through guided practice, you learn to focus on the task at hand – whether that’s breathing or a visualisation. The goal is to distance  your mind from the constant stream of consciousness pulling you in all directions.

How mindfulness helps mental health

According to Headspace experts, mindfulness is a way of living which enables us “to step back and be in the present moment”. But don’t be fooled – mindfulness won’t magically get rid of stress, it will just help you handle it better.

“Practicing mindfulness does not mean we never get angry,” the Headspace team claim, “it allows us to be more thoughtful in how we want to respond.” Your meditation efforts are not wasted just because you still experience negative emotions. If you find stressful situations even slightly easier, you’re doing great! 

Mindfulness: where to start?

Getting started is often the biggest challenge. Sitting in silence and doing nothing can feel strange, or even uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not cut out for meditation. 

Eve Lewis, Director of Meditation at Headspace, tells Flounder, “It can sometimes feel a little bit daunting sitting down to meditate, especially if you have never done it before. The mind can often feel very busy, but it’s very normal, so nothing to worry about.”

Her advice is to “start small” with as little as five minutes dedicated to meditation, instead of worrying about trying to meditate for long periods of time. “Remember, it is a practice,” adds Eve, “so don’t be hard on yourself if you notice you are always getting distracted, it is very normal!”

As Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe puts it, there is no such thing as  “succeeding” or “failing” at meditation. It’s extremely frustrating trying to follow the prompts when your mind refuses to shut up. But Eve assures us that it’s a huge misconception that through meditation you achieve a completely clear, thoughtless mind.

“A wandering mind is, in fact, a normal human mind,” she says. “That’s how our brains have evolved to anticipate future dangers and preempt steps to avoid them. So be kind to yourself!” Getting distracted is not a sign that you’ve messed up. 

In fact, you might as well embrace the fact that it will keep happening, even after years of practice. Yes, you might get better and feel the benefits of mindfulness, but don’t expect perfection. Some days, your brain simply won’t sit still, and that’s fine! 

You can’t meditate? Here’s why there’s no wrong way to do it

According to Eve, there’s no universally “right” way to meditate; rather, there’s a right way for each individual. “What might work for one person does not always work for another,” she says.

The trick is to think about your personal motivation to practice meditation, claims the meditation director. Are you doing it to reduce stress, improve focus or to be more present in your relationships? Reminding yourself of the “why” can be very helpful.

“The most important thing is to not be hard on yourself,” Eve reminds us. “If you are feeling guilty or criticising yourself it won’t help you feel good. Life is challenging enough!”

Why mindfulness does not work if you’re fixated on your “run streak”

There are times when mindfulness can be bad for you – namely, if you become fixated on practicing every day. Don’t get me wrong, for some people daily meditation is actually helpful. Luke, 26, for instance, shares that he finds setting achievable goals like at least one minute of meditation per day help him maintain consistency with his practice.

But for many, it can become yet another reason to feel like a failure if you missed a day. Chelsea, 25, says “I did originally try to do it every day, but I found that it became a chore so by putting no pressure on it I don’t feel any guilt.” Emily, 27, agrees, adding, “Now, I choose to do it when I feel that my body needs it.”

They’re clearly onto something, because Andy’s advice is very similar. “It’s not about how many days in a row we’ve meditated,” he says. If we focus on the “streak” too much, we risk causing ourselves stress, the former Buddhist monk warns. 

Missing a day (or a few) is fine. Some people, like Chelsea and Emily, don’t even want to meditate every day, and that’s also fine. You do you. 

When meditation doesn’t work  

You’ve given it your best shot. But you just hate meditation. No big deal. There’s no need to feel guilty, or dejectedly whisper to your Headspace app “it’s not you, it’s me” as you uninstall it forever. 

Meditation is not for everyone, and there’s no point forcing yourself to do something you don’t enjoy. You don’t have to sit down and focus on your breathing; you can practice mindfulness anywhere, including on your daily walk. As Eve says, “Remember, mindfulness is about paying attention on purpose, so you can practice it with anything that you do!”

Self-care is a very personal thing, and you know best what works for you.