What to do when meditation isn't doing it for you

“I’M TRYING TO F***ING MEDITATE” I shouted to no one in particular.

This was not the chilled, relaxed, Zen start to the day I had envisaged. It began with the ping of an email arriving on my laptop – was that something important? I tried to refocus and concentrate on my breathing, just like I’d been taught. Then I heard a clunking noise coming from the dryer – did I leave a coin in my pants? Then I heard the bin man, then it was a siren, then a dog barking at the siren, then a text message, then all of a sudden it was some incredibly loud drilling from the upstairs apartment.

“This is stupid! It’s f**ing useless! It’s tits on a bull, flyscreens on a submarine, a bloody chocolate teapot! Why do I even bother? Why isn’t there some other way to clear all this crap from my head without this ridiculous meditation malarkey?

I was a tad frustrated. I hadn’t quite achieved the mental state I was hoping for. After all, no one really wants their meditation to end up in a fit of angry, foul-mouthed ranting. “Bugger this” I said, “I am going for a mountain bike ride.”

Riding at speed along rocky trails may not seem like something entirely relaxing. Yet when I do it, I find all those stressful thoughts somehow disappear quicker than a magician’s assistant (just without the cool puff of smoke). On this outing it was no different. As soon as I pedalled onto the trail my mind was no longer focused on emails, noisy neighbours or whether Donald Trump was going to spark nuclear Armageddon. Instead it was concentrating on staying upright, dodging branches and avoiding collisions with unpredictable wallabies.

I was in a state which psychologists call ‘flow’. You probably know it as “being in the zone”. Flow activities absorb you in the present moment, keeping your mind so focused on what you are doing, that there is very little space for all those useless thoughts which may otherwise prove highly annoying and distracting.

Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has dedicated his life to studying the science of flow. He describes six elements which are typically present in a flow state. These are:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-conciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience (one's subjective experience of time is altered)
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

Consider your own favourite activities in relation to these elements. What brings you into a state of flow? It may be that you find your flow when you are doing something extreme like rock-climbing, kite-surfing or juggling chainsaws. Or perhaps you enjoy something a little less dangerous? Thankfully, ball sports, dancing or playing a musical instrument can all have the same absorbing effect. Even activities as genteel as painting a picture or playing a game of cards can allow you to find your flow.

Just like meditation, flow activities can deliver a wide range of psychological benefits. Engaging in a flow activity may help to ease stress, enhance your mood and produce a feeling of satisfaction or achievement. Depending on what your favourite flow activity is, you may also enjoy the many additional brain-boosting benefits associated with exercise, social interaction or being in nature.

One tragic aspect of our frantically busy modern lives is that most responsible grown-ups don’t make enough time for these brain-boosting, joy-giving, flow activities. Instead of prioritising this wonderful fun stuff, we prioritise the boring, stressful bits of life. In the name of good mental health, it’s time to change that!

If you are spending too much time wrapped up in a world of chores, responsibilities and stress, make the effort to regularly absorb yourself in something you really love. Pick up that neglected guitar. Dust off those dancing shoes. Get that surfboard wet. Whatever flow activity you are in to, making it part of your regular routine can improve your mental health and enhance your resilience.

And don’t give up on meditation! Whenever I am struggling with it, I simply think of my first attempt to ride a bike – it ended with me sprawled across my neighbour’s cactus garden, bleeding heavily and screaming for my mum. I know my worst meditation day will never be that bad. Like learning to ride a bike, learning to meditate takes some perseverance, but it’s a skill which can serve you for a lifetime. 

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