Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Why is it so hard to concentrate? Sources of distraction and obstacles to concentration during meditation.


Many people have a hard time meditating because they have difficulty concentrating. This can prevent a person from developing a regular daily meditation practice and it can make it hard for a regular meditator to get the most out of his practice. Often a person doesn't understand what is causing him difficulty concentrating, but if a meditator recognizes that there are different sources of distractions and different ways to handle each source, it may allow him to have better concentration during meditation.

If you are serious about meditation and want to practice for hours at a time, you can't afford to waste hours trying to meditate when your mind is not in the right condition. Or, if you have a more typical practice and meditate for 30 to 60 minutes per day, you need to get the most out of that time. The obstacles to concentration described in this article also explain why you may meditate deeply one day and the next day be unable to reach the same state. Understanding this makes meditation a much more predictable exercise and will help you to get consistent results.

Meditating regularly at the same time every day is important for developing the habit of meditation so that you will continue to practice it even if events make your life turbulent or various changes occur in your life situation. It is better if you can use the information in this article to schedule your daily meditation sessions to avoid difficulties rather than having to postpone a meditation session until you are better able to concentrate.

Obstacles to Concentration

There are several common obstacles to concentration:

  • Drowsiness
    Try not to schedule a meditation session when you are likely to feel drowsy, such as just before bed time or immediately after waking up. If you feel drowsy after meals, then that would also not be a good time to schedule meditation. It is not usually a good idea to try meditating lying down because that may induce drowsiness. If you are drowsy while meditating, one solution is to go to sleep. Then try meditating again when you are rested.

    You can also try this method. If you normally meditate with your eyes closed and are drowsy, try meditating with your eyes open. Or if you normally meditate with your eyes open, try meditating with your eyes closed if you need to relax (see below).

    You can also try to meditate while drowsy.


  • Mental Fatigue
    Have you ever been so tired that you couldn't sleep? Inhibitor neurons fatigue more easily than activator neurons. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, when some workers worked 16 hour days doing the same exact thing over and over, they would keep making the same motions with their hands as they left the factory. For the same reason, if you've had a busy day and your mind is racing, it can be hard to concentrate. In that situation, you might try meditating at a different time of day, or try taking a walk, doing hatha yoga, tai chi, qi-gong or relaxation exercises to help calm the mind before you meditate.

    When you are experiencing mental fatigue it might also help to try meditating in a deeply relaxed state.


  • Sexual Arousal
    There are two approaches to dealing with sexual arousal. Some people prefer to try to meditate in spite of it, others believe that it is better to seek release in order to be able to concentrate better during meditation. If you try to meditate in spite of it, do make an effort to concentrate on the focus of your meditation. Fantasizing is not meditating.


  • Artificial Stimulants and Intoxicants
    If you are under the influence of an artificial stimulant or intoxicant such as nicotine, caffeine, a binge on chocolate or sugary junk food, alcohol, or drugs that affect the mind, it can be hard to meditate. Obviously, it might be better to wait for the effects of intoxicants to wear off before meditating. The effects of stimulants can be more subtle. One way to identify the effects of stimulants is to check you heart rate. If it is high (no pun intended), it might be better to wait until your heart rate has slowed to a more relaxed rate and try meditating them. In addition to your heart rate, also notice your rate of breathing. If you are breathing short rapid breaths it might help to intentionally slow down your breathing to a more relaxed rate while you meditate.


  • Stress and Anxiety
    High levels of stress hormones caused by stress or anxiety can cause mental fixation and make it difficult to focus the mind during meditation. For example, if you have an argument with someone at work, it keeps playing back over and over in your mind when you get home. Once you get upset, it is really hard to let it go and concentrate during meditation. It's not your fault. The brain is designed to focus on danger and other problems. The idea that you should be able to sit down after a stressful day and have a good meditation session for 30 minutes is wishful thinking. The experts know better. At some monasteries and on some meditation retreats, they don't just sit down to mediate, they do bowing practice, then chanting, then sitting meditation. These other practices prepare the mind for meditation.

    If you can't avoid stress, and if you have trouble concentrating because of stress or anxiety, you could try meditating later after you calm down, or you could try to do something relaxing like going for a walk, relaxation exercises, taking a nap, exercising, or doing hatha yoga, tai chi, or qi-gong before meditating. You can also try meditating in a deeply relaxed state.

    You can also try to split your meditation session into two parts. In the first part, try to get deeply relaxed almost to the point of falling asleep. Then meditate normally. Did you ever notice waking up from sleep and feeling great ... and then a few seconds later you remember what you are supposed to be worrying about and you feel stressed again? Even though you feel stressed, it is probably much lessened and without accompanying fixation. This shows that when you get into a deeply relaxed state, it can help relieve a stress reaction. As you relax during the first part of your meditation session, you might even be able to notice the precise instant the stress reaction ends and you feel relief. If you can get into a deeply relaxed state that helps to ease the stress and fixation you should be able to concentrate better during meditation.


  • Distractions It is best to meditate in an isolated location where you will not be distracted. This means you should not try to meditate sitting at your desk near your computer! It is best if you can find a place to meditate without anything that could be a distraction. I don't like to suggest that people meditate sitting on the floor because it can cause knee and spine injuries ... however just as a point of information, you are less likely to get distracted sitting on the floor because it takes effort to unfold your legs and stand up.


  • Lack of Will By "Lack of Will" I mean there are so many things you would rather do that you always find something else to do besides meditate. Or you stop your meditation session sooner than you intended in order to do something else. Joining a meditation group can help with this. It can also help to try to see your desire to do other things as a form of craving. How to let go of craving is discussed in the article on Not-self.

    It can also help if you avoid getting involved in things that might become distractions. This would include reading novels, watching TV, using the internet etc. The idea is to become so bored that meditation becomes something interesting to do. Of course each person has to use his own judgment about what is an appropriate way to live his life. I am not saying you should live like a monk, I am just pointing out, for your information, that there is a reason monks live the way they do, because it is conducive to meditation.

    If you find you lack the will power to meditate for more than a few minutes at a time, it might help to try meditating while watching Slow TV.

    One of the causes of fidgeting and wanting to cut short a meditation session or skip a session is that unconscious, unpleasant thoughts or emotions are rising to the surface. In this case, the only solution is to persevere until they become conscious. I discuss how to deal with unpleasant thoughts and emotions that arise during meditation in Dangers of Meditation.




  • Internet Compulsion If you find it hard to meditate because you constantly want to check the internet, it is probably because internet applications are designed to produce compulsive behavior. Most applications stimulate the pleasure centers in your brain with alert notifications which is why you enjoy them so much. When you understand that you are being manipulated, you might naturally want to cut back. It can help to turn off alert notifications for events that happen frequently enough that you would check for them without notifications. For example, likes, e-mail, replies to comments. Don't set up the technology to tell you what to do (with alert notifications). Use the technology to do what you choose to do. Check for mail when you want to, check for replies when you want to, check for likes when you want to. You might drift away slightly from your internet friends but you can always enable the alerts again if you want to.

In some schools of meditation, the practitioner is advised to persist in meditating even if he encounters difficulties. If you are studying meditation with a teacher, you should consider his advice on the subject. In any case, it is inevitable that at different times and for various reasons you may not be able to ensure your mind is in the best condition when you start a meditate session and you will just have to continue to try to meditate through the difficulties.

These articles may also be helpful because they suggest ways to prepare for meditation that will help avoid sources of distraction:


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