Why It's OK to Practice Distracted Meditation

Nature has a tough time staying still, so it's no wonder your mind does, too. Noppakit 77/Shutterstock

For people who don't meditate, that first step is a doozy: You have to sit still and clear your mind.

That's probably no big deal for meditation pros, but for the rest of us, it's a huge hurdle. How are you supposed to make your brain a blank slate when there's so much to think about? As soon as you shake that mental Etch-a-Sketch, up pops a reminder about dog food you need to buy, an assignment you have to finish, and a movie plot hole that needs some sorting out.

Oops. Clear the mind again, deep breath and you can't help but feel the tag in the back of your shirt, that itchy spot behind your knee — and did the ceiling fan always creak like that?

It's no wonder so many people give up on meditation before they've taken a few good, deep breaths. Distractions just get in the way.

Be determined

walking meditation man in forest
Try walking meditating where you concentrate on each step and your breathing as you walk. Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

The first time you tried to play a sport or a musical instrument, learn a foreign language or even write your name, you were pretty rotten at it. So it makes sense that meditation will take some time to master.

But it's worth it. Research has shown that meditation can have physical and emotional benefits, helping with conditions such as stress, heart disease, chronic pain and high blood pressure, says WebMD.

With all those potential benefits, it's worth giving it a shot. Try meditating for just a few minutes at first, suggests MNN's Judd Handler. Just focus on your breath. When thoughts creep in, think of them as passing clouds and watch them drift away.

If you get too antsy and distracted while sitting still, then try a walking meditation. You can concentrate on each step, soften your gaze and focus on your breath as you walk. This may allow you to avoid other distractions.

How to deal with distractions

It's totally normal to get distracted. With our multi-tasking minds, it's not easy to think of nothing.

"Most meditation teachers will tell you that having your mind wander during meditation is perfectly normal and that bringing your attention back to your meditation every time you notice it wandering is simply part of the process," writes Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D. in Psychology Today.

So the key is to not give up. Just have a plan.

When a thought floats across your mind, notice it, then bring your attention back to your breath. Another one pops up? Don't get frustrated. Acknowledge it and then focus back on your breathing.

Active meditation

word 'love' in petals on the sand
With active meditation, image a special word written over and over in your mind. StockStudio/Shutterstock

Distractions make sense because our mind doesn't like emptiness.

"One of the challenges with meditation is that as you are clearing your mind, you are creating an open space that wants to be filled," Vilhauer says. "Sometimes when people are coping with stressful events, they turn to meditation to calm their mind and find that their mind floods with even more thoughts of what they are trying NOT to think about."

So, Vilhauer suggests dealing with distracted meditation by practicing active meditation. Instead of trying to make your mind empty, she suggests concentrating on a word that describes an emotion you'd like to feel: for example, joy or love. Then choose a color that fits that emotion. Visualize the word. Then write it in your mind in that color, over and over, spelling each letter.

Technically, you haven't cleared your mind. But you are telling it what to focus on instead of letting it go wandering off on its own.

How to get something out of it, no matter what

grumpy woman meditating on dock
You can benefit even from a 'bad' meditation session. Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

After a meditation session where your mind bounced from last night's dinner to tomorrow's conference call, it can be easy to want to give up. But just because you weren't perfect doesn't mean you didn't benefit. What we think was bad meditation might not have been that bad at all, writes Alex Tzelnic in Slate.

"A Zen teacher once explained to me that what we think is 'good practice' could just be a case of feeling good (or being overcaffeinated), and what we think is 'bad practice' could actually be a mindful recognition of how we are in that moment," Tzelnic writes. "We’re really not very skilled at judging our practice, because our judgments are often based on misconceptions ('I wasn’t serene enough!') or self-interest ('I am the most serene!'). But when we sit up straight, and breathe in and breathe out, we are doing the practice, regardless of how we feel about it."

So your distracted, rotten meditation session might not be so bad after all.