You've begun your meditation practice. You know all the amazing benefits of meditation and are excited about this change in your routine.
And then problems set in: body aches, itching, thoughts, sleepiness. Who ever thought just sitting could be so hard?!
I've practiced meditation for several years, and while I enjoy meditating, I've hit some bumps along the way, too. We all encounter bumps along the way, don't we? The thing is, there are no problems in meditation.
A problem is only a "problem" when we perceive it as such. In fact, meditation is a great way to help us reframe how we interpret and react to our experiences, especially the ones we judge as "negative."
Body: aches and irritations
Bodily aches are common in meditation. They can be a result either of our posture, or of the fact that once we've quieted the mind and concentrated our awareness on the body, we notice small discomforts that previously escaped our attention.
Mindfulness meditation is about bringing our nonjudgmental awareness to our present moment experience, both internal and external. It is noticing our thoughts and our bodily sensations, without labeling them as desirable or unpleasant.
When you experience itching, pain, or discomfort during meditation, bring your awareness to the sensation. What does it feel like? Where exactly do you feel it? I find that doing this immediately lessens the sensation of pain or irritation. I suspect that this is why mindfulness has been clinically demonstrated to help relieve chronic pain -- much of our experience of pain is based on our perception of and reaction to our body's sensations.
Meditation teachers recommend sitting with discomfort when it arises. In many ways, it is helpful practice for learning to make peace with the present moment, even when it contains something we don't like. It also teaches us that unpleasant thoughts and sensations come and go, and we don't need to engage or get wrapped up in them.
All that said, there are things you can do to address some of these common discomforts. Gentle stretching before sitting can be helpful. It may also help to recognize that like with any activity, some initial soreness may be experienced until you have more practice.
Alternatively, you can find a different position for meditation - knee pain can be alleviated by sitting in a chair with feet planted on the floor, and knee and back pain can be helped by lying down. If lying down hurts your lower back, try bending the knees and planting the feet on the floor while lying on your back.
Back pain: This article from Yoga Journal has great tips for preventing back pain in meditation -- the key is in your posture, and in keeping your pelvis straight. This is often easier to do on a meditation cushion (known as a zafu). When seated on the zafu, your seat should be about three inches off the ground.
Knee pain: Many people use a mat underneath their cushion (called a zabuton) that reduces the pressure of the knees against the hard floor. You could also use soft blankets or towels.
Consider where you place your hands. Placing your hands on your knees, palms turned up or down, may not seem like a lot of weight. But after 10 or 20 minutes, that weight can create uncomfortable pressure on your knees. Try sitting with your hands in your lap, palms up, one hand resting comfortably on the other.
Mind: thoughts and boredom
Thoughts: It's a terrible misconception that mindfulness meditation is about emptying the mind, or getting rid of thoughts entirely. You will have thoughts while you are meditating! Stopping your thoughts in meditation is about as likely as stopping your breath.
When you have a thought while you are meditating, simply acknowledge the thought and watch it rise and fall in your awareness. You don't need to engage the thought; you just observe it.
You can use anchor words to name the type of thought: "worrying," "planning," "judging," or simply "thinking." Note what the mind is doing and then return to your breath.
Being aware that your mind has wandered off with a thought is the entire point of meditation -- that moment when you recognize it is a moment of mindfulness. And it's okay to have hundreds of those moments in your meditation session!
Boredom: What could seem more boring than sitting on the floor staring at the wall for 20 minutes?
In our constantly connected, constantly talking, moving, engaging world, taking 20 or more minutes out of your day may seem like a colossal waste of time. Once you've made the commitment to meditation, you may find yourself five minutes into your session wondering, "Is this it?"
The answer of course, is yes.
It may be boring. Fine. Sit with your boredom. Where is the boredom coming from? I can think of few things less important than learning to tolerate boredom.
Mind and Body: restlessness and sleepiness
Sleepiness: The quiet and stillness of meditation may make you sleepy. You may actually fall asleep! I am of the mindset that if you fall asleep during meditation, you probably really needed sleep more than contemplation at that moment, and you shouldn't feel like you "failed."
But if you're reading this, you want to meditate, not sleep. Perhaps change the time of day that you meditate -- first thing in the morning works best for me. You can also adjust your position. Perhaps sitting in a straight chair, or sitting on the floor, would help your alertness.
Restlessness: Restless may come from discomfort with stillness and silence. It might be the sense that you're not getting the important work done.
Trust me, you are doing the important work.
Observe your restlessness. Notice where restlessness manifests in your body.
And return to the breath.
Again and again. With meditation, the first step is not admitting you have a problem.
It's realizing there's not a problem at all.