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The Real Reason Sustaining Your Meditation Practice Is So Hard

Experts reveal the surprising roadblock keeping you from sticking with your practice. Here's how to get past it.

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Time isn’t the biggest factor foiling your meditation. Being busy is a tempting excuse, but not a good one. On the days you are most swamped, your practice can be your best friend, as University of Washington researchers showed in a 2012 study that found that meditation helped workers focus and retain details better as well as stay energized and positive.

What’s really keeping you from sitting still for 10 or 20 minutes is that you’re having trouble concentrating on the single task at hand which, in this case, is doing nothing, says Dandapani, a New York City-based Hindu priest and former Hindu monk of 10 years who teaches techniques to build a sustainable meditation practice in modern-day-life.

In this do-more-now era, everyone is a multitasking ninja. From snacking or sipping coffee at your desk while answering emails to chatting on your headset while driving or picking up groceries or the kids. If there’s one thing that you excel at, it’s doing a lot at once. Take walking down the street: It’s nearly impossible to get around without your smartphone in hand, ready to change a song, pick up a call, shoot a text, scroll through social media, take a selfie, or all of the above. This explains why just doing this one thing, which happens to be nada, is so challenging.

“We become really good at whatever we practice. If we practice distraction all of the time, we will become really good at it,” says Dandapani, who, later this summer, will launch a new 12-week online intro-to-meditation course. “We dedicate a whole week to learning how to concentrate. Concentration is the pre-cursor to meditation,” he continues. “If you don’t practice concentration, you will always struggle to meditate.”

Concentration is more than just finishing what you start. It’s the act of giving anything or anyone complete, undivided attention for a period of time. It takes real mental effort to focus 100 percent. Can you recall the last time you did this? Or even the last time you went 20 minutes without checking your phone? (Sleeping, going to the movies, and other events that cut you off from communication don’t count.)

“When you try to multitask, in the short-term it doubles the amount of time it takes to do a task and it usually at least doubles the number of mistakes,” warned psychologist JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., author of the book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, at the annual Girls’ Schools Association conference in the UK last fall, according to Forbes.com. “In the long-term it changes the brain from being able to focus deeply on a single task well, to being what we call a rifle, that wants to jump around a lot,” she added.

Echoing her sentiments, MIT neuroscientist told The Guardian in January that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” For example, every time you switch between tasks, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get your head back in the game, reported Fast Company in an interview with Gloria Mark, a professor in the department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine.

Identifying yourself as multitasker doesn’t make you one. But because you’ve decided that you like juggling, the idea of just doing one thing can be the least appealing and therefore last item on your to-do list. The only way to move it to the top priority slot is to build your concentration skills. Sounds like a kindergartener’s goal for the school year, we know. Fortunately, the solution is simple.

“One of the best ways to practice concentration is to do one thing at a time,” says Dandapani. “If you’re speaking with someone, just focus on them. If you’re emailing, just email. If you’re talking on the phone, just do that and not check your email at the same time.” As easy as this sounds, you’re inevitably going to find yourself fighting the constant urge to welcome distractions, like a pinging phone.

“If you’re 40 years old and have been practicing distraction for the last 20 years, you’re an expert in distraction. If you expect to learn concentration in a week, six months or even a year, you’re deceiving yourself. Concentration is going to take a lot of hard work, consistent practice and a lot of time,” says Dandapani. Think of it this way: “I have a friend who is an Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball. It’s like going up to her and saying teach me one thing so I could be good at beach volleyball,” he says. “Am I going to be good at it? No. It doesn’t work that way.”

Instead of expecting an instant change, start building up to it in incremental steps, like choosing your spouse or partner as the person to give your undivided attention to every time you speak. “If you can focus on your spouse for three hours a day for a month, you will start to see a difference in your meditation. But to truly see a big difference, it will take a while,” says Dandapani. Do this consistently for a month. If you succeed, he suggests adding a second person, like your child or best friend. Add a new person every month but only after you are consistently able to fully concentrate on the people from the previous months.

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