Meditation: Why is it so hard to sit still?

As I said in my prior post, a few folks take to meditation naturally. The first time they sit, they drop into calm serenity and/or into a state of deep concentration, picturesque, like a lovely little Buddha, they seem only a few shades away from complete and total enlightenment. Well, good for them, but that’s not me, and that’s not most of us, and in a sense, that’s not really the point of meditation.

I know the format for this particular meditation retreat, this being my fourth one. It’s between 10 and 11 hours of meditation a day for ten days. Mostly, it’s just sitting and sitting and sitting and sitting. And more sitting. And you start to feel bat shit crazy.

The mind and emotions get more than a little wild. For most of us, the brain will calm down, eventually, as the retreat goes on (but that doesn’t mean it gets easier, necessarily). The mind will usually calm down a little, but it needs a few days of serious meditation in order to de-frag and relax, because most of us are used to a steady stream of distractions, from the moment we wake up until the time we go to sleep — and our culture is pretty much organized around distractions. These days, distracting the consumer (via some techno-gadget) is probably the number 1 way to monetize.

At some point, though, on the first day, most of us reach a point of frustration and scream, “Why is it so hard to sit still!” Hopefully we scream using our inner voice and not out loud, but you never know.

That leads quite naturally into a very rational question: Why is it so fucking hard to sit still?

I spent a lot of years asking that question and trying to find the answer. Eventually I realized that there is no answer. The point of the question is to ask the question itself and see where it leads.

Meditation is unlike many spiritual disciplines in that it is highly personal. From the Buddha down to the present day, the primary point of the practice is to know your own mind, to discover how it works. It takes us deeper into the way we think. Going “down the rabbit hole” as I sometimes think of it can be a bit crazy, but that’s only because we’re getting to know the randomness of the mind in a way that we don’t normally encounter on a day to day basis.

During normal life, we have distractions that our minds follow: events and people and sounds and sights and thoughts. And if that isn’t enough, just hop on the Internet, another rabbit hole of its own.

Answering the question (Why is it so fucking hard to sit still?) becomes a way of knowing the mind, and knowing the mind is a way of knowing ourselves in a more intimate way. For those of us who meditate, there’s nothing quite like it. It may suck, a good bit of the time, but the reason it sucks opens up a whole new level of self-knowledge.

Note: I am currently sitting on my ass for a 10 day meditation retreat. This post was written and scheduled in advance.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

24 thoughts on “Meditation: Why is it so hard to sit still?”

  1. I realize that you’re not online for several more days, but from my perspective…

    “Why is it so hard to sit still?” My mother was rendered quadriplegic by polio at age 27, able to move her head and two fingers of her right hand but that was all, until she died 45 years later. I’m pretty sure she found it hard to sit still.


  2. I just asked Anne if I was being pissy in my last comment. “Not just pissy,” she replied. Then she reminded me of another aspect of the meditative practice relevant to my mother: being mindful of one’s breath. Not only was my mother unable to to move torso or limbs; she couldn’t move her lungs either. She had various devices to help her breathe: a rocking bed that through gravity caused her diaphragm to expand and contract in an in-out breath rhythm; a belt that would alternately compress and relax her diaphragm, a blower that she could put in her mouth, forcing air down into her lungs. Late in life she underwent a tracheotomy, through the opening of which a tube was inserted, the other end of which was connected to a motor that would rhythmically pump air down her throat and into her lungs. She was thrilled with this device. Why? It was the first time in decades she didn’t have to consciously think about her breathing.

    I’ve mentioned to you before my own difficulty with silence, inasmuch as my tinnitus constantly screams a high-pitched tone into my auditory cortex, an internal noise that is magnified in the absence of external sounds.

    Then there’s my father, who died 3+ years back of Alzheimer’s. Monkey mind? Emptying your mind? He had no mind left at all, no ability to think about anything — empty. Or maybe you could say he had only monkey mind — fleeting thoughts that resulted from random neural firings, thoughts of which he had no memory even 30 seconds later.

    These observations of mine aren’t calls for pity. They’re a call for awareness that the bodily aspects of the sort of meditation you practice rely on the practitioner having an intact robust physiology, a robustness over which one exercises painful self-disciplines. It’s an intentional suppression of one’s capabilities that reminds me of the mortification of the flesh of my Catholic childhood and the Puritanical self-renunciations of my born-again phase.


  3. But now I’m intrigued by the possibility of writing on a blog that’s gone dormant, whose owner has stepped away for a week, a year, a lifetime, having passed on to other interests, or perhaps to no interests whatever, a blog that has been colonized by commenters, or maybe a single commenter, who keeps writing comments on old posts, or maybe on a single post, day after day, year after year, with no one to read it and no one to reply…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am curious about disciplines. There’s a sense that contemporary life is an attempt to escape all the disciplines imposed on us by tradition or habit or social expectations, to be freed from those constraints. But as you observe, freedom makes one vulnerable to becoming ensnared by distractions, which all too often are monetized. Maybe what’s needed is to cultivate disciplines of escape. Then again, Christian self-mortification practices also promise escape from the tyrannies of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

    Speaking of which, this Halloween marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when on 31 Oct 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 theses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zizek talks a lot about how the true “constraint” in contemporary/modern life is the stress to be happy. I’d update that and say that we feel compelled to be happy and have a “meaningful” life. I think social media amps this up, increasing the pressure to have a life of meaningful/fun/epic experiences and relationships. Have you seen Black Mirror on Netflix? It’s speculative fiction, much like Twilight Zone, only Black Mirror is a bit more speculative about culture and the strange scenarios humans might find themselves in, in the near future. The first episode is under the premise that in the future everything we do will have to revolve around our social media ranking, which is based on how “meaningful” our lives are. I think we’re moving that direction more and more: the need to have a meaningful life, even if it is artificially manufactured a good deal of the time.


  5. Okay, that worked: let’s try again…

    I’ve read a little bit about meditation’s therapeutic effectiveness. From your description of the practice it seems that meditation disrupts the automatic stimulus-response mechanism by inserting an attuned self-awareness into the circuitry. By observing the pushes and pulls of the environment, as well as by observing one’s own impulses to react, maybe one can be more intentional and proactive in moving through the world — or in sitting on it. This attempt to insert a gap between stimulus and response, clearing an interval for the self to act as a more free agent, is consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy, which is probably the dominant approach in the US these days.

    Yesterday for reasons other than meditative ones I had my attention drawn to English sociologist Anthony Giddens. I have one of his books — Modernity and Self-Identity,> published 1991 — so I pulled it off the shelf and started looking at the passages I’d marked in the margins. This is from chapter 3, “The Trajectory of the Self”:

    Therapy can only be successful when it involves the individual’s own reflexivity: when the clients also start learning to do self-therapy. For therapy is not something which is ‘done’ to a person, or ‘happens’ to them; it is an experience which involves the individual in systematic reflection about the course of her or his life’s development. The therapist is at most a catalyst who can accelerate what has to be a process of self-therapy…

    Self-therapy is grounded first and foremost in continuous self-observation. Living every moment reflectively is a matter of heightened awareness of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Awareness creates potential change, and may actually induce change in and through itself. For instance, the question, ‘Are you aware of your breathing right now?’, at least when it is first posed, usually produces an instantaneous change…

    Present awareness, or the routine art of self-observation, does not lead to a chronic immersion in current experience. On the contrary, it is the very condition of effectively planning ahead. Self-therapy means seeking to live each moment to the full, but it emphatically does not mean succumbing to the allure of the present. The question, ‘What do I want for myself right now?’ is not the same as taking one day at a time. The ‘art of being in the now’ generates self-understanding necessary to plan ahead and to construct a life trajectory which accords with the individual’s inner wishes.

    Does this accord with your meditation experiences, Erdman?


    1. I felt myself emphatically agreeing with Giddens and the as I read the quote it resonates more and more, but then I came to the part at the end where he contrasts living in “the present” with living every “moment to the full.”

      Self-therapy means seeking to live each moment to the full, but it emphatically does not mean succumbing to the allure of the present. The question, ‘What do I want for myself right now?’ is not the same as taking one day at a time. The ‘art of being in the now’ generates self-understanding necessary to plan ahead and to construct a life trajectory which accords with the individual’s inner wishes.

      So that’s got me a bit confused because I’ve never seen these two separated, and I wonder why Giddens is making the distinction. All meditation and mindfulness techniques that I’ve studied have always used awareness of the present moment (usually by observing bodily sensations like breath) as the means to generate greater self-awareness, which leads to an enhanced ability live each moment to the full.

      How can one live each moment to the full without an ability to be present to the current moment?

      Does that make sense?


  6. I think Gidden’s emphasis is on not “succumbing to the allure.” You could make a case that living fully in the present means going entirely with the flow of whatever the present brings you. Whatever pulls on you from the environment you respond to without thinking; whatever urge you feel you attempt to satisfy. You’re aware of the allures of the present, but you don’t have to succumb to them. And why not succumb? Because you’re attempting to pursue some better way that’s not dictated by the urges and demands of the moment.

    Giddens characterizes the modern pursuit of self-identity as “reflexive.” Instead of stepping into inherited traditions and societal roles, modern people spend a lot of time thinking about who they are and who they might become. There’s freedom in this, but also uncertainty and doubt and angst, so people devote a lot of effort to gathering and analyzing information about themselves in order to allay the uncertainty and to create the sort of self that they’d like to become. A few pages later in the Giddens book from the part I quoted before:

    The reflexivity of the self extends to the body, where the body is part of an action system rather than merely a passive object. Observations of bodily processes — ‘How am I breathing?’ — is intrinsic to the continuous reflexive attention which the agent is called on to pay to her behavior. Awareness of the body is intrinsic to ‘grasping the fullness of the moment’, and entails the conscious monitoring of sensory input from the environment, as well as the major bodily organs and body dispositions as a whole. Body awareness also includes awareness of requirements of exercise and diet…

    Body awareness sounds similar to the regimes practiced in some traditional religions, particularly religions of the East. Yet the differences are pronounced. For body awareness is presented as a means on constructing a differentiated self, not as one of the dissolution of the ego. Experiencing the body is a way of cohering the self as an integrated whole, whereby the individual says ‘this is where I live.’

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    1. Interesting. That helps in clearing up some of my confusion, but again I am confronted by another juxtaposition that I wouldn’t have made.

      Giddens: “….For body awareness is presented as a means of constructing a differentiated self, not as one of the dissolution of the ego…”

      Again, I’ve always pictured my own journey of awareness as being aimed at both of those objectives. I’ve seen a differentiated self as being an important step toward dissolution of the ego, and visa versa. I’m not trying to make the case that I’m right or that Giddens is wrong, I’m just sort of intrigued to see him make dichotomies for things that I’d always sort of assumed to be complimentary and/or symbiotic.


  7. So does that resolve your perplexity? Per Giddens, modern body awareness is a means of constructing the self, not of dissolving the self. But I get the sense that you’re talking about two selves, or maybe self versus ego, where constructing the self goes hand in hand with dissolving the ego. This is the sense I get from admittedly cursory reading of some of the meditation writers. “Ego” is construed in terms of egocentrism or narcissism, a reified identity that attempts to control the world but that is ultimately a weakling that demands protection from the world. “Ego” is then a kind of false self that needs to be dissolved in order for a true self to emerge. Something like that?


    1. No, I’d say that most Buddhists work off of the same definition of self, i.e., the “I”

      Here’s a few scattered things I’d say about this self:
      – It’s the self that identifies as separate from the world
      – This is the self that is conditioned by experiences and circumstances
      – It’s the self around which the personality was/is formed
      – It’s the self that possesses things, that uses the personal pronoun: “my” job, “my” house, “my” wife, “my life,” etc.
      – This is also the self that seeks to fix things as permanent

      Would you say that the above descriptions (more or less) accurately describe the self, as most psychologists would use the term? As you would use the term?

      Okay, so the meditator practicing in the tradition of the Buddha seeks to dissolve that self, so let’s revisit the above points from the perspective of a meditator….
      – The sense of a separate self is an illusion b/c of the biological interconnected nature of reality
      – Conditioning occurs every moment, and the meditator seeks to remain non-attached to the impermanent phenomena, simply observing it as it comes and goes
      – Hence the personality itself is ever-changing and through meditation and mindfulness, the meditator dissolves the various layers of the personality to the extent that they are based on attachments and aversions. At first the harm done by the personality is usually obvious: someone has barely controlled fits of anger, like road rage, for example. The meditator can observe the ways in which this anger protects the “I” the ego self; but over time even subtle forms of anger can be dissolved, like irritations and frustrations, because these are all based on aversions and attachments to impermanent phenomena (i.e., the experiences of one’s life)
      – The meditator seeks to “let go” of all impermanent phenomena that would normally be “mine,” with the understanding that it is this clinging to impermanent phenomena that is the foundation of all suffering. This is a key point in the Buddha’s teaching, probably the most central or fundamental idea: that all forms of internal suffering (like greed and anger and pride and anxiety and compulsive behavior) are based on clinging (i.e. attachment and aversion) to impermanent and impersonal phenomena. So if I lose “my” job, then I become angry and feel great anxiety. The goal of mindfulness (in the tradition of hte Buddha) is to simply analyze the idea we have of “my job” and see it for what it is: a contractual arrangement whose existence depends on many factors staying the same and that this contractual arrangement could break down at any moment, hence all of the attachment we have toward “my job” is simply an attachment to the ever-changing, impermanent phenomena of our life.
      – In short, the goal of the meditator is to learn to deeply engage and observe impermanent phenomena. To this task, there are ever more layers of the personality and the self to engage.

      Is the self ever permanently dissolved or destroyed?
      There are differences among advanced meditators and teachers on the question of whether the self can be completely dissolved and entirely eliminated. Some say “yes,” that enlightenment and nirvana is the complete dissolution of the self. Others say that the self still operates, that the self is still conditioned by experiences and circumstances, but that being enlightened means that none of this conditioning really “sticks” because the enlightened being is free from attachment and aversion, hence s/he doesn’t react to any of this conditioning but merely observes all of the events of his/her life with detached equanimity. This isn’t a zoning out but a very deep engagement with reality, a very concentrated state of mind (although serene) with a very keen sense of observation.


  8. And it’s probably important to add that the practice of mindfulness and meditation are for the purpose of a deep engagement with reality, it’s not escapism. Many spiritual and religious traditions understand this idea of the impermanent nature of all experience and phenomena, but their answer is some form of escapism: deny sense experience in some way, mortify the flesh, etc.

    The Buddha taught that the solution was the opposite: to more deeply engage the present moment and learn to observe reality with non-attachment. Even more to the point, the Buddha taught that this occurred not through mental analysis but via mindfulness of sense experience, of what we actually taste, touch, see, hear, smell.

    Engaging the senses brings us in to the present, but it also allows us to literally “feel” our attachments and aversions. We can learn to feel anger arising because it starts as a physical sensation. It’s no accident that observing the breath is the primary form of meditation, because it is the change of breath that is often the beginning of our reactions to phenomena.


  9. Yes, that’s clear. I hadn’t realized you’d gone full-on Buddhist in your practice — I thought you were more enmeshed in the Christian meditative tradition. I’ll have to give more thought to how your characterization of self corresponds to psychological theory. I’m curious though about your assertion in the post that meditative sitting “becomes a way of knowing the mind, and knowing the mind is a way of knowing ourselves in a more intimate way.” Is then this self-knowledge used as a technique for what Giddens calls the “dissolution” of your self, which is the full-on Eastern tradition?

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    1. For me, yes, that’s where I’m at in the process. Self-knowledge is a way to dissolve the self, but I’m not strongly sectarian on any of this. I’ve explored the Christian contemplative tradition (which is where I started) then moved into Zen, then moved into the Vipassana (Buddhist) approach to meditation. Some traditions (especially the Christian ones) would distinguish between the “true self” and the “false self.” I think that’s fair. There’s so many variances to all of this, and I’m no expert……I have also tried to tie this together with modern psychology, like most American Buddhists, and I’ll be curious to hear more from you on this subject.


  10. As for how psychology regards the self, I’d say that while there’s a lot of variation the biggest divide is between the researchers and the therapists. Many therapists tend to regard the self in the terms you outline, as a person’s core unifying entity or force, as the controlling agent who decides and makes things happen, as the essence of what distinguishes an individual from everyone else and from the world. There are variations in theory and practice: behaviorally oriented therapists focus on specific problems rather than the self; Lacanians regard the self mostly as a symptom or an illusion, though they do acknowledge the possibility of the subject building an actual self within the void.

    I think that Western clinicians’ orientation commitment to a unifying self is an artifact of their grounding not in science but in philosophy and religion. As you’re well aware, traditional Christianity orients regards the soul as the unifying, controlling, eternal aspect of the individual. Western philosophy inherited this tendency from Western theology — e.g., Decartes’s body/mind dualism — but the Greek philosophers were already dualists in the BC era, influencing early Christian thought. There’s a persistent belief in this dualistic tradition that, through introspection and talk, a subject can come to greater awareness of the true self, the soul, the mind, the homunculus sitting at the control panel of our lives.

    I’ll get back to scientific psychology’s orientation to the self after a while.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The concepts of self and ego rarely come up in psychological research. The focus is much more specific: problem-solving, memory, decision-making, visual perception, depression, introversion, learning, cooperation, social influence, language skills, compulsive behavior, etc. I suppose all of these capabilities taken together might be regarded as components of an aggregate self, but they’re not presumed to be manifestations caused by some underlying unifying entity called the self.

    The research is empirical, focusing on processes that can be observed and measured. The self or ego is too nebulous and global to be the focus of empirical investigation. Experiments are designed to vary environmental conditions to which study subjects are exposed, with the intent of seeing how study subjects respond differentially to those conditions. So psych research does rely on the variability of experience to conduct its work, attempting to demonstrate that variation in genetics and environment are the key shapers of human psychology. They don’t regard variation as noise or distraction; they regard it as information.

    Therapists see individuals as clients, so it makes sense that they would focus on each person as a unique self. In contrast, psych esearchers focus on variables and relations and forces that can be measured across individuals.

    Research psychologists do study things like metacognition (thinking about one’s own thinking processes), awareness of one’s bodily state and movement, consciousness, self-consciousness, self-image, self-confidence. These self-reflexive aspects are regarded not as parts of some core self but as other capabilities that can be studied, described, and correlated with other variables.

    Research psychologists do regard the individual human organism as the primary focus of investigation, rather than the group or the society or the planet. But psychologists don’t study individuals in isolation; they look at how people interact with their environments and with other people. Nor do research psychologists spend much time on chemistry, but they acknowledge that biochemical reactions are key to how brains work. There are dangers of psychologists becoming insulated from other forces at work on individual humans coming from both macro and micro sources of influence.


    1. I have heard of research into the effects of meditation on the brain. Monks have been hooked up to brain scanners to measure their cognitive activity, and often the brain looks very different. Increased alpha waves are one thing I remember, but I don’t actually have links to provide nor do I recall the names or the precise nature of the studies….I’ve also heard from other readings that the research into how meditation effects the brain remains inconclusive….Let me cross check this with a Kindle book that I read a few years back.


  12. I was responding to your questions about self rather than about the therapeutic value of meditation. EEG is a rather gross indicator, but it does seem reasonable that meditation would increase brain activity associated with relaxed wakefulness — alpha activity. I remember a number of years back reading a study comparing people meditating with people praying: the meditators had the relaxed alpha-wave activity, whereas the prayers showed brain patterns more compatible with intense conscious concentration.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Have you seen The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, a 2010 book by neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger? First lines from the Intro:

    In this book, I will try to convince you that there is no such thing as the self. Contrary to what most people believe, nobody has ever been or had a self.

    [Note the new website — I’ll email you about it.]


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