The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meditation for people who think they can’t meditate

Meditation isn’t about perfection. It’s about awareness.

(Abbey Lossing for The Washington Post)
8 min

You are reading our weekly Well+Being newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

Meditation is good for you. It can calm your mind and lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Mindfulness meditation can improve sleep and reduce inflammation in the body.

But many people say they have tried meditation and failed. Here are some common complaints about meditation:

I can’t do it. My mind wanders. I can’t sit still. I can’t concentrate that long. I fall asleep. I have too many noisy thoughts.

If your first attempt or first several attempts at meditation resulted in any of these thoughts, then congratulations — you’ve meditated!

Many people perceive meditation as a magical moment of transformation. But meditation isn’t about perfection. It’s about awareness. Being aware that your mind wanders, that you’re tired, that you can’t sit still, that your mind is racing — that’s the point of meditation.

Judson Brewer, associate professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and a leading expert on meditation, said a common mistake people make is not understanding the aim of meditation. “I did this for 10 years,” he said. “I beat my head against the wall thinking I need to focus on my breath, and I was doing something wrong because I couldn’t.”

If you’re struggling with meditation, Brewer suggests reminding yourself that at its core, a meditation practice is about helping you to learn how your mind works. The day I spoke with Brewer, a student had just complained to him that she was struggling with meditation.

“I told her to really bring in an attitude of curiosity,” he said. “When she notices there’s a thought, can she be aware of it? ‘Oh no, my mind wandered’ tends to be in the background when we think we’re failing at meditating. But just notice it. ‘Here’s what it’s like to be caught up in my mind.’ You’ve just learned something about how your mind works.”

Even the fact that you think you’ve failed at meditation is worth noticing, Brewer says. Have you formed a habit loop of berating yourself? “It doesn’t matter what the mind is doing,” Brewer said. “Every piece of information is good information. Be aware of it.”

Here’s some easy advice to help you learn how to meditate and incorporate meditation and mindfulness into your day.

Meditate in the morning. A morning meditation is a good way to ground yourself, and studies show a regular morning practice can lower stress hormones over time. I’ve created a morning ritual where I enjoy a cup of coffee, followed by a short guided meditation. Meditating during your other morning rituals can help you form a habit — and you’re less likely to doze off.

Use an app. It’s much easier to start a meditation practice with a little help. A number of apps — Headspace, Calm, Ten Percent Happier and Unplug — offer free trials and programs to get you started. Apps also offer a lot of variety. Unplug has “meditation quickies” and quirky topics such as a meditation for “before you send that email that you wish you didn’t send.”

Feel your feet. For an easy mindful moment at work, take a few seconds to focus on your feet. What do they feel like? Are they hot and sweaty? Are they tingling? Are they achy and sore? Does one foot feel different? Think about the connection your feet have to the ground. Your mind is less likely to wander when you’re noticing your feet. Brewer calls feet “anxiety-free zones.” And focusing on feet feels, quite literally, grounding.

Try coherent breathing. Sit quietly and inhale to the count of six, and then exhale to the count of six. You can sit upright or lie down. Place your hands on your belly. If this is too hard, start with a count of three or four and work your way up. The ultimate goal of this technique is to slow your breath down to five breaths per minute. Practice for five minutes a day.

Notice the five senses. Start by taking a few calming breaths. Now, see five things around you. It can be items on your desk such as a lamp, a notepad and a pen, or trees and rocks as you take a walk. Touch four things — the fabric of your clothes, a book, a leaf, the cat. Hear three things. Notice a dog barking, the click of a keyboard, laughter in the break room. Smell two things. Sniff the air, the detergent smell that lingers on your clothes. Taste one thing. End your meditation with a bite of chocolate, a piece of fruit or a treat from the office candy dish.

Brush your teeth and meditate. This is my favorite because it’s so easy to do. Brush your teeth, but focus on the swishing sound of the toothbrush. Notice the taste of the toothpaste and the froth that builds in your mouth. Bring your awareness to the coolness of the water as you rinse your mouth. Add a new element of awareness by standing on one leg as you brush your teeth.

The gray-hair paradox

Gray hair is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, as more women let their hair go to its natural color during the pandemic. The New Yorker celebrated this trend with a photo essay of silver-haired women. The group Gray & Proud has more than 31,000 members on Facebook, while the hashtag #silversisters celebrates gray on Instagram.

But while such hair may be heralded on social media, women say they still face discrimination when they go gray, according to a study published in the Journal of Women & Aging. When researchers from the University of Exeter interviewed 80 women recruited from closed “going gray” Facebook groups, they found two competing themes: Women who go gray say they are still sometimes shamed for “letting themselves go.” But they also report moments of feeling more respected and approachable.

In deciding to go gray, the researchers found, many women feel they are choosing between feeling authentic and looking competent. Here are some of the comments the researchers collected.

“I work with college aged students. Before I stopped coloring my hair they thought I was much younger and actually treated me like one of their own. Now they treat me like an older person — assuming I can’t relate to them.” — Tracey, 40s

“I absolutely love my natural hair color. I feel comfortable and love who I am, and who I am changing into. I have noticed with my silver hair that I’m viewed and treated more fragile.” — Mattie, 50s

But women also said there are benefits to going gray, including feeling authentic, greater freedom, approachability and respect.

“I actually feel better about myself because my exterior matches my chronological age. This is me, like it or not. I am not pretending to be something I am not. It is quite freeing.” — Rose, 50s

“Just recently I noticed that more people want to talk to me and approach in public settings. I especially notice younger men and women making conversation with me. As a nurse I feel more well received as knowledgeable, trusted and capable.” — Katie, 60s

“I find younger people are really polite to me. LOL. Maybe some sort of default respect because I am older? It’s so strange!” — Alex, 40s

Everyday life coach

Today’s everyday life coach is James A. Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia who has studied the effect of holding hands.

The advice: Hold hands with someone you care about.

Why you should try it: Using MRI machines, Coan looked at the effects on the brain of holding hands with a stranger or someone you love. Participants included heterosexual and same-sex couples. To simulate stress, he subjected participants to a mild electric shock while they were holding hands with a stranger, a friend or a loved one.

Hand-holding lowered stress overall, but the calming effect was greatest when holding hands with a loved one. Notably, the effect seen in the brain was similar to a pain-relieving drug.

How to do it: Hold hands early and often — during a walk, at night watching TV or while you’re waiting for your food at a restaurant.

More from Well+Being

How do you define healthy aging? The health editors at The Washington Post want to know. Fill out this form and tell us more.

Meanwhile, it’s been a busy week on the Well+Being desk. Don’t miss these stories.

Ask a doctor: Why do I get so sleepy after lunch?

Eating Lab: What are ultra-processed foods? What should I eat instead?

Your Move: How exercising now could benefit your future grandchildren

Brain Matters: Why it feels good to do hard things

On Your Mind: 4 emotional workouts to promote resilience

Women said coronavirus vaccines affected periods. New study shows they were right.

Syphilis cases are surging. Should I be worried?

Please let us know how we are doing. Email us at