The #1 Problem with Meditation (And How to Solve It)

by Asatar Bair on May 30, 2013

“So what do you do?” asked the young man at the party.

“I teach meditation,” I replied.

“I tried that once, but it didn’t work for me,” he said.

“Don’t worry — you just had some bad instruction.”

I proceeded to give him a simple technique that is sure to revolutionize his experience. (More on this in a minute.)

You see, saying meditation doesn’t work for you is a bit like saying food doesn’t work for you, exercise doesn’t work for you, or sex doesn’t work for you.

Meditation is a way of attending to the most basic human needs:

  • to understand life more deeply;
  • to know yourself;
  • to gain power through fundamental exercises in self-control;
  • to deepen your relationships by opening your heart;
  • to feel your desires and consider what is the best way to attain them; and
  • to feel your connection with all of life, which deepens to become a palpable sense of union.

If you tried meditation, and it did even one of these things even a little bit, you wouldn’t say it didn’t work, because it would’ve done something amazing.

I think the reason my friend felt meditation didn’t work for him is connected to the single biggest problem with the way meditation is usually taught and understood, namely:

You don’t know what to focus on.

As I explore in some detail here, meditation must begin with concentration, the focusing of the mind on a single point.

You might think then, that those of us raised in the Western world would have a substantial advantage in learning meditation, because one thing that is very much part of the culture is the value of concentration. What is Western education but one long lesson in how to concentrate the mind?

Unfortunately, meditation is taught in way that is very different from everything else.

If you want to learn how to walk on a wire, you must concentrate. If not, you fall off the wire. If you want to fix cars, you must concentrate. Otherwise your repair is likely to go awry. Every skill is like this, and every skill has built-in ways to know if you are succeeding or not. The job of a teacher is to help you find the short-cuts (where they exist), to encourage you to stick at it, and to give you a step-by-step method that you can follow that works to help you learn more.

Meditation instruction differs from this long-established tradition of teaching a skill. You hear puzzling and bizarre statements like, “be present,” “pay attention to the now,” “focus on what is,” and so on.

If these statements seem meaningless to you, that’s because they are meaningless. They are vague, weak ways of saying one simple thing: concentrate.

But concentrate on what?

If the practice of meditation is the study of the self, what aspect are we to focus upon? A meditation teacher should give you a very clear answer to that, but unfortunately, from what I have seen, most do not.

And that is what leads to the number one problem in meditation being a lack of understanding about how to even begin. Concentration is the beginningof meditation. But it’s just the beginning. There is much, much more.

So here is how you solve this problem, and this is what I shared with my friend. If you’ve tried meditation in the past, and it didn’t work for you, try it this way:

  1. Sit up straight and tall, in a chair.
  2. Place your hand on the center of your chest.
  3. Focus on two things: your breath and your heart. Usually it’s hard to focus on two things at the same time; the secret here is to imagine that your heart is breathing. Your heart breathes in, your heart breathes out.

That’s all there is to it: focus on your breath and heart. Now we have many more advanced techniques we can add when this gets easy for you. Because this is what your mind does when you get good at focusing on something. Your mind says, “what else you got? I can do this plus something else.”

When you first learned how to drive, it took 100% focus. But when you got good at it, your mind wandered.

In Heart Rhythm Meditation, we have a systematic way of adding more techniques to the practice to occupy your mind, so that your mind is always on board, always knows what to focus on, and then you can explore what meditation is really about: opening your heart to the Heart of All.

I’d love to hear your thoughts — please write a comment below.

yours in the One Heart,


[Photo credit: h.koppdelaney]


R.K.Palhan May 30, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Heart and Breath–that is what we do in Meditation as taught in Delhi School of Yoga.As stated in Gita chapter 15 Text 15 and ten other texts of Gita,God is seated in our hearts.Hence we take in a long breath and enegize the same by proximity to the heart region and send the energized breath to all different parts of the body for healthy giving qualities.The mind is focussed and concentrated and 20 minutes of thisd meditation is sufficient.

We will appreciate your comments on the above Meditation technique.
CEO, Delhi Schoo;l of Yoga

Asatar Bair May 30, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Yes, this is it!
Wonderful to hear of your school of Yoga — I would love to visit you someday!

nechama May 30, 2013 at 4:59 pm

I’ve been practicing “mindful meditation”…..just focusing on the breath, for one year. Can one practice some of both… HRM and breathing naturally and using breath as focal point? I was very interested to read in “Living from the Heart” the difference between “upward” and “downward” meditation. Is it confusing and/or contradictory to practice these 2 styles of meditation? Could it be that they complement one another?

Asatar Bair May 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Dear Nechama,
Thank you for this interesting question. I will have more to say about this in a future post. Basically, mindfulness is neither an upward nor a downward meditation practice. It is neutral, meaning that the energetic direction that is native to you will probably not be changed much. I wonder what you feel mindful meditation adds that is not already present. Why do both? We practice mindfulness in Heart Rhythm Meditation — it’s just that we are very specific about our focus of concentration: the heart. The way mindfulness is generally taught does not have this focus.

Robin Goldberg May 30, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Thanks so much Asatar. This faces many issues squarely from the beginners perspective. I will share this with many friends.

Asatar Bair May 31, 2013 at 9:32 am

Thank you, Robin! Great to hear from you.

neel modi June 1, 2013 at 3:22 am

Meditation is not Concentration… It is De Concentration… The result of meditation is concentration..

Asatar Bair June 1, 2013 at 7:07 am

Dear Neel,
We may be using different definitions of ‘concentration’. (I have written 15 posts which define what I mean by concentration; you can read them here).
Yes, meditation is not concentration. But concentration is the beginning, and if you cannot do the beginning, you will never go further.
Thank you for your comment.

KidTPaT August 27, 2013 at 5:56 am

I’m practicing HRM now and I have question(I’m working on rhythmic breath, the chapter after Concious breath, according to the book living from the heart)

The instruction: to observing the rhythm of the breath that you notice the shifts in your emotions and energy during the day, as they occur

How can one really fully engage in what one is doing right now, if one spare mind to observe the breath during the day? How can I use HRM during I’m doing my activity and I’m still fully engage activity?

Asatar Bair August 27, 2013 at 11:23 am

Hi KidTPaT,
What a great question!
You are quite correct in your inclination to fully engage your attention on what you’re doing. That is the meaning of concentration. The interesting thing about the breath is how it can facilitate this process. Let me give you an example. I like to run, and when I run, I think about the activity, about blending my own energy with my environment, striving to achieve perfect harmony between myself and the ground I touch. As I do this, I also think about the rhythm of my breath, and harmonize my steps with my breath (I use 8 steps for an inhalation, and 8 steps for an exhalation). What I have found is that the focus on the breath does not detract from my concentration on the activity of running, rather, focusing on my breath adds to it. Of course there are times when my awareness of the breath wanes, and my focus is drawn to my surroundings, e.g. when the terrain is very rough. At other times, the breath becomes much more the primary focus. There is a magic about rhythmic breath that seems to help you concentrate. It also depends on the activity. Some activities lend themselves to this much more than others. To continue with the sports example, it is much easier to maintain a focus on your breath when running alone then when playing a team sport like soccer.
You won’t be able to pay attention to your breath at each moment of each day. But you’ll become more and more aware of your breath over time, and you will both learn from this and also be able to use the power of your breath to help you with your activity and your goals.
I hope this helps. Please drop me a line and let me know how it goes!

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