02/28/2011 05:04 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

You Know You Should Meditate, So Why Don't You?

Not very long ago, the only people who practiced meditation regularly were Hindus and Buddhists, mostly in ashrams and monasteries. Then, Westerners who were influenced by those traditions but did not adopt the religious labels took up meditation forms as spiritual practices. When scientific studies documented the benefits of meditation, it went secular: physicians recommended it to patients, corporations and hospitals created meditation rooms and psychologists prescribed it for anxiety and stress reduction. Then Christians and Jews adapted Eastern procedures -- replacing Sanskrit mantras with words and phrases from their own traditions, for instance -- and unlocked the vaults of their mystical past. Now, if you say you meditate for 20 minutes before breakfast every morning, no one will bat an eye. I assure you that in 1968, when I started meditating, people looked at me as though I was poking needles into a voodoo doll.

You would think that this stamp of approval would make meditating as common as stopping at Starbucks for a caffeine fix. Instead, for a great many people, it's more like cutting down on carbs: they know it would be good for them, but they don't get around to doing it.

Why don't they? There are many reasons, of course, but in my experience two stand out.

The most frequently mentioned excuse, predictably, is lack of time. Virtually everyone feels that he or she has too much to do and too little time to do it in. But isn't it interesting that we always find time for things we truly value, whether it's exercising or reading the Sunday paper or taking the kids to soccer practice? If you really valued a period of silent meditation, you'd find the time. If not an hour, then half an hour; if not half an hour, then 15 minutes, or 10. With a little spiritual time management, most people find they can free up time to nurture their souls.

The real problem with people who say they don't have time to meditate is that they have not come to see its value. Americans are pragmatic, bottom-line people. But we are also outwardly driven, deluded by the idea that fulfillment comes from what we do rather than what we are inside. So we think that ticking off items from our long to-do lists is more valuable than something like meditation. But there is a direct line from inner well-being to the quality and success of our actions. Meditation should not be considered an escape, but rather a way to enhance performance by reducing stress, quieting the mind and tapping into internal reservoirs of energy and creativity.

Consider Mahatma Gandhi, a rather busy fellow who was trying to drive a colonial power out of his homeland and keep Hindus and Muslims from slaughtering one another. At the start of one especially busy day, Gandhi said, "I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one."

Meditate on that for a while.

The second reason people who want to meditate don't is: they don't know how. I can't count the number of times I've heard someone say, "I've tried to meditate, but it doesn't work for me" or, "I'm not good at it." When I ask if they've ever been taught how to meditate, the answer is usually no. For some reason, people think they ought to be able to pick it up on their own. Well, you can pick up computer programming or scuba diving on your own too, but if you want to do such things well and get the most out of them, it's a good idea to get some proper instruction.

And getting some haphazard directions in a self-help magazine or trying to remember a guided relaxation from a yoga class or a stress management seminar is not proper instruction. The problem with such cavalier approaches is that meditation is likely to be unsatisfying. Why? Because, having heard that meditation silences the mind, people try too hard to achieve that result, and that leads to strain. As a result, we find situations like this: someone suffers from anxiety; she decides to meditate to reduce that anxiety; but she hasn't been properly instructed, so she gets anxious about her meditation; she tries hard to get it right; it becomes an unpleasant chore; she concludes it doesn't work for her and gives it up.

The point is, an effective meditation practice should begin with proper instruction. Look for a form that that has an honorable history of proven use, is taught by a well-trained instructor, can be performed with ease on your own and that produces both immediate and long-term benefits.

There are other reasons why people don't meditate. One is, "Life is good, so I don't need it." That's like neglecting diet or exercise because you're not sick at the moment. Then there's the opposite: "I'm under too much stress now," to which the best response is, "Duh! What better reason to do it?" But shortage of time and lack of proper instruction are the main obstacles, and they're easy to overcome if, like Gandhi, you recognize the value of regular meditation. And that recognition comes over time. So, once you start, stick with it long enough to give peace a chance.