You Can Meditate Even If You Can’t Sit Still

“I wish I could meditate,” people often tell me, “but I can’t sit still.” To be sure, meditation is associated with stillness. One of the most ubiquitous symbols of mindfulness is the statue of the Buddha. He sits there with that half smile, perfectly still, looking totally unbothered and it can make some of us—mere mortals who have yet to attain enlightenment—think we can’t do the same. I’m here to tell you to forget that idea. You are allowed to move when you meditate.

Look, you don’t need my permission or anyone’s permission when you start a meditation practice. It’s YOUR practice. Do what works for you. But, as a recovering perfectionist myself and as a lawyer trained to never take an action without solid authority, I know how easy it is to forget that. In fact, I needed my meditation practice to learn even to notice what felt good to and worked for my body. With that in mind, I made this permission slip for you in case you want proof positive that a meditation teacher has authorized you to move during meditation. Share it with your friends and family and anyone who ever questions you or gives you side eye for moving during your practice.

Now, of course, you may think “but isn’t moving during meditation bad?” and wonder why I am giving this permission out so freely. My answer to that is that the classic lawyer response: “it depends.” Movement during meditation is generally something to be avoided because the point of meditation is usually to calm and settle the mind. If the body is moving, it is harder to do that and it may be nearly impossible for a new meditator. As such, the general advice and the strategy I use in my own practice is to try to find a posture I can hold for a solid period of time and avoid moving where possible.

But, this strategy has limits. Beyond stillness, the other way to calm and settle the mind and body is to comfort it. That means your physical comfort as you meditate supports your mental stillness. Thus, if something is making you uncomfortable during you practice, the wise and skillful thing may just be to move to take care of it. This means you can (and maybe ought to) scratch that itch or wiggle that leg that has fallen asleep.

Once you practice long enough, you start to realize that there really are no distractions from your practice; there are only new things that arise that become your practice. In reality, when a desire to move arises, it isn’t a zero sum game. Instead, if you remain mindful during the situation, it’s really a choice of what mode of practice you want to employ. You can choose to sit with the experience and stay with the physical sensations in the body and watch them arise, move, change, and fade away. That’s practicing body awareness, equanimity, compassion, and also exploring the temporary nature of life. Those are great skills and experiences to have in your life. But, if you choose to move, you practice body awareness, mindful action, and compassion. Those are also great skills to have.

The key with both of these things, of course, is to first maintain awareness of your experience. When you do that, you can choose the next course of action and whatever action you choose becomes your practice. Then you can simply return to the breath or whatever focal point you have selected for that session. Now, of course, if you lose awareness and just scratch that itch or wiggle your leg unconsciously, what then? I think you know the answer here: this is still practice. When you realize what you’ve done, you notice it, return to your focal point, and try to avoid mentally bludgeoning yourself in the process.

In short, you can move when you meditate. You don’t need to be a statue. You can find stillness (and wisdom and compassion) even when your body and the world won’t let you sit still. That is life. Don’t fight against it; practice with it. The wisdom, the lessons, and the benefits of meditation don’t come from trying to live up to a standard. They come from learning to move through life with greater compassion, awareness, and ease. You can learn that from sitting still in your meditation practice and moving on occasion too. Give it a try.

For more information about ways to respond to when the urge to move arises, check out the 1-minute video and slide deck on our Learn to Meditate in Less than 2 Minutes page.

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