Whenever I raise the possibility of trying a meditation exercise with one of my ADHD clients, I typically get “the look”. “You got to be kidding. I have a hard time sitting through a 30 minute sitcom and you want me to get all Zen and empty my mind? No way, I could never do it.”
Yes, meditation is not typically the kind of thing that brings out a big ADD audience. It is far from a natural way for an ADD’er to spend his or her time but, for that matter, it is not a natural way for anyone to spend time. In large part, that is the point of the exercise. It really is about breaking away from the ordinary. That is what makes it both difficult and worthwhile.
Practice not perfection
Now before I lose you completely, it is important to understand that the useful practice of meditation does not require you to empty your mind, or to remain absolutely focused on some thought or object. If that were the case, then I would have to agree that meditation is simply beyond the scope of most people with ADD. Luckily, meditation is about practice, not perfection.
Meditation needs to be understood as a cyclical process. You start with the decision to focus on one thing such as the feeling of your breath going in and out of your nose (or a wordless piece of music, or a rock). This is the starting point, not the whole deal. After a little while (for some, a matter of seconds) your mind will have trotted off to somewhere else. You don’t have to do this part intentionally, minds and especially ADD minds will drift all by themselves. Your job is to eventually notice that your mind has drifted, let that thought go, and come back to the focus point (the breath, in this instance). Focus, natural drift, note it, let it go, and go back to the focus.
Another key piece of doing meditation is the attitude. You should work towards an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment, accepting whatever appears in your experience as ok for the moment. Not necessarily good or desirable, but something you can allow to be, since it is, in fact, already here. This is what meditators call acceptance. You might not like the fact that it is raining, but if you accept the fact, you get your umbrella and meet the day. The alternative is to try to argue with the rain which has the effect of putting living on hold.
Meditation is not about staying focused, it is about remembering that there is a focus, being mindful of the mind’s drift, accepting where your mind goes, and coming back to the starting point. Meditation is about the whole thing, including the incessant chatter of the mind. What this means is that anyone can practice meditation. You don’t have to be one of those super laid-back types For someone with ADD, it still remains a challenging thing to do, but it’s not impossible.
Another big trap is in getting angry about the amount of time it took to notice you drifted. The point is to notice it when you notice it, not to have done it earlier. If this becomes too much of a problem, where 4 continuous minutes of your 5 minute meditation is spent thinking about your afternoon meeting, then it might be helpful to use a guided mediation where a voice comes at you to remind you of the task at hand. A good source for some ADHD friendly guided meditations is this UCLA site with meditations by Diana Winston.
Not enough time
Another misunderstanding is that you have to practice meditation for a given length of time for it to be useful. Some people recommend 20 minutes twice a day, others that you should do at least 30 minutes. The truth is that every little bit helps. Much like physical exercise, five minutes is better than none. Getting used to it, sampling the goods if you will, is often the easiest way for someone with ADD to get started. Start with five minutes, and if that seems too long, go for three. Herbert Benson recommended three minutes in his book “The Relaxation Response”, and had good results. Whatever time you decide upon, use a timer to keep track so that you don’t need to keep checking the clock which takes you outside the loop.
Since making room for meditation in your life will require real effort it begs the question, why bother? What’s in it for me? That is actually hard to answer since a key piece to having a proper perspective on the whole meditation thing is to approach it without expectation. Still, you would have to be crazy to do it without some payoff. So, while any given session of meditation should not be expected to do anything in particular, the ongoing practice of meditation can do very interesting and worthwhile things, especially for someone with ADD.
By intentionally taking time for doing nothing (non-doing), we take a break from an existence characterized by an intense and restless drive. While meditation doesn’t stop the restlessness that underlies ADHD, it does allow you a chance to get some perspective on the urgency to do, move, and accomplish.
Through the process of acknowledging and letting go of the thoughts that drift through (or sometimes scream for attention), we get some perspective on just how seriously we take our thinking and that perhaps we can usefully choose to just let it go. Just a thought, just a feeling, no different in substance from the one that drifted through a little while ago. The act of doing meditation creates thousands of opportunities to strengthen the “muscle” that lets go. One of the components of ADD that I believe contributes to the development of anxiety and depression is the greater difficulty of those with ADD have in letting go. Instead, those with ADD seem predisposed to ruminate over thoughts and feelings. A practice of medication may help decrease this tendency and help protect you against sliding into depression and worry.
By practicing watching thoughts without engaging in the whole process of thinking, you open yourself to a type of personal insight that runs deep. Our usual approach (particularly true of psychologists) to gaining insight is to thinking about thought. Unfortunately, this keeps us locked into a circular logic limited by our language and usual mental habits. We are more than our thoughts but it requires something different to actually get ourselves there. Meditation can be such a thing.
By improving perspective and increasing awareness, yes, meditation will decrease stress. Just don’t always expect it to be a walk in the park.
Make the time
While I promised earlier that anyone can meditate, it is also true that ADD will create other barriers to getting around to actually practicing. This relates to the fact that in ADD, people tend to live in a fairly reactive mode and will find it very difficult to make time for an activity that has nothing to do with the pressing demands of an overwhelmed day. People with ADD respond to those things that are loudly demanding or seductively interesting. Meditation is neither. Without creating a special place for it during the course of the day by creating mechanisms to remind yourself that you have committed to doing it, today will pass and you will not have found even that three minutes you promised yourself.
So how do you manage to make time for a worthwhile endeavour like meditation? First, don’t simply expect to remember to do it. That is part of something a cruel voice from your past might have intoned. “If it was really important you would remember it”. It doesn’t work that way. “Remembering” will happen if it is cued by something that does happen during your day, that is distinct and says in no uncertain terms, “it is time to meditate”. A large note in your lunch that says you need to spend five minutes meditating before you eat lunch, might work. Change the reminder in your computer that reminds you attend the morning meeting to ring five minutes early and meditate before you go. Look at stoplights as a way to practice meditation by staring at the light while slowly counting to three. Stop light, get it? Experiment, and keep trying to find something that works for you.
Don’t take my word for it. Don’t be convinced by the fact that many intelligent and effective people have been doing this for thousands of years. Try it and let your own experience be the judge. Give it a few weeks of daily practice (if only for five minutes, if only for three days out of five). Then ask whether you are somehow better for it.