Why do I keep having shallow meditations?

meditation meditation and drinking question time Dec 27, 2023

When I teach people how to meditate, one of the first things I say is that we don’t talk about “good” or “bad” meditations.

Instead we talk about “shallow” or “deep” meditations. 

Or “satisfying” or “unsatisfying” meditations.

The reason we do this is because the shallow ones, while less enjoyable, are no less beneficial or effective than the deeper ones.

They are just doing a different job.

The easiest way to classify each is to say:

  •  Deep meditation = body stocking up on rest
  •  Shallow meditation = body offloading stress 

Both of these will lead to you feeling calmer and more in control of your actions – including whether you feel compelled to have a drink or not.

It’s just that one is more enjoyable than the other.

Watch me giving a more detailed answer to this question after a course participant brought it up recently in a live session.

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How can I have deeper meditations more often?

This is the million-dollar question. While we may want to get the answer and control the experience more, meditation is more of a process of letting go of our usual tendency to want to control things.    

We’re conditioned that the more effort we put into things, the better results we’ll get – from school to work to sports to relationships, it’s been drilled into us. And we have likely had success with this approach.

The problem comes when we apply this approach to relaxation. 

Relaxation is the exact opposite of this approach so unsurprisingly doesn’t respond well to the effort approach.

Instead, we adopt a nonchalant attitude, where we see how unfazed or unruffled we can be when we notice we’re having a shallow, thought-filled meditation.

Nonchalant is such an appropriate word here it’s worth giving a dictionary definition



feeling or appearing casually calm and relaxed; not displaying anxiety, interest, or enthusiasm.

Calm and relaxed – not displaying even interest or enthusiasm. When have you ever been told to do anything like this? Likely never – but meditation is about un-programming this conditioning so you can find more balance in your life. Not so that you can become lazy, but instead so you can find a sustainable balance.

The result of this in meditation will be that you’re not resisting thoughts coming up. And when you stop resisting, thoughts will gradually diminish on their own.

This letting go approach is much more like falling asleep than cramming for an exam but we should forgive ourselves whenever we find ourselves trying too hard as this is such an ingrained habit.

Trust me, it will get easier over time – all there is to do is keep meditating and not worry about how “well” you are meditating.

We track the success of our meditations by how they make us feel afterwards, not in how much control we can exert over our minds or the experience.

You can find a transcript of the video below.


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From the video:

We now have a wider understanding of what constitutes a worthwhile meditation. We talk about shallow and deep meditations. The shallow ones, which you've been having more of recently – they're not enjoyable. They're usually just a bit “meh”. 

It's easy for us to think that the deeper ones are more effective, but they're not necessarily. The whole scheme of things is that we align ourselves with an attitude of not being in control. 

So we say, right, I'm putting my controlling mind in neutral by thinking the mantra. And by doing that, I hand over control to another intelligence that exists in me, the one that digests my food or decides if I need to sneeze or whatever. This is not my conscious intellect. 

That intelligence decides if you need a deep restful meditation or you need to churn through some stuff that happened yesterday. Whether you have shallow or deep meditations is a byproduct of whatever's going on at the moment for you. And that might be obvious things like a work issue or relationship stuff or family stuff. Or it might not be related to anything, but it'll be something that is un-stressing. So we try to remain consistent and be like, okay, fine, I'd prefer the deep ones, but I'm going through a phase where I need to have these shallow ones and there's some greater purpose to it. 

All part of the un-stressing process

It's part of the un-stressing process. And it often means that you've uncovered something and it's coming out. We count all of meditation as un-stressing – and that might include things like fatigue or anxiety or frustration. So you might find that you’re frustrated. And this is because we get a flavour of the stress that's coming out, not the full experience of it, but that can be not great and definitely not the flying-on-my-magic-carpet type of meditation we want. 

Seeing shallow meditation as “functional” meditation

I think of these as functional meditations. They're not the most enjoyable, but they serve a function. The analogy I give is when I'm exercising. Sometimes I'm running and it feels awful and my legs really hurt and I feel like an elephant. And other times I'll be bouncing around like I've got springs for legs. One of them is much more enjoyable, but they're both useful. I'm getting the same heart rate workout. I'm getting the same anaerobic exercise. I'm getting the same muscle workout. My legs are being worked out in both. It's just one happens to be enjoyable, for whatever reason, and one doesn't. But I'm still definitely getting benefit from it. 

It’s like going for a massage

The other way I think of it is like when you go for a massage. Unless you go to one where it’s like they’re tickling you with a feather, like a fake massage, it often hurts. Especially if you have a sports massage and they're digging in and working out stresses and strains from your physical body. And it can be unpleasant but afterwards you'll feel more relaxed. So that's what we're doing in a mental, spiritual way with meditation. Stuff will be coming out and it's not always that pleasant, but we say, “better out than in”. And you'll feel better for it afterwards and in the long run. 

Don’t judge yourself

Try not to judge yourself for whether it's deep or shallow. We can't prevent it being shallow, but we can make it stay shallower for longer by holding an expectation and wishing it was deeper. If you have a thought about why it’s so shallow – Oh, I can't believe it's shallow again – that in itself is a shallow thought which will keep you up at the surface. 

It's one of these annoying things where it's the opposite of what you think. As soon as you forget to be annoyed about it, that's when it goes away. Or it will help it go away. 

Just remove judgment and accept that this is how it is. Maintain an attitude of not minding. 

We are not practicing how consistently we can think the mantra or see how deep we can go. Instead we're practicing how nonchalant we can be, how gentle we can be when we find we're at the surface again. This is the muscle we're exercising, in a very gentle way. 

We're basically saying OK to whatever happens. And the more that we can mean it, the more we'll be able to drift back down. Because if we're resisting it, what we resist persists. So if you're resisting it, you'll just make it longer.

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