Hi Andy,

I love the ritual of meditating daily. Sometimes during practice, my shoulders will tense up. Like a thought slowly building, I only recognize that they’re tense (sometimes even lifted close to my ears) when it’s too late – when they’re already tense. In other words, I never catch the moment when they start to become tense.

Obviously, I focus on my breathing etc., but my focus seems to come in a bundle with tense shoulders. Why is that? And what can I do to decouple the one from the other and stop that from happening? Once I realize during my practice that I am tensing up, should I relax? I saw the video on what to do if I have an itch during practice. Should I mentally put the tense shoulders aside and keep my focus?

Thank you so much in advance.

Andy’s Answer:

Thanks for getting in touch and great to hear you’re enjoying Headspace.

You ask in your letter if you should simply relax when you realize you’ve become tense, but I’ll bet you’ve probably tried that already. It sounds as though this is a classic case of “over-effort” as it’s known in meditation. When we first learn to meditate we are learning to find the balance, the sweet spot, between focus and relaxation. Needless to say, it is very rare that we find it right away.

As for noticing it too late, that reminds me of a story…

A man walks to work each day, down the same street, at the same time. One day, for whatever reason, someone comes and digs a very big hole at the end of the street.

The man soon finds himself at the bottom of the hole. Not just today, but everyday. He knows it’s there but the habit of walking that way is just too strong.

After some time he starts to be more aware, he sees the hole ahead, but can’t quite stop in time. So although he sees it, he still falls in. This makes him frustrated.

As the days go by, he sees the hole from even further away and tries to walk around it. Sometimes he is able to avoid it, but at other times the old habit is still too strong and he falls in.

After quite some time he becomes so aware of the upcoming hole that it doesn’t trouble him at all. He sees it clearly, let’s go of the old pattern, crosses the street and avoids the hole altogether.

This is the process of meditation. To begin with it is hard to notice these things happening right away, but with practice and time we become more accomplished, our awareness becomes more stable, and as a result, we no longer fall down the hole. In short, it’s early days, but you are on the right track and it will become both easier and more comfortable in time.

Hope that’s helpful in some way.

Warm wishes,