What does meditation feel like? Meditation is an intensely personal experience. But generally, there tends to be three types of meditation sessions: calm and relaxing, “just okay,” and difficult and frustrating. Each creates a distinct feeling.
The experience of meditation doesn’t only differ from person to person. The same person can have a wildly different meditation experience from session to session.
In my case, I experience calm, relaxing meditation sessions that leave me feeling refreshed, as well as difficult, frustrating meditation sessions that make me want to quit. Both are possible on any given day.
All this makes it challenging to pin down what meditation feels like, but that’s exactly what I’ll attempt to do in this article.
What does meditation feel like?
Generally, meditation sessions fall into one of three experiential buckets:
- Calm and relaxing
- Just “okay”
- Difficult and frustrating
Let’s explore each.
1. Calm and relaxing meditation sessions
This is how we want meditation to be, all the time, right?
Here’s the fantasy: As the sun rises, we sit down on a meditation cushion and spend 15-20 minutes in a state of bliss, swiftly batting away thoughts from our brain’s monkey mind without judgment. Then, we emerge ready to take on the day.
These meditation sessions do happen sometimes.
For me, it usually takes at least 15 minutes for the sediment of my thoughts to settle down, leaving the rest of my mind more easily manageable. If I make it 15 minutes, I’m much more likely to have a calm and relaxing meditation session.
It’s also worth mentioning that these sessions are more common when I’m not trying to squeeze meditation as another “to-do” item in the middle of a busy day. Getting up extra early so I know I have more than enough time to relax and settle in, or meditating on the weekend, is a fairly reliable path to a calmer meditation session.
So what do these calm, relaxed meditation sessions feel like? For me, around the 15-17 minute mark in my meditation session, I start to feel a kind of “fog” lift from my mind.
Whereas before, thoughts had been churning in the background without me even noticing, afterwards, I feel a lightness and clarity that I didn’t know I was missing.
Once I reach this stage, it’s always easier to manage wayward thoughts, although one trap I sometimes fall into is to enjoy the feeling of calm and peace a little too much, letting my mind wander.
I also start to notice new sensations in my body the further I go into a meditation session. For me, this often takes the form of tingling sensations, or even areas of pulsating heat in my forehead or hands. I experienced this often in the 10-day silent retreat I did.
2. “Just okay” meditation sessions
So, now that the glamorous calm and relaxing meditation session is out of the way, let’s get to the bulk of the meditation sessions out there:
The ones that are “just okay.”
Yes, I know this isn’t what most of us want to hear, but it’s not every day that you walk out of a meditation session singing zip-a-dee-doo-da.
In fact, the bulk of my meditation sessions feel more like I’m just putting in the work.
If you think about the “meditation is gym for your mind” comparison, it makes sense. Most gym sessions are somewhat satisfying, but mostly for the accomplishment of having done the workout. During the workout, they’re often strenuous, and sometimes, you want to quit and wish you’d stayed home.
So it is with meditation. Some days, you’re just putting in the reps.
What does this feel like?
A “just okay” meditation session for me usually starts with limited time and a busy day ahead. That’s a common scenario that sets me up for an alright, but not exceptional, outcome. With a lot on my mind, I get to the work of meditating, but I make sure to set my meditation timer for no more than 15 minutes because I want to get on with the business of the day.
It takes a while for my mind to settle down, and by the time it does, the timer is ringing. The session is over.
I feel a mix of relief that it’s over and frustration with myself that I wasn’t able to get into a deeper state of meditation. (Of course, I’m not supposed to judge myself like this, but you can’t win ’em all).
The experience of being in this type of meditation usually feels… alright. I have a decent bit of success pulling my attention back to the present moment when it strays to the past or future, but I also spend a good bit of time lost in thought.
I’m also not able to get to a calm or relaxing stage, which means I’m just putting in my meditation reps without any of the endorphins. In short, I know I’m doing something that’s good for me, which makes it worth it, but the experience itself isn’t special in the moment.
3. Difficult and frustrating meditation sessions
Then there’s the meditation sessions from hell. You know the ones I’m talking about.
From the moment you sit down, you know it’s not going to go well. You have a lot on your mind, you don’t want to be doing this, and you spend every waking moment during the experience wishing you could just get on with your day.
Of course, meditation teachers will tell you not to pass judgment on these, and that meditation is all about equanimity. The bad sessions are just as good as the good sessions. We shouldn’t get attached to emotions either way.
But still. It’s hard. Especially if you’re in a terrible mood and you’re heading into a long meditation session. This was another common experience during the silent retreat I mentioned earlier. Two or three of the many hour-long meditation sessions we had each day might be great, the others were okay, but there was always one that was intolerable.
Sitting down on the pillow for the umpteenth time that day, my frame of mind was negative and annoyed, and I often couldn’t shake it. Not for the first 15 minutes, and not even after the full hour.
When you’re unable to stay present even though you’re trying to, it’s easy to beat yourself up and start telling yourself negative stories about what’s going on in your day and with your frame of mind. Plus, your body is likely to start protesting and pain may get worse.
I know I’m not supposed to judge.
But difficult, frustrating meditation sessions are the worst.
There is no right way for meditation to feel
As humans, we move towards pleasure and away from pain.
That’s just how we ware.
And it’s exactly this evolutionary wiring that meditation is intended to combat.
Over time, you can rewire your brain to stop creating so many stories about what is painful and what is pleasurable. Although pain and suffering are inevitable in life, meditation can greatly reduce the psychological component of that suffering.
For that reason, there’s no right way for meditation to feel. Calm, relaxing meditation sessions help. “Just okay” meditation sessions help. And even difficult, frustrating, “I want to quit” meditation sessions help.
Through all of it, you’re gaining practice at pulling your mind back from the brink. As thoughts come up, negative or positive, you pull yourself back to the present moment.
Even if it happens just once in a 15-minute session, that’s a success. In fact, even if you were totally lost in thought the whole time and realize that only at the end, that’s a success. It’s worth it.
You’re slowly training your mind, little by little, to notice when it’s left the present moment and gone off to tell itself stories about the past and the future instead.
Whether your meditation sessions are fun or difficult, your only job is to practice.
For more on the experience of meditation, check out the below articles:
- The 5 Stages of Meditation (How to Build A Sustainable Practice)
- How Long Does Meditation Take to Work?
- 5 Signs of Progress In Meditation
- How Long Should You Meditate?
Frequently asked questions
How do you feel after doing meditation?
After doing meditation, you might feel euphoric, just okay, or frustrated. It all depends on the meditation experience itself, and your state of mind heading into the meditation.
Many people report that meditation can help them feel calm and relaxed. Whatever your emotions are after meditation, you’re likely to face the rest of the day with more equanimity.
Why does meditation feel so good?
It certainly doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes, meditation is downright difficult.
But there are times when meditation feels good. This is likely because you’re giving yourself rest and relaxation time that you normally don’t enjoy. Stopping and allowing yourself to be still does often feel good, and leads to a state of calm and relaxation.
Meditation can also lead to heightened observations of your senses, and interesting and even pleasurable sensations can emerge, like the tingling of your skin or pulsating heat on different parts of your body.
My mindfulness practice kicked off in 2016 with a ten-day silent retreat. Since then, I’ve read dozens of books about mindfulness and completed hundreds of hours of meditation. Thinking about what makes humans happy, calm, and peaceful is endlessly fascinating to me.