7 Joyful Alternatives to Meditation

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

I don’t meditate.

It’s a simple fact that often feels like a confession. After all, meditation is hailed as an almost magical cure in self-help circles, and the list of benefits it offers is undeniably impressive. Meditation promotes calm and compassion, decreases stress, and improves attention and concentration. Avid meditators won’t hesitate to point out, breathlessly, that it can actually change your brain. It is one of the most studied non-pharmacologic mental health interventions in the world, and most of the data is overwhelmingly positive. So why don’t I do it?

It’s not that I’ve never tried. I used the apps and the timers. I tried body scan meditations and mindfulness meditations. I tried sitting, which made me uncomfortable, and then lying down, which made me fall asleep. I focused on my breath (until I began to hyperventilate) and imagined my thoughts floating away in little clouds (there were a lot of clouds).

And to be fair, I went through a period of a couple of months when I had some success with it. At its best, it felt like I was floating in the ocean, bobbing on waves of pure consciousness. But I began to notice that this only seemed to happen when I was already calm. When I was anxious, meditation actually increased my agitation. I felt a profound sense of dissonance, my mind bubbling like it was coming to a boil, trapped inside a body that was desperately trying to hold still. At the end of each effort, I felt drained from the failure and worn out by the attempt. Despite the assurances of meditation evangelists that I just needed to stick with it, and that feeling like I was failing was part of the process, I suspected that maybe meditation wasn’t for me.

This tweet spoke to me, and reminded me that I’m not the only one for whom meditation isn’t as rewarding as I’d hoped it would be.

I gained a new perspective when one day I shared with my therapist, a bit sheepishly, that meditation had been such a struggle for me. “Oh, I definitely wouldn’t recommend meditation for someone with your profile,” she said matter-of-factly. I was surprised, and strangely relieved. I’d become so used to people extolling the virtues of meditation that I had assumed it was universally beneficial. It never occurred to me that a therapist might not recommend it, or even advise against it. When I asked why, she explained that for some people with histories of unprocessed trauma and physical dissociation, meditation can do exactly what I’d experienced — increase anxiety, prompt flashbacks, or trigger other physical symptoms. In fact, a 2017 study of meditation experiences found that a significant proportion of meditators have experienced fear, pain, dizziness, paranoia, dysphoria, and other “challenging” effects of meditation. Researchers believe these effects are often under-reported because studies aiming to understand the benefits of meditation don’t ask about adverse effects. As a non-pharmacologic intervention, meditation is assumed to be harmless.

The moral of the story isn’t “don’t meditate,” but rather, that meditation is like many things: great for some people, but not necessarily for everyone. If it works for you, wonderful! No need to read any further. But if like me you’ve struggled with traditional forms of meditation, yet still crave a way to settle your mind and ease your anxiety, happily, there are other approaches that can create a similar kind of mental expansiveness to that offered by meditation. These techniques don’t have nearly the same fervor or body of research backing them, but they are valuable alternatives, especially for those of us who find meditation unbearable, rather than unburdening.

Visualization

I’d always thought of visualization as a kind of new age-y cousin to manifesting, but it was actually therapy where I began to use this technique. During our early sessions, my therapist sometimes asked me to envision a place where I felt safe and calm, describing it aloud as I envisioned it in my mind. I began to create a garden in my mind, a place I could go when I felt overwhelmed or stressed, or when I struggled to sleep. When anxious, I often come back to this place, adding detail in one corner or another. Some elements are constant while others change. I always enter the same way, for example, but once inside, I might see different flowers or trees, or I might look around a corner and “find” a new area previously unexplored.

Another time, I was struggling with the noise of constant construction in my building. I was working on my book at home, and I never knew when the grinding noise would start up, spiking my anxiety and making it impossible to focus. My therapist asked me to envision something noisy yet innocuous. For some reason, elephants came to mind. I imagined a crew of elephants in yellow hard hats bumbling around with tools and jackhammers. Whenever the noise fired up and I felt that pit in my stomach, I pictured the elephants and my tension eased. Of course, it didn’t erase the noise. But it helped me find calm amid a situation where I couldn’t gain control.

I find that visualization gives me the same kind of distance and space that many people find in meditation, but it engages my imagination in the process. Rather than feeling like I need to sit with uncomfortable feelings or ideas, it allows me to transform them creatively — not to avoid them, but to work with them in a generative, dynamic way. I haven’t found great research on the use of visualization as a meditation alternative, but there are anecdotal accounts of nurses using visualization with patients, particularly children, as a method of relieving pain.

Coloring

Adult coloring books had a real heyday in the late 2010s, as people sought a creative yet low pressure form of stress relief. And it turns out that certain types of coloring may help reduce anxiety. In particular, research shows that coloring a complex abstract design such as a mandala or a plaid pattern can reduce anxiety in a meaningful way. Structured patterns like this have strong symmetry that taps into the harmony aesthetic, which promotes calm through symmetry and balance, quieting the visual noise of our surroundings so we can focus more deeply on what we care about. Tied to this, subsequent studies have shown that coloring not only decreases anxiety, but also increases mindfulness and may also improve attention and creativity.

The physicality of coloring may also be helpful to those of us who tend to dissociate from our bodies. The engagement of the hands and the senses can keep us from feeling like we’re swimming in our thoughts.

Drumming

Parents of a child who recently acquired a drum set might not see this activity as particularly calming, but research shows that the rhythmic quality of drumming can be a powerful aid for mental health. In one study, a group drumming initiative resulted in significant reductions in anxiety and depression, along with an increase in overall mental well-being. Drumming also correlated with a decrease in inflammatory markers in the bodies of the participants.

Why does drumming promote calm? One reason may be the repetition of the sounds and movements (again, a manifestation of the harmony aesthetic). Percussion is considered the oldest form of music-making (perhaps after singing), and may have originated as a way to promote coordination of work among groups of early humans. Drumming is a grounding activity, that lets us “blow off steam” in a safe and non-aggressive way. Notably, drumming is one activity that has typically been studied as a group intervention, rather than an individual practice. It’s possible that solo drumming also has benefits, but current research on drumming tends to focus on the physical experience of rhythm, synchrony, and belonging as the key drivers of mental well-being.

Cloud gazing

For those who benefit from having something outside of themselves to focus on, cloud gazing can be an appealing alternative to meditation. Cloud gazing draws us outside, which has documented mental health benefits, while the amorphous, softly shifting clouds give the attention something calming to focus on. Looking upward may also help, as this increases the amount of light that enters the eye, which itself has distinct benefits for mental well-being.

Little research has been done on cloud gazing (sadly!), however one study points to the benefits of sky views as restorative, and accessible. While green nature views have been widely shown to help reduce stress, sky views are beneficial because they can be accessed even in dense urban areas.

Morning pages

Morning pages are a creative tool devised by the writer Julia Cameron in her celebrated book The Artist’s Way. To do them, you simply write three long-hand pages first thing in the morning, writing without stopping and allowing whatever thoughts arise to proceed onto the page. For writers, morning pages are a way of breaking through the pressure of the blank page and opening a line of dialogue with your creative brain. No one has to read them. In fact, you can place them directly into the trash when done if you choose.

Though morning pages are billed as a creativity tool, for me they function as a mental health tool. I discovered the technique while working on the later chapters of JOYFUL, and found it far more effective than meditation at calming my anxiety around my work. Knowing I had the open space of morning pages as a buffer before sitting down to a draft each morning alleviated so much pressure that I began sleeping better and enjoying my free time more, and I regularly return to the practice if not every day, then several times a week at least.

Walking

Walking meditation is a form of meditation in its own right, but even if you don’t have a formal “walking meditation” practice, some form of mindful movement can be calming. Walking is easy and accessible to most people, and for those who feel stuck when attempting a seated meditation, walking can help by engaging the body as well as the mind in the act of quiet reflection.

Benefits of mindful walking include stress reduction, improved cognition among older adults, in addition to the many mental health benefits of increased physical activity that walking provides.

Watching Bob Ross painting videos

And if you’re still struggling to find a way to calm your mind, maybe it’s time to turn to a soothing voice and his “happy little trees.” While it might sound far-fetched, a whole community of internet users have found peace and joy in vintage videos of Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting.

Some researchers believe that Ross’s soft baritone and swishy sounds of his brush against the canvas trigger ASMR reactions, also known as “brain tingles.” The popular meditation app Calm has used Bob Ross’s voice in their Sleep Stories series, which is meant to help insomniac users fall asleep. You can watch every episode of the celebrated show on YouTube. Here’s a favorite episode, if you’re looking for one to get started.

Do you have an alternative to meditation that brings you joy and calm? Please share your practices with us in the comments!

November 20th, 2021

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    Discussion (24 Comments)

  1. Sidney on November 20, 2021

    Oh. my. goodness. What a distinct blessing to read this today and realize I am not the only one (not that I believe I am unique) who has struggled with a perceived failure at meditation! I love some of your alternatives and I will proceed with a lighter heart. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Anne in Virginia on November 20, 2021

    Meditation never did anything for me, either, and I’ve tried it on and off since the late 60s. Walking or some other rhythmic physical activity like dancing works well for me. To your list, I’d add guided imagery, especially Belleruth Naparstek’s audio programs from Health Journeys.

    Reply
  3. Patrick on November 20, 2021

    I love this approach and all these techniques. I have found gazing at art to be very calming as well. Whether it’s considering a gallery at a slow pace or spending time with one piece. As an architect I have also found that simply sitting in a well-designed space is very spiritual. I sit long enough for it to “reveal itself” to me. 

    Reply
  4. Meg on November 20, 2021

    This is a great concept! Similar to creating “flow,” maybe? In the same category as coloring, doing Legos (following instructions is best for me, personally) or doing a puzzle!

    Reply
  5. Sarah on November 20, 2021

    Thank you for sharing. I’ve also always struggled with meditation but recently started to use breathing exercises to calm down. I like to use the app called Breathwrk  

    Reply
  6. Laurie on November 20, 2021

    Love this, Ingrid! I love the falling asleep meditations but don’t really need them as I am an Olympic caliber sleeper. I use the visualization (through this crazy autumn, the image of sitting by the fire and tree in Christmas Eve with a new book and chocolate a la the Icelandic tradition). I also love to imagine color…purple turning to indigo to blue to green…and so on…  in my mind’s eye, the color I ‘see’ shifts slowly through the rainbow. 🌈

    Reply
  7. Michelle on November 20, 2021

    I get meditative while working on one of my art images while listening to hang drum music or on a difficult jigsaw puzzle in front of a crackling fire. Watching and listening to my horses just chew their hay is super calming. Looking through binoculars for mountain goats on the mountain less than a mile away with my wind chimes behind me. When I can combine visual with auditory input, I’m in flow.

    Reply
  8. Becca on November 20, 2021

    I do meditate and I love these ideas as well. And I can see how helpful they will be to those who have struggled with meditation. I watched the Bob Ross video just for fun. It is calming. His voice but also the nature-based images he creates. Thanks, again for all you put out there for people!

    Reply
  9. Georgia on November 20, 2021

    Playing bass is what really works for me. I think lower notes have a calming effect on us. It takes my mind away from reality for a while, which is really good sometimes.

    Reply
  10. Dianne Whitehead on November 20, 2021

    I have found that knitting or crocheting can put me in a meditative state quite naturally. Painting sometimes does it too.

    Reply
  11. Shauna on November 20, 2021

    What a lot of these have in common is allowing oneself to get lost in, or closely tune in to, something external that has little consequence on life otherwise. I imagine so many examples that involve watching something innocuous like a trail of ants, trees swaying in the wind, waves rolling in, a flickering flame, a cat grooming itself, falling leaves, etc. I find so much peace in these activities and take as much advantage of it as I can. 

    Reply
  12. Cindi on November 21, 2021

    I feel like you’re missing the point of meditation, which isn’t surprising given how it’s usually pitched as a path to bliss. Yes it sometimes achieves bliss, but you shouldn’t do it with that expectation or it will cause disappointment and anxiety as you have seen. Really the point of it is to learn to recognize that voice in your head, and how it never shuts up and constantly spews lies. (Evolution after all encouraged negative thoughts because they kept people alive.) Then you slowly find it easier to ignore that voice. Just the word “failure” at meditation is an impossibility because the only requirement is to do it, and there should be no expectation at the outcome.

    That said, I have sometimes found traditional medication more useful than at other times. Most of the time I really prefer “reading meditation”, which is taking certain books and reading them over and over and over until you know them by heart and it becomes a meditative practice that immediately reminds you to be in that present, non-judging state. Books such as “The Untethered Soul” and “The Power of Now.”

    Reply
  13. Jennifer LaCava on November 21, 2021

    I am a beginning meditator, and would have to agree with all of you. Not everyone needs/ wants a formal meditation practice. But I also agree that one of the downsides to meditation’s current popularity is many misconceptions. My understanding of mindfulness meditation is that it is learning to pay attention, on purpose, to whatever is happening in the present moment, with an attitude of kind and gentle curiosity. To recognize thoughts as thoughts that may or may not be true, to recognize sensations and emotions as changing and impermanent if you notice them closely. I can certainly imagine that if you have a trauma history, meditating without therapeutic support or modifications could be quite painful and upsetting. If you delve more deeply into the literature, not just the press, you will find narratives of deeply intense negative experiences during meditation, and the supports provided by highly skilled and empathetic teachers/ therapists to work with these in both the body and the mind. It’s definitely not meant to be easy and relaxing! As one of my favorite teacher/ writers Dr. Jon Kabat Zin has written, it’s meant to help be present with the “full catastrophe” of life! Also, of note in the mindfulness tradition I have studied, the point is not how many times your mind wanders, or what or where it wanders too (including fear, grief, etc.). The point is how you treat yourself when you notice that your mind has wandered. Do you berate yourself for having failed, or do you treat yourself with gentle grace and understanding?

    Reply
  14. Elise on November 21, 2021

    Love this! So happy to hear some different perspectives on meditation, and that there are many ways to be mindful 

    Reply
  15. Anna on November 21, 2021

    I love that you are sharing alternatives to meditation that can promote mindful, flow states without prompting fear or fight-or-flight or agitated states. For any of us who are processing trauma, meditation can be too much to take on when alone.
    I do think that there’s a wide misconception that the purpose of meditation is to promote a flow state or to access one’s calm or some other state of mind. This is not what I understand from any of the teachers of meditation that I have heard or whose work I have read. As a couple of others have mentioned, meditation is a practice of observation and acceptance, not of trying to shift one’s state to some more comfortable or peaceful state. One of the side effects is that those who continually practice acceptance, observation, and self-compassion do tend to access calm in their storms.
    Thank you so much for spreading practices that can be accessible to everyone; meditation is not the panacea that some people expect, and if anyone who is struggling with return to traumatic states or with lack of ability to access calm, I also recommend group activities such as (safe) gentle yoga or Tai Chi; the physical element can help occupy the thoughts, the group elements promote a sense of safety and belonging, and the regular, relaxed breathing directly influences the nervous system in order to restore calm.

    Reply
  16. Carrie on November 22, 2021

    Swimming laps in a familiar pool is my meditation.

    Reply
  17. Margaret on November 22, 2021

    I appreciated this post today. So many things that are supposed to be calming and relaxing – meditation, massage, pedicures and other salon services – just make me feel anxious and wondering “is this almost over?” My most calming activities are walking in the woods or listening to soft instrumental music while praying.

    Reply
  18. julia on November 22, 2021

    Failure to meditate should be considered a stressful condition! I have realized over the years that I become super calm and chill when I am weeding my flower beds. It is both mindless and very focused in a way that I believe meditation is meant to work, and contact with the earth is an excellent bonus.

    Reply
  19. Raquel on November 22, 2021

    I’ve discovered Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) aka Tapping to be quite helpful. It’s a useful way to process all sorts of feelings (even trauma). Periodically there’s a free tapping summit (about a week) that I’ve attended to familiarize myself with the technique, but there’s also a free and paid version app called Tapping Solution. 

    Reply
  20. Katarina Cerny on November 22, 2021

    My best meditations are in nature. Looking at trees, identifying plants, and especially birdwatching.

    Reply
  21. Gabrielle Dahmen on November 23, 2021

    I love this article! I have tried meditation off and on but never stuck with it. I’m not writing it off but I like the alternatives on your list… cloud gazing! I haven’t really done that since I was a kid… other than for less than a minute here and there. I think sometimes we write things off if they seem like we are wasting time when really, we need to slow time down. I paint and I run sip and paint parties. I often get the comment at the end that it’s like meditating. I think anything creative that requires you to relax and focus for a few hours means you block out all the other noise in your head which can be a refreshing break 🙂

    Reply
  22. Kirstjen on November 30, 2021

    I would highly recommend the Healthy Minds app. They have meditations, but they really are focused on mindfulness and being present, rather than emptying your mind and breathing. Generally I would say that I suck at doing that kind of meditation, but this app has helped me notice my own thoughts and be proactive in managing them.

    They are a part of the University of Wisconsin and Richard Davidson’s Center for Healthy Minds, and I find the short programs to be really interesting.

    Reply
  23. Julian on December 5, 2021

    I also find knitting meditative. In addition to the repetitive activity, there is also the feel of the yarn. Tai Chi works well for me in part because the motion is slower than many things in life.

    Reply
  24. Brea on January 15, 2022

    I spent a lot of years practicing meditation, and while the good moments were pretty amazing, when you strive to meditate you’re going to experience a lot more failure than success, because the pressure to “get somewhere” and have a good experience with it can cause anxiety, and anytime you are trying to push thoughts away you can cause them to bubble to the surface. I find a much better approach is to spend time doing nothing. How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson and Niksen by Olga Mecking are great resources in the fine art of slacking off.

    Reply

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