If you’ve tried getting in the habit of meditating, you know that it’s hard. A recorded voice tells you to “follow your breath” and before you know it you’re off somewhere thinking about what to have for dinner, how you think you’ve messed up at work, or how you really think your spouse should be better at listening. The recorded bell rings, you open your eyes, and you’re left thinking about how bad of a meditator you are. Meanwhile, every time you go to Whole Foods you’re confronted with magazine after magazine showing peaceful people meditating and claiming meditation cured everything from depression to indigestion. What gives?
The good news is, you’re doing mindfulness therapy right. Getting in the habit of meditating IS hard. Your mind will naturally try to put it off, and when you do sit down to practice your mind will naturally wander! That said, if your mind didn’t procrastinate or didn’t wander, you wouldn’t have any opportunity to learn how to come back to the present moment and re-engage. So, if a busy, resistant mind is part of the deal, what about the peace and contentment? Here’s the thing: getting in the habit of meditating isn’t about feeling better. It’s about feeling better. Meditating doesn’t help with suffering because it makes pain go away (spoiler alert: it doesn’t), but because it changes our relationship to pain entirely. Instead of feeling trapped inside our worries and sadness, we learn that we can watch them come and go without needing to buy into them. It’s the difference between being inside a rain cloud - your whole world is gray and stormy - and zooming out to see the whole sky. The clouds - fear, anger, sadness - may still be there, but they seem a lot less powerful and overwhelming when viewing them from the stratosphere. This realization can be profoundly liberating. It also takes practice.
If you’re feeling stuck or frustrated with meditation, the most important thing is to manage your expectations. Thinking about the basics of habit formation is a really important part of this, and will help you get the most out of your meditation practice. When we’re expecting instant enlightenment, it’s way too easy to go overboard, get frustrated, and miss the point entirely. Instead, you can work with frustration and mind wandering using pragmatic practices that you stick with for around 30 days. This is the approximate time it takes to build any new habit, whether it’s getting in the habit of meditating or flossing. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about getting in the habit of meditating / engaging in mindfulness therapy:
- Do guided meditations. Eventually, your mind will learn to come back to the present moment on its own. For now, help your mind learn by using guided meditations that teach you how to practice and remind you to come back. Choose one app, but listen to different practices with different teachers to find out what you like. Some popular apps include: 10% Happier (free), Headspace, or InsightTimer (free).
- Practice meditating every day for a short period of time. Practice for 5-20 minutes. There is no need to sit for longer, seriously. Remember, the point is to teach your body you can meditate, not to experience any huge shifts.
- Pick a time to practice meditating. Put meditating in your calendar. You may not always be able to practice every day at the same time, but it helps to plan ahead. Many people like practicing first thing in the morning, after exercising, or right before bed.
- Pick a place to practice so that you can develop a habit of meditating. Similarly, you may not always be able to practice every day in the same place, but it helps to have a designated spot. Choose somewhere quiet where you feel comfortable and are not likely to be interrupted. A secluded spot outside or in your bedroom are great options.
- Don’t get fancy with posture. Being too fancy gets in the way of developing a habit of meditating I can’t tell you how many of my meditation students stop practicing because they think they have to sit cross-legged on the floor, and it hurts their knees, back or hips. In fact, the Buddha taught meditation sitting, lying down, walking, and standing! The key is to choose a position you can hold comfortably, but that you won’t fall asleep in. Sitting in a straight-backed chair, perhaps using a towel to support your low back, is a great option. If you’re sitting on the floor, make sure you stack enough cushions or blocks on top of each other so that your hips sit comfortably above your knees. Don’t choose a spot where you sleep or rest; this will make it more difficult for you to stay alert.
- Choose something to read. There’s a lot of misinformation about meditation out there these days, and it helps to have a book that cuts through the noise. Reading also helps keep you motivated and engaged with your practice. Be careful of the urge to read everything under the sun, though. The key is to learn a little bit each day. Some excellent options are: Wherever You Go There You Are, When Things Fall Apart (great if you’re going through a rough time), 10% Happier: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, or Radical Acceptance.
- Find a buddy. This will help you get in the habit of meditating. Do you know someone who already meditates or who wants to start too? Ask that person if you can text each other every day to confirm that you practiced or, better yet, practice together or Zoom or FaceTime! Being accountable to another person is a major way we can help ourselves develop any new habit, meditation included.
- Remember, you can’t mess up mindfulness therapy. Meditation is about awareness and acceptance. When your mind wanders, you’re instructed to bring it back to the present moment without beating yourself up for having wandered away in the first place. If you didn’t wander away, there would be no opportunity to practice being kind to yourself. Similarly, every time you procrastinate, quit, or forget to meditate, you have a chance to pause, notice what’s going on, and take it easy on yourself. That IS the practice! Everything is welcome.
At day 30, take stock and explore what it was like for you to have been getting in the habit of meditating using a technique developed from mindfulness therapy. Ask yourself whether you like meditating and whether it is helping you live your life in a way you feel proud of. Do you feel a little more like the sky, and less like the clouds? If so, an excellent next step is to take a class. You can find some great online options here, here, and here. If you’d like to work your meditation practice into individual therapy, click the link on this page to book an appointment with one of our therapists.