Forming an every day mediation habit is hard, frustrating, and utterly desirable.
As I would fade in and out of every day practice during college, I realized the benefits and difficulties – all in the span of an hour. In my first attempt at a consistent habit, I’d wake up at 4:30 a.m. in the bitter cold of Chicago’s winter, travel to my martial arts dojo, and sit for an hour from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. My ass was pressed into my calves and popliteals, my knees into a pillow, and my eyes started at a minor flaw in the middle distance of a wooden floor. Suffice it to say, this method did not lead me to an every day meditation habit.
Even still, I saw the benefits of meditation during this mirage of meditation. My concentration during class improved, my anxiety fell away, I enjoyed my days more than usual, and I felt downright pleasant in a way that felt abnormal and nice. Even so, the long, early morning sessions tired me out and I couldn’t find the will to keep up at home.
Years later, I rediscovered meditation. I found the way I best enjoyed the silence was to sit for short periods. I started by timing my sessions at eight minutes and slowly increased the time, plateauing at 15 minutes per session for a long while. Eventually, I was very comfortable and couldn’t do without a session every day.
Now, I’m at 113 consecutive days. My longest streak over the past four years has been 726 days. I’ve missed one day between these streaks. The frustration I felt at the streak ending was controlled and accepted with a few short breaths.
According to published in the Frontiers of Neuroscience (which you can read by clicking this hyperlink), 10 minutes of meditation practice per day over a 16-week period significantly changed brain processes related to the processing of conflicting stimulus material. Meditation also improved neural functioning “indicative of enhanced focused attentional processing.”
“Based on such generalizations we may speculate that meditation practice addresses very fundamental processes of selective and executive attention that may exhibit its beneficial effects in a variety of domains and situations,” the study says. To translate academese to English, meditation will improve your attention span, something I’ve certainly found to be true.
So how can you mediate every day? Here are 10 tips I’ve found helpful over the last few years.
- Start Slowly and Minimally
The beginner meditator is tempted by the gaudiness of big numbers, like an NBA rookie taking every shot he sees. You have a new hobby and you want to get good at it, so you go – quite literally – from 0 to 60 within your first few sessions. This is the mistake I made as a beginner.
Think about it like this: If you were trying to start working out, would it serve you better to commit to heavy weights five days a week or lighter weights a few times a week? If you were trying to write every day, do you think you could make yourself write for hours on end, or is it best to start with 10 minute free-writing sessions and see where it takes you?
Start meditation slowly, even if it’s just a minute of meditation. Focus on your breath, sounds, or a physical sensation. Bring your thoughts back to the focus if it wanders off into thought. Experiment with what works and what does not, increasing time as you become more comfortable. Instead of dreading an hour-long session, you can take pleasure in eight minutes of silence.
- Don’t Beat Yourself Up When Focus is Lost or When Distraction Creeps
You’re going to lose focus. There, I said it.
The 2017 human brain is used to looking at computer screens, phones, digital pictures, social media sites, words on ads, and good old-fashioned TV. When you start trying to let all of these images via a meditative focus, they are not going to leave right away.
That’s OK. Accept that they’ll come back every so often. See the thoughts and images for what they are: thoughts and images. Move back to the focus. It will be much easier if you accept this will happen instead of straining to forget thoughts. After all, when you think of how much you wish you weren’t thinking, that is thinking. Novel stuff, I know, but sometimes we all need asinine reminders.
- Use a Meditation App to Keep Track of Stats, Time Yourself
A meditation app – I, personally, use Insight Timer – was and is the backbone of forming my every day meditation habit.
The ability to have an easily accessible meditation bell and timer that I didn’t associate with an alarm clock noise or noxious beeping was very helpful, as was the ability to see a counter of days and rundown of my personal meditation stats.
If you want to stay phone-free for meditation, I’d advise keeping track of your every day habit via a pad of paper. Keep track of minutes, dates, and number of sessions to see your progress over time.
- Use a Productivity App for Reminders
As something of a two-factor assurance that I meditate every day, I also use my productivity list to remind me to meditate daily (my personal favorite app is Any.Do). Something about checking “Meditation” off my list when I’m finished is satisfying, which leads me right into No. 5.
- Use the “Power of Habit”
Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” was an essential book for forming better habits, meditation and beyond.
Duhigg delves into how MIT researchers in the 1990s discovered that humans’ basal ganglia, which lies in the middle of our brains, helps us form habits. New habits can be written onto the basal ganglia and they can also override older habits. This, in effect, helps the “thinking” parts of our brain save energy for thinking tasks.
How do you form a habit, perhaps using meditation to rewrite an old one? I suggest reading the book in full, but here’s a picture of Duhigg’s “Habit loop.”
Whenever you get a craving for an old habit, that’s your cue to use the new habit to replace it. Afterward, you reward yourself, even if it’s just the feeling to know you’re on the route toward forming a new habit or replacing an old one. This can be used to form a new habit as well, but you’ll have to find some consistency to create the cue for meditation (time cue, app reminder, list reminder, or whatever other cue you can think of).
Meditation is especially handy for replacing an old habit, such as smoking, as it can be done in small chunks. All you really need is 30 seconds of focused breathing to feel the effects of meditation. Use the urge to smoke to focus your breathing for 30 seconds, covering your breath with your attention, and see if you it doesn’t help lessen the blow of withdrawal.
- Find Consistency, Be Malleable
While it’s good to have a same-time-every-day meditation habit – my preferred time is the morning when the phone isn’t buzzing and most people aren’t awake to know I’m busy in my own world – stay flexible. Don’t be afraid to meditate in noisy places, simply allowing background nose to exist without trying to draw meaning from the noises. Meditate at night or in the afternoon at work to calm down. Meditate on the train. Meditate when anxiety bubbles up. Meditate when you’re calm.
This kind of malleability helps me see where and when meditation can be helpful. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised to find that you can meditate somewhere it didn’t seem quite possible. This has helped me enjoy big crowds a bit more during music festivals, allowing me to breathe through the anxiety that bubbles up when the number of surrounding bodies feels endless.
- Don’t Beat Yourself Up When You Miss a Day or Don’t Feel Like Meditating
If you’re looking to start a meditation habit, you’re likely trying to find some calm, lessen anxiety, or gain patience, right?
So don’t beat yourself up over a missed day or unwillingness to meditate. It’ll be OK. After all, meditation is a fun habit, not something you’re being forced to do.
I have fallen into this trap a few times. Not wanting to meditate because 15 minutes of mindless activity on Facebook or YouTube is easier made me feel somewhat ashamed. That daylong gap between my stretches of meditation made me sad, wishing I hadn’t dropped the ball on my way toward 1,000 days. But mistakes happen and sometimes they can show us more about ourselves than successes.
Instead of beating yourself up over a perceived error, take a few meditative breaths. Allow life to go on. Control only what you can control and learn from everything else. You can always start again tomorrow.
- Find Friends Who Meditate
Knowing other people you can talk to about your experience is a great way to stay consistent in any new habit or hobby. We’re social animals, after all. Plus friends keep you honest, you’re able to share thoughts and strategies with them, and you’re able to hear about any tips, tricks, or frustrations they may have that could help you.
It may also be useful to look at online groups via social media sites like Facebook or Reddit, browse other meditation message boards, or find local meditation groups you can join or sit in on.
A personal note from me: Don’t try to push your friends into meditating with you if they don’t want to. It’s annoying to be dragged into something you have no interest in. If you see their face glaze over when you try and convince them to meditate, know that it may not be their time yet.
- Try Guided Meditation
Sitting alone in silence isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially not when first starting a daily habit.
Guided meditation is a great way to stay focused, especially if you find someone like Tara Brach, Alan Watts, or Sam Harris who can guide without distracting you. Earlier this list, I compiled three short meditations by those very people. Give it a look here.
However, be warned: A bad guided meditation leader (or perhaps some poor soul with a bad voice) will likely distract you. It sure distracts me. Choose your guided meditation session wisely and stick with what you like.
- Write About the Thoughts and Feelings that Come Up
Once you start seeing your thoughts as they rise up during meditation, you might be alarmed by some of the images, words, or voices you hear. This is normal, especially if you’ve been drowning them out with noise – visual, audial, or otherwise – for years.
Keep a notepad near by while you meditate. It’s helpful to write some things down as soon as you’re finished (or even during, if it’s really something you don’t want to lose hold of). Writing draws out some surprising things about how you think or feel. It may also bring you some good ideas.
Conversely, if some really nasty stuff pops up, please go see a mental health counselor. I know there’s a heavy stigma around getting help with mental health issues, but there’s no point in having to go at a difficult issue alone. Talking about something that comes up – whether it’s simply a thought, idea, or some distant memory you have stored away – can be a great way to get some perspective on it and accept your thoughts and memories as part of you.