Eating your vegetables, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, drinking in moderation…all habits we know are good for our health but aren’t always easy to cultivate.
Meditation is another good-for-you practice whose benefits have been touted by neuroscientists and spiritual practitioners alike. But it’s hard to do and even harder to incorporate into a busy life.
Here are some suggestions for making meditation a habit.
1. Start slow.
Many of the mindfulness-based therapy protocols, such as MBSR, call for 45 minutes of daily practice. Transcendental Meditation (TM) requires its adherents to commit to 20 minutes twice a day. Those daunting time demands discourage many people from even getting started.
The good news is that practicing mindfulness meditation for as little as 8 hours can be beneficial, as Dr. Amishi Jha of the University of Miami found in a series of studies with a group of very time-crunched subjects: active-duty military personnel.
I recommend beginning with 5 minutes a day of a formal meditation exercise. If you can manage twice a day, better yet. Add in some informal mindfulness practice each day—such as brushing your teeth, showering, or washing the dishes with your full, focused attention—and you’ll be off to a good start.
2. Be consistent.
Try to practice every day. Knowing you only have to put in five minutes makes it more manageable. You don’t have to meditate at the same time every day but, as with any other habit, you might find it easier to remember to do if it’s part of your daily routine.
3. Let go of expectations.
Mindfulness means observing without judging. Forget about trying to “empty your mind” or achieve a state of calm. Many people give up on meditating because they find it hard not to think. In fact, “not thinking” is an impossible state of mind to achieve. With practice, however, you can learn not to let your thoughts intrude—to have them playing in the background like a TV with the volume turned low and not get caught up in the show.
Because the benefits of meditation—such as increased focus and decreased emotional reactivity—aren’t immediately apparent and take time to build, it’s especially hard to stick with it. But the research provides ample incentive to give it a try. And if you follow my advice, it may, with time, become an important part of your day.
Learning to disentangle ourselves from distressing thoughts and observe our internal reactions before responding are skills worth cultivating. They can help us cope better with a wide variety of emotions—anxiety, depression, and anger, to name a few—without resorting to avoidance, withdrawal, distraction, or lashing out to deal with them.
Mindfulness, defined by Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) founder Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment,” is a way to change the way we respond to our thoughts. A growing body of evidence from brain-imaging studies suggests that regular meditation practice—one important means of cultivating mindfulness—actually alters the brain structures involved in attention, concentration, and willpower, as well as the areas central to emotional reactions.
These findings have been compelling enough to convince me to develop a personal meditation practice (I’ve described my own experience with MBSR in previous posts) and also to add meditation to my cognitive-behavioral therapy repertoire.
It’s been a hard sell, and I understand why. I was a mindfulness skeptic myself. I’m not a fan of approaches smacking of New Age pop psychology, and the currently voguish “mindful revolution“, which has spawned to date 462 iPhone apps along with the titular Time cover story, carries with it that woo-woo whiff. But, as I said, the science backing it has sold me.
Not so for many of the people I think might benefit from practicing meditation. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Meditation doesn’t work for me.” I’m always curious to understand what that means. If meditation were “working,” what would be happening?
The most common answers I get to my question are: “I can’t empty my mind,” or, “I’m always thinking,” or “I just can’t relax.”
I suspect the impossible goal of mind-emptying comes from all the yoga teachers who end their classes with Shavasana, inviting practitioners to let go of their thoughts and relax. While relaxation is indeed a major benefit of yoga, it’s not the goal of mindfulness meditation (although it sometimes can be a pleasant by-product). Perhaps, fittingly, Shavasana is also known as “corpse pose,” reminding us that as long as we’re living, breathing, sentient beings, our minds will always be busy thinking.
So if achieving a relaxed feeling and a blank mind aren’t the point of mindfulness meditation, why do it?
The major benefit of practicing mindfulness for emotional health is to learn to let experiences unfold without filtering them through the layers of thoughts, comparisons, judgments, interpretations, and memories often taking us away from the present and into a morass of negative mental activity. It’s not about stopping thoughts but about redirecting them, taking a more objective perspective, and focusing on what’s important in any given moment.
In short, meditation is weight-training for the brain. It strengthens the mental muscles for attention and concentration. And, as with lifting weights, results don’t happen overnight. You can’t expect to become a power lifter after one or two sessions in the gym. Yet many would-be meditators get discouraged and give up when they don’t see immediate changes.
And what if your mind keeps going a mile-a-minute and it wanders and you get lost in thought and your attention can’t stay on your breath (the most common focal point used in mindfulness meditation) for more than a second at a time before you start thinking again about that conversation you had with your boss or what you’re going to make for dinner tonight or how you’ll find the time to finish the project that’s due tomorrow or where you’re going to get the money for your daughter’s orthodontia or whether that weird mole on your arm is cancer or what a loser you are because you can’t even concentrate on your breath and meditate right?
Then I’d say you’ll get lots of practice refocusing, again and again and again, which will help build those mental muscles.
And I’d also say,”Congratulations!” Because you’re alive.
When I signed up for an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, I thought it would help me “deepen” my commitment to mindfulness meditation. Now, going into the final stretch of the program, I’m wondering what, exactly, I was thinking.
I’ve had plenty of time on the cushion to contemplate the purpose of my intensive foray into the world of mindfulness—or, in the parlance of the meditation community, my “intention.” I think I was hoping to develop some serious meditation chops, to transform myself from a meditation amateur into a meditation professional.
Now I’m realizing the daily practice I’d fashioned for myself was deep enough just the way it was. Which, I guess, is the very essence of mindfulness: recognizing things for what they are, accepting them, and not trying to make them different.
For this achievement oriented striver, the concept of “good enough” has required a major mental attitude adjustment. You mean I don’t have to be an expert? And what would that even look like for a meditator? Going on a weeklong retreat? Becoming a Buddhist monk? No, I just have to keep plugging away to reap the subtle benefits—improved focus, better tolerance for frustration, more patience—I get from practicing meditation on a regular basis.
This observation came to me after the all-day retreat last week. (With hours devoted just to sitting and observing thoughts as they floated by like clouds in the sky, I’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t come away with at least one insight.)
I’d anticipated the day with a great deal of trepidation, as did many of the participants. Would I be able to stand being silent for 7 hours? Sit for long stretches without needing to get up and move? Endure just “being” without doing anything? Heck, I even wondered what to pack for lunch and how I’d slip away discretely if I needed a bathroom break.
But, as with many unfamiliar situations, the experience turned out to be far less taxing than I’d feared. We moved smoothly from one meditation to another—sitting, yoga, walking—so there was plenty of variety to break up the time. We could leave whenever we wanted and even had permission to take our lunches outside (which turned out to be an unexpected delight given the beautiful weather and fortuitous park bench I happened upon). The only rule was “No talking.”
Three hours passed surprisingly quickly. I enjoyed having nowhere to go and no chores to do. But when we returned from our lunch break, the afternoon started to drag. I felt drowsy. The last instruction of the day was to do any meditation of our choosing for a half hour. I welcomed the opportunity to stretch out on a yoga mat and close my eyes. And then I promptly fell asleep.
Even though improved sleep may be one positive outcome of meditation, sleeping isn’t meditating. But given the intensity of the day’s activities—yes, just being can be exhausting—and the focus on self-acceptance, I cut myself slack for missing out on the last part of the session.
So what did I learn? I realized more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to meditation, or many other pursuits, for that matter. Sometimes you reach a point of diminishing returns.
I plan to continue meditating. But I probably won’t be putting in 45 minutes a day, and I certainly won’t be going on a 7-day silent retreat any time soon.
I’ve discovered the importance of evaluating—mindfully, of course—what you need in any given moment. It might be meditation. Or it might, in fact, be a nap.
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