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.
One of the most frequent questions I hear from people considering CBT is: “Can you help me get rid of my anxiety?”
I wish I could answer with an unqualified “Yes!” But I’m a psychologist, not a purveyor of snake oil, and professional ethics require me to set reasonable expectations for treatment.
Wiping out anxiety completely isn’t a realistic therapeutic goal. It’s also not in anyone’s best interest to aim for total mental control. Like it or not, anxiety—whether a hard-wired physical response to an objective threat or the product of an over-active imagination—plays an important role in everyone’s emotional repertoire. So we all need to negotiate a peaceful coexistence with it.
A few weeks ago I had the chance to test out my own advice about meeting fears head on. I was at the highest point in LA’s Runyon Canyon enjoying the vista of the city spread out beneath me and the Hollywood sign in the distance on a perfect Southern California day. I sat on a rock soaking up the warmth of the sun and giving the experience my full, mindful attention. Then I started on the descent.
That’s when the panic gripped me.
Heights have always made me nervous, and I’ve never liked hiking downhill. But this time I wasn’t just cautiously inching my way down the slope in my typical fashion. I froze completely. My heart pounded. My mouth dried up. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t figure out how to put one foot in front of the other.
The steep dirt path littered with jagged rocks made my anxious brain conjure up images of slipping and plunging forward and cracking open my head and lying in a pool of blood. Not likely. But it could happen.
Oh, wait! It had happened —just a few months earlier, on a perfectly flat walk only two blocks from my house when I tripped on an uneven patch of sidewalk and landed in the emergency room.
OK, so my fears weren’t entirely irrational (an argument I hear frequently from people with anxiety reluctant to approach triggering situations). But, still, I had to make my way down the mountain.
So I decided to recruit the mindfulness skills I’d just been practicing. I didn’t try to relax. I didn’t tell myself I had nothing to worry about (because, really, how could I possibly reassure myself given the evidence to the contrary?). I didn’t try to push away the gory images. I didn’t attempt to slide down on my butt crab-style, a technique I’ve employed in the past to navigate precipices. I didn’t try to take a calming breath or grab onto my husband’s arm for support (not a viable option anyway because he was focused on his own worries about slipping and dropping his camera).
What did I do? I gave myself permission to be scared. I decided not to care about how slowly I was going and made room for the faster hikers to pass me. I looked down at the path in front of me. I concentrated on finding a place to plant my foot and took a step. Then another. And another. Until I finally reached the bottom.
And the next day, I went back and climbed to the top again. The view was breathtaking
I’ve been extremely fortunate with my health. No major illnesses or injuries. I even walked away unscathed from a head-on collision with a drunk driver who plowed through a traffic light at the intersection where I was stopped, totaling my car.
So my accident a few days ago, which landed me in the emergency room and required extensive oral surgery, was a new experience for me.
I went out for my usual walk with my dog. Wearing headphones and listening to a podcast, I was “distracted walking.” My foot caught on a bump in the sidewalk. I fell forward, tried to brace my fall with my hands, and landed hard on my chin.
Let’s just say the damage, in the medical-speak of the ER, was “impressive,” the sort usually only seen in major automobile accidents, or among young men who’ve been in bar fights or crashed into trees while snowboarding.
My jaw is now wired shut to heal the fractures. I’ve heard from friends who are envious of the enforced opportunity to shed a few pounds on a liquid diet, or who’ve known of people who voluntary opted for jaw-wiring as part of a weight-loss plan. I am not amused.
Nevertheless, I’m trying to make the best of a bad situation. While waiting for hours in the ER, I researched expensive Vitamix blenders,which I’d been eyeing for awhile but felt were too extravagent, and treated myself to one (with a single click on amazon). I’m using up my CSA produce in kale smoothies and creamed vegetable soups. I’ve been catching up on emails and on the latest novel I’ve been trying to get through for weeks. I’m writing a long-overdue blog post.
And, to my surprise, I’m even feeling a little grateful. While I was undergoing a CT scan of my skull, a worried thought of the kind health-anxious folks are frequently plagued with popped into my head: “What if this is one of those situations you hear about, where someone goes into the hospital for one thing and finds out they have something else much more serious? What if I have a brain tumor?”
Thankfully, I don’t. I’m just facing a somewhat arduous process of recovery. But I will heal over time.
I think I’m practicing acceptance. It’s not a situation I like. I’m not a good patient. I want to be in control.
But it is what it is. So rather than wallowing, I’m trying to treat myself kindly (when I’m not berating myself for my carelessness), connect with friends over email, arrange milkshake dates for when I can be seen in public, allow my husband to run around doing errands for me, and experiment with new soup recipes.
Mindfulness practitioners tell us you can accept something without being happy about it. If there’s a secret to getting through life’s ups and downs in the best way possible, I think cultivating an attitude of acceptance (which isn’t the same as resignation) is key.
We’ll see. I’m working on it.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.