When I finished meditating today, the 10% Happier app I use for my practice rewarded me with a burst of confetti signaling the completion of 365 straight days of meditation. One year without missing a day! (To be clear, I have many more years than one of meditation under my belt but there have been occasional missed days to break the streak.) I am proud of the accomplishment and think it has earned me the right to share some tips for how to stick with a formal meditation practice.
The terms meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably but they are not the same. Mindfulness, to use the definition popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is being present, without judgment. Meditation is a way to cultivate the state of mindfulness. You can practice mindfulness without meditating but you cannot meditate without being mindful.
1.Aim for consistency rather than duration.
Beginning meditators often feel it “doesn’t count” if they sit for less than 10 or 15 minutes. Some protocols, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, call for 45 minutes of daily practice, an unrealistic and discouraging time commitment for most. However, data from a 2019 research study suggest that emotional regulation improved in new meditators when compared with a control group of podcast-listeners after only 8 weeks of brief (13 minutes), daily guided meditation.
As with any new behavior, cultivating the habit is the hardest part. Once you have established a routine by practicing daily, even if only for a minute or two, you can work on increasing the time.
2. Make it a habit.
You don’t have to meditate at the same time every day, and it may not always be practical to maintain a rigid schedule. But as with exercise, having a routine can be a helpful way to remember to practice. Set an alarm, or link the activity with a daily occurrence, such as waking up in the morning, beginning or ending the workday, or getting ready for bed.
3. Let go of expectations.
The point of mindfulness meditation is to work on being present, not trying to achieve a goal. There is no such thing as a “good” meditation session. If your mind is wandering constantly, you have more opportunities to practice bringing it back. If you feel restless or bored, you can observe the sensations of restlessness or boredom in your body. Relaxation and calm can be the by-products of meditation but they are not the main purpose.
The benefits of mindfulness practices are subtle but empirically well established. They can help develop psychological flexibility, relieve depression and anxiety, allow you to recognize negative thoughts as transitory mental events, improve focus, and cultivate compassion.
If you approach it with curiosity and let go of preconceived notions, meditation just might become an interesting and rewarding part of your daily routine.
Imagine walking in the forest, lost in contemplation, when suddenly you feel a searing pain in your calf. Looking down, you see blood pouring from a wound and an arrow sticking out of your leg. Far ahead, behind a tree, you catch sight of an archer, bow and arrow poised to shoot a deer in the clearing. How do you react?
You are in pain, of course. An arrow piercing your flesh is no trivial matter. But what you do next will determine how you cope with the wound. If you clean it, bind it to stanch the bleeding, and hobble home to tend to it, you still will feel the pain. But if you start berating yourself for not seeing the archer, or getting upset with yourself for having gone for a hike instead of staying home to tend to neglected chores, you will be shooting yourself with a second arrow.
The Buddhist parable of the second arrow is metaphor for how we turn pain into suffering. We often add insult to injury by blaming others or ourselves for the consequences of an action, feeling guilty or dwelling on regret for choices we have made. The suffering the second arrow causes magnifies the pain one hundred-fold.
Recently I’ve had the opportunity to practice not shooting myself with the second arrow after I fractured my ankle when my dog pulled me over onto the ice. In the first two days after the accident, the second arrow really wounded me. I beat myself up for choosing to walk the dogs that afternoon instead of opting for a trip to the grocery store. I told myself I was a failure as a dog trainer (ironically halfway through an online course, 21 Days to Stress Free Walks.) I lamented having to delay a trip I’d been eagerly anticipating. But three weeks into my recovery, I am coping with the inconvenience and, yes, the physical pain, better.
What has changed? I still have a broken ankle. I can’t walk my dogs or ride my exercise bike. Going to the grocery store and even just taking a shower require major efforts and logistical maneuvers. I have no idea how long I will have to wear a walking boot or when I will be able to return to my normal activities.
But I am practicing an attitude of acceptance.I recognize I have no control over the situation and very little ability to influence the outcome, aside from following the doctor’s orders. Do I like it? No, but I am seeing it for what it is without adding to the discomfort and inconvenience by shooting myself with the second arrow.
A little gratitude and perspective also help. I am thankful my fracture, on scale of 1-10 was only, as my orthopedist put it, a 2. A neighbor told me of her leg injury, much more severe than mine, requiring surgery. I also learned of someone else whose dog pulled her down, causing four broken ribs and a broken arm.
Removing the second arrow has allowed me to attend to the slow process of recovery without the weight of added emotional baggage. I almost feel lucky.
In the last week, everyone I’ve seen virtually for therapy has voiced increasingly familiar complaints. They are bored; they cannot get motivated to work or study; they have no appetite or have put on pounds from mindless snacking; they cannot practice healthy sleep habits even though they know too much screen time before bed and staying up past midnight will make it harder to function at peak efficiency the next day.
A lack of interest and motivation, along with appetite and sleep changes, can signal depression. And, certainly, we all are experiencing what feels like a collective state of depression after nearly a year of living with the drastic changes raised by a global pandemic, a situation that appears endless to many of us.
So, if your mood is low and you are having trouble concentrating, take heart. You are not alone.
As we know from a large body of research on mindful self-compassion, acknowledging the struggle, rather than beating yourself up for going through a hard time, can help, especially when you can connect with a common humanity (“Life is different for all of us right now.”) Treat yourself with the same kindness you would offer a close friend or family member to ease the unpleasant feelings.
Other coping strategies include seeking out social interactions, even if they might be less satisfying through a virtual platform, and breaking out of the daily routine by creating some novelty. Try learning a language, experimenting with new recipes, or practicing a different exercise routine. If you have trouble pushing yourself to do anything right now, keep in mind a lesson psychologists have learned from behavioral activation for depression: just doing something – anything, in fact –can pull you out of the doldrums, even if nothing sparks your immediate interest.
That said, although your current feelings of ennui may be nearly universal, they still could signal the onset of depression. If you have had a history of depression, you may be more vulnerable than someone with no previous episodes. Be on the alert for warning signs: constant rumination, feelings of hopelessness, extreme changes in sleep and appetite, and persistent thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Please seek help if those symptoms persist or worsen.
If you are just weary from the daily dreariness and not clinically depressed, you might try observing your emotions through the lens of mindfulness. A common approach in meditation is to view your thoughts and feelings as transient, like clouds in the sky or a stormy weather pattern: they change from moment to moment.
I had the opportunity to practice observing my response to an actual meteorological event recently when I woke to a heavy snowfall. My first reaction was irritation at the inconvenience of it. “I won’t be able to walk the dogs without worrying about being pulled over on the ice.” “We’ll have to dig out the cars.” “It’s so annoying.”
But instead of continuing to wish it were different and getting upset about a situation I had no power to change, I decided instead to work on accepting the state of affairs. While I drank my coffee, I gazed out the window at the wooded path behind my house and noticed how peaceful it looked. I bundled up, took the dogs for a walk, and let them enjoy sniffing and digging in the soft mounds of snow. I laughed out loud watching Roland drag a shovel down the stairs and across the yard like a prized game specimen. I stopped my internal grumbling, and my mood lifted.
And, then, much to my surprise, the sun came out, it warmed up, and the snow melted. Of course, the puddles will freeze tonight when the temperature drops. And tomorrow, we will begin, again.
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.