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.
Anxiety is highly unpleasant. It causes physical discomfort—shortness of breath, muscle tightness, dizziness, queasiness—and mental anguish. In all my years of clinical practice, seeing thousands of people with anxiety, I have never encountered anyone who has not desperately wanted to get rid of it.
Earlier in my career, I was a dedicated advocate of techniques aimed to reduce, if not entirely eliminate, anxiety. I taught progressive muscle relaxation for tension- and pain-reduction, deep breathing to manage panic attacks, and thought-challenging to address catastrophic thinking. But in recent years, these approaches are no longer regular staples of my clinical repertoire. Like many of my cognitive-behavioral colleagues, I have changed the focus of treatment from reducing anxiety to learning to accept and manage emotions, even negative ones like anxiety, while embracing uncertainty with the aim of living a richer life.
Practicing acceptance requires a major shift in attitude. For most people with anxiety, avoidance is the most common coping strategy. But avoiding anxiety-provoking situations and triggers comes with a steep cost: a flat, joyless existence.
Think about anxiety as a wave in the ocean. If you try to outrun it, you may end up crashing into the shore with skinned knees and a mouthful of sand. But if you dive into the middle of the wave, it will wash over you and lose its momentum as it reaches the beach.
Why is it worth it for you to dive into the wave? If you can answer this question − hint: consider what values are important to you − you will finally be able to stop avoiding discomfort and start living a more fulfilling life, anxiety and all.
People have strong opinions about New Year’s resolutions, as I’ve been learning over the past week. In the one camp are the Resolution Deniers, who say that resolutions are stupid, pointless, and scientifically proven to fail. In the other are the diehard Resolution Proponents, who embrace the idea of wiping the slate clean and use the start of another year as a motivation to change their undisciplined ways.
Most Resolution Proponents choose two or three popular areas for improvement: diet, exercise, organization and time management. My own vaguely considered goals for the year—all of which I’ve already failed to meet—include:
But my modest attempts at self-betterment pale alongside those of a couple I met at a New Year’s Eve party last week. Together they had made 310 resolutions for 2019. How is it even possible to find so many personal habits in need of improvement?
They started off the year—and it wasn’t even midnight yet—quarrelling about how to fulfill one of the items on their list (which they had written down lest they forget any). The host, a potter, invited her guests to choose an item from her studio to take home with them so she could start making progress on one of her own resolutions for the year: to declutter. But despite the generous offer, the super-resolution couple couldn’t decide if they should take her up on it because it conflicted with their own decluttering goal. They finally reached an agreement: they would accept a vase but wouldn’t allow themselves to bring it into their house until they first got rid of something else.
I wholeheartedly endorse efforts to change. Modifying behavior is, after all, my stock in trade. But in the therapy I do, I also stress the importance of acceptance. Accepting yourself at any given point in time—new year or not—means acknowledging the reality of what is and using that as the starting point.
So if you haven’t exercised in the last six months, say, deciding to go to the gym for an hour a day would be a recipe for failure. When reality collides with unrealistic expectations, people who don’t allow for acceptance often just give up instead of modifying their goals to make them more realistic.
So go ahead and make those resolutions. Just try to work on them imperfectly. You know you’ll mess up. But you can start again, January 1st or not. If you practice acceptance, you’ll be giving yourself a better chance at achieving those three—or 310—resolutions you made for 2019.
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.