I’ve been meditating daily for over three years, half of that time with the popular app, Headspace. But recently,thrown off by jet lag following a trip to the West Coast, I unaccountably forgot to meditate one day and broke my streak.
I was upset by my lapse and tried, as any good CBT practitioner would, to challenge my all-or-nothing thinking. One day out of over a thousand is no big deal. Less than a drop in the bucket. It didn’t negate my progress.
But Headspace didn’t see it that way. It reset my stats back to Day 1. Even more aggravating, it started sending me motivational messages like: “A 3-day run streak is a great start to your practice! Next stop 5!” And, after 5 days: “Nice job. This is precisely how you build a solid meditation practice. Think you can make it 10?” At 10 days, they told me: “Your consistency is outstanding. You’re starting to build a lasting, healthy habit.” And today, 15 days into my new streak, I got: “Great work. Maybe everything changes except your commitment to meditation.”
I decided I needed to say something. Here’s an excerpt from the email I wrote to Headspace:
I had over 450 consecutive days of Headspace under my belt until a few weeks ago, when travel to the West Coast threw me off schedule and I somehow forgot to meditate one day. I was upset to have broken my “streak,” but I tried to practice what I preach to the many perfectionists I work with by forgiving myself for the brief, and ultimately insignificant, lapse.
But Headspace is making it harder for me to let go of my mistake! It reset my progress back to zero and is giving me motivational messages after three, five, ten, fifteen days of consecutive practice to tell me I’m on my way to a solid practice and a commitment to meditation. I suppose I could use those statements as a mindfulness exercise, treating them as if they were just random thoughts of my own creation, but coming from the “experts,” they are not at all helpful.
I have continued to use the app but now am having second thoughts. I’m not sure whether such a quantitative, competitive (albeit only with myself) approach is really how I want to frame my meditation practice. And I certainly will be less enthusiastic in recommending it to my perfectionistic patients.
You might want to pass this feedback onto your software engineers to see if there could be a way turning off the streak function, or sending out messages of self-compassion to those who’ve accrued a lot of hours but miss a day here and there.
I’ll let you know what they say.
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.
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.