“Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel.” -Dan Harris (10% Happier)
In 2016, I meditated every day. It wasn’t easy. I planned to meditate for months before I first tried it, and it took me years to develop a daily practice.
Trapped in a cycle of busyness, I never had enough time. I didn’t understand that 5 minutes a day could transform my day and change my life. My never-ending stress and anxiety were caused by my thoughts and not by others’ actions. My need for numbing through TV and phone games were just cries from my mind for rest.
My introduction to meditation was practically forced on me after a stress-related injury to my spine. After months of mixed results from various treatments, meditation became the most beneficial therapy. The cure wasn’t from meditation itself, but from the change in my mindset developed from daily meditation.
I’m not a meditation expert, but through the years, I have established a practice that sticks. There is no simple hack. I believe that you must commit to a daily practice and push through the days when it’s the last thing you want to do. Over time, you’ll start to notice the subtle benefits.
Below are some techniques and strategies that helped:
2 Minutes of Nothing
When I started meditating, I set the timer on my phone for two minutes. I didn’t focus on breathing. I didn’t sit in a meditation posture. I sat on the couch and tried to do nothing. It was hard, and sometimes it’s still hard.
It’s difficult because most of us don’t know how to sit still for any amount of time. We are constantly in a state of doing. We turn on the TV. We open the mail. We think about our schedules. We browse Instagram or Twitter.
Get used to having a bit of space in your day, starting with just two minutes a day.
You can also try Do Nothing for 2 Minutes, a simple website with a two-minute timer that will reset if you move your cursor.
A Little is Better than Nothing: Develop Habits not Goals
Shifting my thoughts from grandiose goals to daily habits transformed my practice. Initially, I committed to long sessions, but I couldn’t make a daily practice stick. It always felt like too much time, and once I failed to meet my goals, I stopped meditating completely.
“Make haste slowly. Make your effort consistent and steady. Give yourself time to incorporate the meditation practice into your life, and let your practice grow gradually and gently.” –Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
Meditation is a lot like running. When you start, you build distance and time gradually. You may not notice the benefits right away and if you push too hard, you are more likely to give up. And if you haven’t ran in a while, it’s hard to put your running shoes on. But gradually, it becomes easier. Eventually, it feels like something is missing if you skip a run.
You wouldn’t go for 20 miles on your first run, so you shouldn’t try to meditate for an hour during your first session. Start small and grow your meditation practice slowly. Start with 2 minutes per day once a day.
I like to meditate in the mornings and evenings, and I prefer to have two sessions per day even if it’s for shorter periods of time. I have coffee and read before my morning meditation, but you may want to meditate as soon as you get out of bed. Maybe, meditation at night works better for you. Based on your schedule and routines, you’ll need to figure out the when and the how long of your meditation practice.
I recommend that you meditate daily. It’s better to have short sessions once a day than a longer one once per week.
An example meditation “training” schedule:
Week 1: 2 minutes per day
Week 2: 5 minutes per day once per day
Week 3: 5 minutes twice per day
Week 4: 7 minutes twice per day
Week 5: 10 minutes twice per day
Week 6: 15 minutes twice per day
Keep in mind that there is no set regimen for growing your meditation practice. You may need to meditate for two minutes a day for months, but when it starts to feel easy, try adding short increments of time. Start slowly, so you don’t give up. Take time to get used to sitting for long periods. Give yourself time to accept the resistance that will arise in your mind.
Turn Habits into Rewards
A system based on rewards is helpful. For example, if I meet my meditation goals for the week, I reward myself. My reward could be a massage, a nice dinner, or a movie. Your reward should be whatever best incentivizes you.
Insight Timer is a meditation app that includes a feature-rich meditation timer and many guided meditations. But it also has gamification, and this feature has been the heart of my meditation practice. I hit 365 consecutive days last month, but once I made it to 10 days, I didn’t want the days to reset.
Now, even on the days when I have a hundred excuses to skip meditation, I won’t. The incentive to not go back to Day 1 always overshadows every excuse.
They’re great for beginners but also helpful for seasoned meditators who want some guidance in their practice. On days when I feel anxious or distracted, I listen to Tara’s meditations, which range from a few minutes to over 30 minutes.
My favorites are:
Gateway to Presence (10:30)
Vipassana (Mindfulness or Insight) – (19:43)
A Listening Presence (28:58)
One Long Day Per Week – Meditation Classes and Groups
On Sundays, I like to meditate for a long time. “Long” is different for everyone. It may be 5 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, or more.
It’s helpful to find a meditation group or a friend to meditate with for these long sessions. Without the accountability, you might find it difficult to resist the desire to “finish” early.
Books on Meditation
Below are several books that taught me the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. If you don’t know where to start, read Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana.
Yoga as Meditation
I have practiced yoga off and on for almost a decade, but meditation taught me what yoga really is. Yoga is a form of moving meditation. The physical benefits are secondary to the mental ones.
Mark Whitwell reminded me of this when we met at a yoga retreat. Mark’s Promise Yoga Practice is a very simple series of movements that are synchronized with the breath. I find that focused inhales and exhales with movements make it easier to clear my mind. On my best days, I combine a short 10 minute Promise Yoga practice with 15 to 30 minutes of sitting meditation in the morning. There’s not a better way to start my day.
The practice can be as short as 5 minutes or as long as you need it to be based on the number of repetitions per asana (movement). You can transform any yoga practice by bringing it back to the breath.
For example, you are probably familiar with the cat and cow yoga poses. You should move into cow while you inhale and into cat as you exhale. You can concentrate on synchronizing your movement with your breath, initiating the exhale as you start the movement and completing the exhale as you finish it. If you attend a yoga class and the teacher doesn’t tell you when you inhale or exhale, ask.
To learn more you can buy Mark’s book, The Promise, or download his Promise Yoga app for iOS. Mark’s practiced is based on the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya and his son TKV Desikachar. To get deeper, buy The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T. K. V. Desikachar
If You Think You’re Too Busy…
Most of us walk, drive, and work out while reading, listening to music or podcasts, or talking on the phone. Try skipping the music on your next run. Don’t talk on the phone or listen to an audiobook on your next drive.
Take in the present and focus on your breath as you walk, drive, commute, etc. If you think you don’t have the time to meditate, this is the time for you.
Kinhin is the formal walking meditation practiced in zazen, but something a bit more natural might be better for your commute or for the 10 minutes of cool down at the end of your run. Learn more about Jon Kabat-Zinn’s walking meditation at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
Obviously, you shouldn’t meditate when you drive, but here are some mindfulness tips for your next drive.
Taking Moments When you Can
Often when I’ve been moving too quickly, I notice a feeling in my chest. It’s similar to the anxiety you feel in the pit of your stomach before addressing a crowd or that feeling you get before a first date.
In these moments, I find a place where I can get a few minutes to myself. Usually, it’s the bathroom. I sit on the toilet (with the lid closed), take 10 to 20 long inhales and exhales, and the feeling passes.
If all else fails, one way to develop a habit is to immerse yourself. You can force the discipline by taking everything else away.
If you have the time, consider attending a 10 day Vipassana retreat. There are centers all over the world, and it is one of the best ways to introduce yourself to a meditation practice.
For 10 days, you meditate for 8+ hours every day without access to a phone, books, writing materials, or speaking. You cut off your interaction with the outside world. And with it to can look into yourself and “open the knots tied by the old habit of reacting in an unbalanced way to pleasant and unpleasant situations.”
And best of all, the retreats are free, and run solely on donations.
Benefits Over the Long-Term, not the Short-Term
The benefits from meditation are very subtle. You may not see them from day-to-day, but over time, you’ll begin to notice the differences in yourself.
For me, the most obvious difference was that the pain from my chronic injury went away. Now, it is connected to my practice. The pain returns if I stop meditating for a few days. If you’re interested in learning more, there are many studies and articles on the benefits of mindfulness meditation for chronic pain.
A proper sitting posture is good for your back and shoulders. Notice your body the next time you’re in a tense situation. You’ll see that your back is tight and that your shoulders and neck are tense. You’ll feel the tension in the corners of your mouth and eyes. Your jaw will be rigid. If you carry your body this way for long periods of time, it will lead to chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain. Meditation helps you recognize the differences between tension and relaxation in your body. It helps you become more aware of the connection between your body and mind.
You’ll also begin to see. Before meditation, my day was filled with doing instead of seeing. Now, I notice that the movements of sandpipers resemble yoga poses. I see the way squirrels never tire of burying and unburying the same acorn in the same spot. I notice the intricate details of spiders bodies and the luxuriousness of flowers on any day in any place. I see a countless number of things that I used to ignore, and now I recognize how blind I was due to the busyness of my mind.
Most importantly, your emotional response to everything will change:
You’ll see the difference between the things that are in and out of your control.
You’ll replace reacting with responding.
You’ll be more mindful and present.
You’ll learn gratefulness.
You’ll see the beauty in almost every situation.
You’ll develop clarity in your actions and thoughts.
Your productivity will increase.
You’ll become a better problem solver.
You’ll see the difference between negative thoughts and self-deprecating ones.
You’ll sleep better.
You’ll stop numbing parts of your life, so you’ll be able to feel everything completely.
You’ll stop thinking in terms of “if only.”
You’ll stop living your life with fear and constraint.
You’ll never be “busy” again.
You’ll no longer have to cling to the good things that won’t last and live in fear of the things that could happen.
Researching the many types of meditation is overwhelming, but remember that there is no “right” way to meditate. Vipassana (insight) meditation resonated most with me, but you may find that mantra based meditation, kundalini, or zazen works best for you.
Do your two minutes of nothing. Explore different types of meditation. Try some classes, either online or in person.
Most importantly, commit to a daily meditation practice. Stick with it when you think it’s a waste of time. Continue even if you think it isn’t helping. Commit to it for at least 30 days. But focus on today, one day at a time.
“Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are aspects of your life that seem in need of improvement—when your goals are unrealized, or you are struggling to find a career, or you have relationships that need repairing. But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life—you won’t enjoy any of it.”- Sam Harris (Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion)