Hands down one of the biggest challenges when starting a meditation practice is sticking to it. As with any new behavior, the first 6 – 8 weeks can be touch and go. Meditation is no exception.
Everyone starts with good intentions of meditating daily. Squeezing 5 – 10 minutes into your day seems totally doable until you’re caught up in the whirlwind of the day. In addition, it requires a lot of dedicated and deliberate practice before you get to a place where you really start to experience the fruits of your practice.
Often, I feel popular media over sells the benefits without adequately preparing people for all the work that will need to happen to get those results. So here’s the real deal. Yes, even 5 – 10 minutes of meditation can do wonders. However, it’s going to take weeks of up-front dedication and deliberate practice before you start to experience those amazing benefits.
In fact, in the beginning it’s not uncommon to feel like nothing at all is happening in those initial weeks and sometimes even months. Some people will experience a total earth bending shift in perception early, but that is the exception and not the rule. It’s much more common for it to feel like your mind is a kindergarten classroom where the teacher stepped out and never returned.
The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.
I’m not saying this to scare people, but rather that all the frustration and chaos in the beginning is 100% normal. And more than that, it’s also the more common experience. No one is going to become the Dalai Lama overnight. The people who exude equanimity and peace got there through decades of daily and deliberate practice. They aren’t special and anyone of them would definitely stand up and say they struggled in the beginning.
Ram Dass, who was hugely influential in bringing eastern ideology around meditation and yoga to the west in the 60’s and 70’s, often openly talks about how he would be in a meditation session at the ashram in India and be falling asleep or playing re-runs of tv shows in head. He is very open about how far from perfect his practice was in the beginning, but he kept at it and over time it wasn’t so hard any more. He didn’t have to push himself to sit on the cushion, instead it starting calling to him.
Through regular practice, you’ll find one day you stop needing to do it and instead start wanting to do it. You don’t feel pushed but rather drawn toward it. The benefits are subtle but powerful and you know you just feel better. In fact, the longer you do it the more obvious it becomes how crappy you feel when you miss even one day.
So how do you stick with it, especially when you’re not seeing immediate benefits, and get to that place of being called to the cushion? Neuroscience on behavior change can give some insights into things to try to get a practice started and stick to it:
1. Recognize there will be bad days
I start with this because it really is the biggest hurdle. This initial phase is known as conscious incompetence – in layman’s terms it means you suck right now and you know it. This is not a fun place to be at all however, it is totally manageable and doesn’t have to hold you back. Just be realistic about the fact that you’re going to fall off the wagon many times, and it’s not a matter of if but when. Know it, expect it and plan for it. What’s important isn’t that you fall off, but in how quickly you recover and get back on the proverbial horse. Have a plan for how you can recover from the rough days so they don’t derail you. Try writing a contract to yourself – draw it up and even sign it. This sounds weird but you’ll be amazed at how well it can work.
Giving up on a goal because of one set back is like slashing your other three tires because you got a flat.
2. Have patience with yourself & recognize and honour where you are
Having patience and loving yourself where ever you are at is definitely a close second, if not tied, for the other major hurdle. There’s a tendency in the beginning to be very judgmental of your practice and wonder if you’re ‘doing it right’, and to become easily frustrated when it seems that it’s ‘not working’. If you were starting a new routine at the gym, you wouldn’t expect to walk in and start bench pressing 110lbs or run uphill flat out on the treadmill for 45 mins. Science tells us one of the best ways to deal with this is by normalizing your experience. Or in other words, coming to realize where you are might not be fun but it’s totally fine and to be expected. Talking to others about their experience is one way to get this perspective. If you don’t have that, just think about someone who is wise and the advice they might give you in that situation. Looking at the situation from the perspective of another person can be very helpful in getting you outside the moment, and seeing that it probably isn’t as bad as it looks up close.
The secret to change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old but on building the new.
3. Attach it to other routines
Starting a new habit requires building new neural networks in our brain. Creating new neural pathways is actually very easy, but getting them to stick is what is tricky. Like making a path in the woods/jungle, you need to keep treading it or it will just grow back in. Consistency is key in establish that new path. Before it comes as second nature to you though, it takes a lot of thought and remembering to actually do it every day. The easiest way to remember is by attaching it to another well established behavior. Start on a path you already know then branch off into the new one. You can do this by attaching your meditation to other daily habits like brushing your teeth, making your morning coffee, etc. For example, maybe you get the coffee brewing and use that few minutes while it’s brewing to do your meditation. Not only do you attach it to a habit, but then you can reward yourself with a hot steaming mug once you’ve completed your meditation. David Ji, an internationally recognied meditation teacher, often encourages people to meditate first thing in the morning with his phrase RPM – rise, pee, meditate.
4. Get others to hold you accountable
It can be scary to share with others you’re about to start something and that you need them to witness and call you out on failing at it, but it’s so necessary though to have a coach in your corner. Some one who will patch you up, talk you up and send you right back out into the fray. The people who do this for you are true friends and you need to pick your coaches carefully. Just one or two people who you know you can count on to tell you to suck it up in a very supportive and caring way. The benefit to this is really two-fold, it helps to keep you on track and support you during the tough days, and for those with vulnerability issues it can be amazingly empowering to be vulnerable with someone. It can even strengthen the bond you have with that person.
5. Set up small steps and rewards
You might have heard the old saying, ‘How you eat an elephant? One bite at a time?’. This isn’t encouraging anyone to start a pachyderm diet, but rather to point out that in order to tackle something that seems insurmountable you have to break it down into it’s smallest elements. Chipping away at it on baby step at a time, you’ll eventually make progress. In fact, that’s about the only way you can because otherwise you’d overload and burn yourself out. Then you’d just quit altogether. Try starting very small with the amount of time and maybe it’s just every other day or only on the weekdays when your routine is stable. Whatever that first commitment looks like, make it very achievable. Then each week ramp it up a little bit more. Having this plan as part of your contract will help to make sure you actually stick to it. Put it into your calendar or day planner and share it with your ‘coach’, so there’s some real commitment. Then have a small reward for yourself each week with a larger reward at major milestones. Rewards keep you coming back over time. They key is to change up the rewards over time, until eventually doing the meditation becomes it’s own reward
6. Keep your practice simple and make sure it speaks to you
There are many different ways to practice meditation. It is very important in the beginning to find something that speaks to you, so you want to do it, and that it is simple. Having an overly complicated or difficult practice is just adding hurdles that will make the start more difficult. Choosing something simple and doable but challenging enough to keep you interested is the sweet spot your after. You may have to play with it a bit in the beginning, and don’t be afraid to change it up if what you’re doing just isn’t working for you. Whatever you land on, I’d suggesting sticking with it until you feel you’ve established a consistent practice. Then feel free to change things up again. As your practice develops over time, you’ll find things that may not have appealed to you early on do now and vice versa. Your practice should be flexible enough to keep up with your own personal growth and the maturing of your practice.
7. Make it a ritual
This might sound a little kooky in the beginning, but trying treating your practice with reverence. Keep the space tidy, free from clutter, and have some special things in the space that help you to connect inward. Human beings have been using rituals as far back as we can remember, and with good reason. They help to bring a certain level of sacredness to what we are doing. When we treat something as sacred, we approach it in a very different way. We aren’t likely to take lightly something we consider to be sacred to us. I’ve also found the days I think I can least fit it in are the days I usually need it the most.
If you don’t have time to meditate for an hour every day, you should meditate for two hours.
I hope these tips help you develop a daily practice that sticks. If you have other suggestions or ideas that worked for you, feel free to share in the comments. The more ideas the better. You never know what might work for you. And just keep at it. All things get easier with time.
Simple Breathing Meditation
Come to a comfortable seated or lying down position. Take a deep full breaths to wash away the day and blow out the cobwebs that may have built up in your mind. Know there is no place you need to be right now but right here.
Start by turning your attention to the space around you. Just begin to notice it. Feel the space around you and underneath you. How does it feel? What are the smells? What are the sensations? What are the sounds? Recognize this is the backdrop of your meditation.
Now begin to turn your attention inward begin to notice your breathing. Where is coming from? Where do you feel the sensation of it in your body? Is it long and deep or shallow? If it’s shallow can you lengthen it? As you breath, do you notice that space in between the in-breath and out-breath. Can you lengthen that space?
While you are breathing slowly, direct your awareness to different stages of the breath. Focus all of your attention on each stage. First, notice the breath as it enters your nose. Notice each time you breathe in, the way the breath feels on your nostrils. Feel the breath as it passes through your nasal passages, and down behind your throat.
Where does the air go next? Feel each time you inhale, the breath passing down your windpipe. Feel the breath going down. Notice where the air enters your lungs. Allow your breathing awareness to deepen the feeling of relaxation you are experiencing. Feel the air expand your lungs with each in breath until it reaches capacity.
Now notice the exhalation phase of breathing. Observe as the air leaves your lungs and begins to travel upward. Focus your attention on that moment of each breath. Now turn your attention to the breath traveling up and out, through your mouth. Feel the breath in your throat, your mouth, and across your lips.
Notice the whole breathe. See how the breaths flow like waves. Fist in…. and then a pause…. and out…. and then a pause…. Notice the pauses, these rests between breaths.
Now as you relax… you can count your breaths as they continue to flow gently.
Breathe in…2….3….4….. hold…2…3….exhale…2….3….4….5…
Breathe in…2….3….4….. hold…2…3….exhale…2….3….4….5…
Breathe in…2….3….4….. hold…2…3….exhale…2….3….4….5…
Continue to breathe at this slow pace in silence for a few moments. You may hear things happening around you. Know that it is far away right now. All that exists in this space right now is your breath.
If you notice your mind has drifting off and thoughts crowding back in that’s ok. Do not stop the thoughts. Just witness them, let them drift by and return to your breathe. If it’s helpful, you can say ‘thinking’ to yourself.
After a few rounds of breathing or when you feel ready, start to notice your body again. How is your body feeling now? Are there still places of tension? Start to wiggle your toes or shuffle your legs? Then slowly and gently bring your attention back to the space around you.