Meditation has been all the rage for years now. The Headspace app has over 31 million users, Meditation dens are opening everywhere and it seems like every day there’s a story in The New York Times, Time or on Good Morning America extolling the myriad benefits of this awesome, ancient practice. Yet with all this hype, the fact is that only a tiny percentage of people actually meditate regularly. And the science shows that the profound benefits of meditation only come with consistent practice. So why is it that with all these amazing benefits hardly anyone sticks with it? I think I have the answer.
I’ve been meditating for fifteen minutes a day for almost seven years and the reason it stuck for me is that before I got started I asked myself the obvious question: How in the hell am I going to keep this ball rolling once I get started? After giving it a lot of thought I came up with THREE extremely simple but crucial things I knew I needed to do if my practice was going to endure over the long haul.
By the way, I’m writing this because meditation has done wonders for me and can do so for most everybody else who does it. The problem is that the books, the sites and the experts all say essentially the same thing: “Hey, meditation is great! Try it. You’ll love it!” Well, for most regular people, “Just try it, you’ll love it,” won’t cut it. People need more direction and help getting started and making meditation a lasting practice. So, without further adieu, here are the three things you’ll need to do to increase your chances of making meditation stick…
1. Make a Commitment
I know. Commitment is a scary word for most of us. Trust me, I am the Grand Poobah of commitment-phobes. If I had a dollar for every woman who told me I had a commitment problem when I was in my 20s and 30s I’d be a rich man. I didn’t get married until I was forty-one!
But here’s the deal. You don’t need to commit to meditating for two hours a day for the rest of your life. You just need to bite off something doable. I recommend committing to two months of meditating for five out of seven days a week. Don’t go crazy and start by committing to doing it every single day for fifteen minutes. That would be like starting a diet by giving up sweets, pasta, dairy and alcohol and eating only celery and lettuce for a month. Two days in and you’d be pounding Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough by the pint!
I came up with a program for myself seven years ago that is simple, doable and designed so that a regular person, like me, would be successful in developing a long-term practice. Called Five Steps to a Regular Meditation Practice, the program is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating two minutes a day then building gradually from there. You can access it at davidgerken.net (it’s free).
Before I created my program for myself I had tried meditating from time to time. And I really liked it. I felt calm and clearheaded afterward. But I never succeeded in developing a regular practice. Why? What stopped me? Life. Life got in the way. “I can’t do it this morning. I have to take all three kids to school because Steph has to leave early for work…” Yada, yada, yada. There’s always going to be something getting in the way. But NOT if you’ve made a commitment. I’ll be blunt: For 99 percent of people, just trying meditating and even loving it will NEVER develop into a lasting, regular practice unless you commit to at least a few months after which it will become more of a habit, just like working out.
2. Pick a time of day that works
This is huge. Why? Because if you make your two month commitment to regular meditation but don’t settle on a time of day that works with your schedule the chances are extremely high that you won’t develop a successful practice. There are just too many moving parts in most of our lives such that if you wake up every day not having any idea when you’re going to meditate and just wing it, you’ll get swept up by events and it won’t happen. Here are some thoughts on each time of day.
Start of the Day — If you can do it, this is the best time, mostly because it will help center you for the rest of your day. That passive aggressive remark from your boss at ten in the morning won’t send your day into a death spiral the way it used to.
You don’t have to do it right after you wake up. Maybe it works better for you to eat breakfast, take a shower, get ready for work and then meditate before leaving. Any time in the morning is optimum.
Midday — If the morning doesn’t work for you for whatever reason, how about midday/lunch time? Most of you, whether working stiffs or not, get some kind of a lunch break of 30–60 minutes. If you’re single and work at home, midday is obviously not a bad choice.
Mid-Afternoon — If morning and midday don’t work for you, the mid-afternoon can be great for some people. Whether you’re working at an office or not, most of us hit that mid-afternoon wall around 3 p.m. or so. You head off to Starbucks or grab coffee at your work kitchen. If your work allows you a bit of time during this period, meditating can give you a nice jolt that will get you to the finish line of your workday. Throw in the coffee and you’re golden.
Evening — You can also try your meditation when you get home from work. This is a great way to create a dividing line between your workday and your night at home.
Choose whatever time of day works for you. And protect it. Let your spouse, kids, roommates, friends, coworkers, etc., know that X time each day is time you’ve set aside for meditation and you’d appreciate if they’d respect that. Because again, if you go into your two-month commitment saying, “I’ll just find the time each day whenever it arises,” you won’t make it. Life will pull you in ten different directions and divert you.
3. Be patient with yourself
In my conversations with friends who’ve tried meditation but blew it off early on, the number one reason it didn’t work is that they got frustrated with themselves for not being able to stop their minds from wandering. “I can’t do this! I’m just not cut out for meditation! I suck!” Bottom line: you have to cut yourself major slack in the early phase of learning to meditate or you won’t make it. It’s that simple. You have to say to yourself, again and again and again, “Okay. I just lost myself in a swirl of thoughts. But that’s okay. I’m just going to slowly, gently, and with compassion toward myself, bring my attention back to my breathing…” Again and again and again.
And if it sounds like I’m being some new agey, self-helpy softy who’s telling you to love yourself, because loving yourself is the only true path to spiritual enlightenment, I’m not. I’m being 100 percent pragmatic here. If you are not patient and good to yourself in the early months of practicing, you will NOT succeed in developing a long-term practice.
And by the way, it’s a win-win if you can be patient and good to yourself in your meditation. One, you facilitate the development of your practice and garner the myriad benefits, and two, you get the benefit of learning how not to be a jerk to yourself. Learning that skill is one of the many invaluable byproducts that come with developing a long-term practice.
One final point. Developing a long-term practice isn’t that hard. Seriously. If a regular schlub like me can do it, anyone can. The benefits are so profound and life-altering that it boggles my mind that more people don’t do it. So give it a go. You won’t regret it.