If I could wave my magic wand and give everybody on the planet three gifts that would change the world, one of those gifts would be a dedicated daily meditation practice (the other two, in case you’re curious, would be self-compassion and freedom from the myth of “I’m not enough”).
That’s on my mind today in particular, as it marks the five year mark of my daily meditation practice.
On August 1st, 2012, I committed to meditating every morning for a month. One month later, I committed to another month, then another. By the end of those three months, it had become an integral part of my morning routine.
In the five years since, I haven’t missed a single morning’s meditation. It has become such an ingrained part of my morning routine that I never seriously consider not doing it. It’s non-negotiable.
I have grown immensely over the last five years. In many ways, I’m not the same person I was on that August morning. There are numerous reasons for that (not least being my commitment to applying the ideas in my Aliveness CODE framework to my own life). One of the biggest is the cumulative impact of ongoing meditation practice.
To mark that five year point, I want to share some of the things I have learned in meditating every day.
When you say, “I can’t meditate,” you’re probably wrong
Don’t get me wrong. It might feel like you can’t meditate. You might sit down and immediately want to jump up again. You might have a brain that fills that empty space with every single thought imaginable. You might feel like a writhing mass of impatience, waiting for time to be up.
But if you do feel that way, you’re a carbon copy of me five years ago. I had dabbled in meditation over the years, but it had never really stuck. My initial goal of sitting for 15 minutes often felt like agony. “Seriously? It has only been five minutes? I’m sure it has been at least 30! WTF???”
My monkey mind was insanely active. I had a dear friend once tell me, “You think more than anyone I have ever met!” (and she was a therapist). It got exponentially worse any time I sat down on the cushion.
Today, meditation is one of my best friends. Occasionally, when I’m running short on time in the morning I’ll just sit for a five-minute meditation to keep the every-day streak alive. After five minutes I often find my mind pleading like a little kid who wants to stay up past his bedtime. “Come on, pleeeease. Just five minutes more.” I love it that much.
All of which is to say, if you ever sit down to meditate and feel like you just don’t have it in you, think of my hopped up monkey mind, stewing in a pot of impatience and resistance. And remind yourself, if I can do it, pretty much anyone can.
It’s OK (preferable, even) to start small
Want my best tip for successfully developing and maintaining a meditation practice? One that will dramatically increase your likelihood of sticking with it long enough to enjoy its long-term benefits? Give yourself permission to start small.
As part of their exploration applying the principles of The Aliveness CODE to their lives, my clients often work on developing a meditation practice. Over the years, one of the biggest common denominators I have seen for beginning a practice that sticks is to start small.
From the perspective of developing a habit, a sustainable daily five minute meditation is infinitely better than diving in with hyper-motivation – determined to meditate 30 minutes each day, but lasting only a week or two. It’s also infinitely better than a 30 minute meditation that only happens a couple days a week.
Part of the reason it’s so helpful is that there is less resistance. It’s easier to get yourself to sit down for five minutes (and harder to convince yourself that there’s a good reason not to). And part of is that that daily repetition is what you need to start rewiring your brain.
Over time, the five minutes becomes a no-brainer. It expands naturally on its own to ten, then fifteen. Meditating becomes easier because you have given your brain a chance to train, rather than just throwing it in the deep end and telling it to swim (glub, glub, glub).
It’s OK that your mind is noisy
One of the biggest reasons I hear from people when they think they don’t have what it takes to meditate is that when they try, their mind gets swamped with thoughts bouncing around like a brain full o’ ping pong balls.
What if I told you their problem isn’t that they can’t stop their thoughts, but that they’re human?
In recent years, neuroscience researchers have discovered something surprising about the brain at rest. It’s incredibly active. For the sake of brevity in this post I’ll skip the technical details. But in super-simplified nutshell, when you’re just sitting there with nothing requiring your focus and attention, your brain starts thinking, thinking, thinking. Thinking about yourself. Thinking about other people. Thinking about the past. And thinking about the future.
So if you’re tempted to get down on yourself for having an over-active brain when you try to meditate, remind yourself that you simply have a human brain, and that it comes with the territory.
One of the best pieces of meditation advice I have come across is, rather than trying to impose silence on your mind (good luck!), to make your wandering mind the focus of your practice.
For example, you can train your attention on your breathing. When your mind wanders – and it will – you simply notice it and bring your attention back. The shift here is that instead of representing a failure of your goal of keeping your mind silent, the wandering mind becomes an opportunity to practice noticing and coming back. Noticing. And coming back. Over and over again.
The more you practice, the better you get, and the more natural it becomes.
And that ability seeps over into the rest of your life, helping you become more aware of where your mind goes and come back to the present moment.
Your streak can be your best ally
When I first started, I had no focus beyond that first month. By the end of the third month, I had a streak going that was long enough that I felt motivated to keep it alive. And the longer it went, the stronger that motivation to keep it alive became.
Today, short of being in a coma, I just can’t see any way I could be convinced to miss a day (well, ok, if you offered me a significant sum of money I could probably be persuaded to skip a day – want to try me?).
That’s another reason I’m such a big fan of starting small. It’s easy to build a streak with substance when you start small. If I had aimed at meditating 30 minutes every morning (which is about what my meditation usually is these days), I can guarantee you there would never have been any streak worth preserving. It would have died an early and ignoble death.
Resistance is normal (but it weakens)
When I first started meditating on a daily basis, my morning routine went like this:
Wash my face
Brush my teeth
Every stinkin’ day I heard that voice, “I don’t wanna!” (Again, that’s why I’m such a fan of starting small.) Over time, as I ignored it, the voice started to get weaker. It didn’t go away, but it got more and more half-hearted in its protests, because it knew I wasn’t going to listen. I almost felt sorry for it.
Even today, as non-negotiable a part of my day as it is, I still have days when that voice whines about wanting to skip meditating that day (which is where the motivation of keeping that streak alive comes in really handy).
It feels gooooooood
A desire to keep the streak alive is important, but my biggest motivation is simply that meditation has had such a positive impact on my life. I’m way more grounded and much less reactive (something that has also reinforced by applying other facets of The Aliveness CODE).
The regular care and feeding it provides of my body, mind, and spirit lifts me up and supports me. It helps me when times are challenging, and it feels like a delicious luxury when times are good.
If you don’t have a meditation practice already, make it a 30-day experiment. For the next 30 days, aim to meditate five minutes each day. More if you want, but give yourself a goal of at least five minutes daily.
Personally, I find that first thing in the morning is best (because experience has taught me that if I leave something for later in the day, the odds that it will actually get done take a dramatic nose-dive). Experiment to see what works best but, if you can, aim to make it a recurring time every day.