Tips for the reluctant meditator.
How meditation can improve your life, even if you suck at it.
I’m the last person who should be offering advice on meditation.
I’m not a meditation teacher, a spiritual guide or much of a practitioner. I am not knowledgeable in the ways of Vipassana or other ancient meditation practices. I failed many times to establish a regular meditation practice before I finally succeeded. And still, I’m an amateur in every sense of that word and expect I always will be.
And even though any meditation teacher will tell you that you can’t suck at meditating – I DO SUCK AT MEDITATING.
The act of sitting still on a cushion or in a chair, following my breath for even 2 minutes is excruciating. My mind is like a puppy who has been expelled from obedience class. It pounces on anything that moves. It wanders off and sniffs random objects. The one thing my mind cannot do is be still.
And yet, I meditate every day (almost).
If meditation is so challenging for me, why do I do it? Like exercise strengthens and sustains my body, meditation strengthens and improves my mind. It is really that simple.
There are few well-being practices that have been studied for their benefits more than meditation.
And the claimed benefits are wide-ranging including:
- Reduced stress, reduced anxiety, reduced symptoms of depression, improved self-image, and a more positive outlook.
- Improved sleep, reductions in blood pressure, improved immune functioning and improved pain management.
- Improved focus, attention, and memory.
- Improved self-awareness and emotional regulation.
The phrase ‘life-changing’ is overused to the point of being meaningless, and yet, I can report that my meditation practice, as rudimentary as it is, has been life-changing. But not in the way that we normally think of that phrase. And this is what can make sustaining a meditation practice so difficult.
The changes have been slow, glacial, in fact, and very subtle. My sleep is deeper and more restful. I find it easier to focus. I am less anxious and stressed, and I can recover from worry and stress more easily. I brood, ruminate, and engage in mental self-torture much less.
But these are not the reasons I meditate. For me, they are a happy byproduct and I can’t link all these changes solely to meditation. I meditate to strengthen my mind and my focus. It is obedience school for my unruly puppy mind, and it is working. It works on two invaluable skills.
- The ability to observe and work with my thoughts.
- The ability to catch the puppy when it wanders, particularly when it wanders into really stinky, yucky areas, and bring it back, lovingly with a gentle tug on the leash.
Together these skills have offered me the most effective path for getting out of my own way.
The reluctant beginner’s guide to starting a meditation practice.
If you are struggling to commit to or sustain a regular meditation practice, you are not alone.
Here are some practical tips and suggestions to improve your chances of success.
1. Get clear about your why?
What is motivating you to meditate?
Whatever your reason for giving this a try – reduced stress and anxiety, greater clarity, or improved focus – understanding your purpose is helpful when things get tough or tedious.
2. Start very small.
Consistency is more important than duration. Even two minutes a day is a viable starting place. As Chade-Meng Tan says in his book Search Inside Yourself, commit to less time than you think you can sustain. Even after doing it a few years, my morning meditation practice is only 10 – 12 minutes long.
3. Pair meditation with another habit, ideally a pleasurable one.
This is what James Clear, author of Atomic Habits calls “habit stacking.” You connect one already ingrained habit with a new one you want to establish. For example, one of my most pleasurable experiences each day is the first sip of my morning coffee. So, my rule is – no coffee until after I meditate. This is so ingrained that I can’t fully enjoy that first sip unless I’ve meditated.
4. Look after your physical comfort.
Purists might tell you that you need to sit on the floor on a meditation cushion, legs crossed, and spine erect. For some people (like me), this is a painful way to sit. If so, sitting upright in a chair works too. You don’t need to look like a Tibetan monk. In the beginning, try not to do anything that creates friction between you and meditation.
5. Experiment and find what works for you.
Some people do better meditating in a group. Others prefer to meditate alone. Some prefer listening to guided meditations. Others prefer silence. Two things I would recommend. Do what feels right for you but do get some form of formal instruction – whether that is a meditation teacher, coach, an on-line beginners meditation course or a meditation app. Meditation is a broad term for many practices. I practice mindfulness meditation but there are other options.
6. Begin again.
When you fail to show up, and you probably will, don’t be discouraged. A common refrain from my clients when I recommend meditation is – “Oh I tried that, I’m just not wired for meditation,” or “I can’t keep my mind still.”
First, no one is wired for meditation, the re-wiring happens as a result of meditation. And second, it’s not about keeping your mind still. Nobody can do that either.
I tried, unsuccessfully for several years to incorporate meditation into a daily practice. I took an eight-week program, developed by Jon Kabat Zinn, called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. If you are struggling with stress and anxiety, it’s an ideal way to learn to use meditation to give you some relief. I joined a meditation group (I lasted about three sessions). I even hired a meditation coach.
All that trying and failing and trying again could be considered part of the practice. It was all valuable. And none of it got me over the hump of sustaining a daily practice on my own.
What finally worked for me.
Ironically, it was finding ‘an app for that’ that finally enabled me to integrate the practice into my life.
As a beginner, I found Headspace very helpful. It’s user friendly and inviting. The illustrations are playful and a good reminder that meditation doesn’t have to be serious or significant. It offers all the basics for getting started including a lot of practical information on the science, the benefits and what to expect. It’s ideal for its simplicity and accessibility.
After I was meditating for a while, however, I was hungry to go deeper and learn more.
That is when I stumbled on the Waking Up app by Sam Harris. This app continues to be my mainstay and it has transformed my practice. Whether you are on day 1 of your practice or day 1001, there is something here for you.
- It offers a 28-day introductory course for beginners that includes both guided meditations and a solid grounding in the theory.
- The app offers a new guided meditation every morning which you can set for either 10 or 20 minutes. It also offers the option of setting a timer, if you prefer to meditate in silence. (I alternate between guided and silent meditations.)
- It has an extensive library of guided meditation sessions from some of the world’s most respected meditation teachers.
- And finally, like a podcast, the app offers fascinating interviews with renowned thought leaders on a range of topics related to mindfulness and living well.
Waking Up is a little more expensive than others on the market at about $100 per year. However, Harris offers the app free, no questions asked, to anyone who writes to him and indicates they cannot afford the annual fee.
Most of these apps, including these two, offer free trials. If you think this might be helpful, I encourage you to do some research and test drive a few.
(Please note: I am not affiliated nor do I receive any financial benefit from recommending these apps.)
Please don’t take my word for it.
As I said at the outset, I am probably the last person you should listen to for meditation advice. I can only tell you how it has benefited me and my clients who have adopted the practice.
If you want to improve the quality of your attention and your mind; if you want to improve your listening skills, the quality of your relationships and your leadership, if you want to improve your sense of well-being; don’t take my word for it.
Try meditation for yourself.
And please, let me know how it goes and if you have tips for your fellow readers on what has worked for you, please share them below!
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