Oh how I wish that I were better at meditating. Everywhere I look I see articles citing the numerous benefits of meditation and I’ll confess–I could really use a shot of serenity in my busy whirlwind of a life. My personal meditation hang-up has always stemmed from feeling like I simply don’t have the time to commit to a consistent meditation practice. However; the more research I do on the subject, the more I have come to realize that I really don’t have time to not meditate. For starters–the mental and physical health benefits are quite impressive (click here for a list of meditation health benefits) plus–the practice of mindfulness is one that can come in handy at any given moment of my day.
So…despite my numerous reasons for believing that I will be TERRIBLE at meditation (my inability to sit still without fidgeting, my constantly active “monkey mind”, the knowledge that as soon as I get myself settled into a meditative state, I WILL have to go pee…) I have decided to commit to a 30 day meditation challenge. I figure that calling it a “challenge” might help to keep my naturally competitive nature motivated enough to stick with it.
My research on the topic of meditation has shown me that there are really only ten things that are needed in order to get started with a meditation practice. Those things are…
10 Ingredients for a Fab-YOU-lously Sustainable Meditation Practice
1.) A goal. What do you most hope to gain from your meditation practice? Relaxation? Increased ability to focus? Higher levels of concentration? Serenity? By picking out one particular benefit that you would like to manifest through meditation, you will have a benchmark by which to evaluate your practice over time.
2.) A commitment to yourself. Write it down if you have to but whatever you do, make sure that you make a commitment to yourself that you WILL allow yourself the time to begin and cultivate your new practice. Hold yourself accountable to your commitment.
3.) A set time of day. As you begin your practice, it will be important to establish consistency. Having a specific time of day will help you to establish meditation as a habit. As you become more experienced with meditation, you will be able to add more flexibility to your routine, but when starting out it is best to be consistent with the timing of your practice.
4.) A special place. Again, having a certain place that you go to for your meditation will help to establish a routine. Pick a place in your home that is comfortable and private. You may even want to create a mini altar with candles and sentimental items. Even if you just pull a cushion off of your couch and sit on it in the corner of your living room–having a special place for your meditation practice will make it more meaningful and habitual.
5.) A specific amount of time. As a newbie to meditation, it would be foolish to try to commit to a four hour long meditation practice. Yes–you may get to that level at some point, but for starters it will be difficult enough to maintain a practice that is only 30 minutes a day. In fact, it is suggested that true beginners start with a time of 5 to 15 minutes. Set a timer if you need to, but start out with a time limit that doesn’t feel daunting. Five minutes is absolutely acceptable. As you grow in your practice you will no doubt want to increase the amount of time that you spend in meditation, but starting out small will help to keep you from feeling overwhelmed and will help you to build upon the momentum of early success.
6.) Thirty days. Commit to sticking with your new practice for thirty days. It takes time to find your rhythm and get in your groove so don’t just give up after a week of floundering. Use the thirty days to figure out what time of day works best for you, what type of meditation you prefer and where you feel most comfortable practicing.
7.) A simple meditation technique. One of the most common mistakes made by newbie meditators is attempting a meditation technique that is too complicated. According to former Zen Buddhist monk and author of The Wooden Bowl: Simple Meditation for Everyday Life (Hyperion, 1998), Clark Strand, a simple breath meditation is often the best starting point. To begin, says Strand, sit in a comfortable position (you may wish to use a cushion or folded blanket). Straighten your spine, relax your shoulders and take a few deep breaths. Gently close your eyes and allow your body to become still. Then, begin counting your breaths from one to four (count on the exhalation–the out breath). Try not to manipulate the breath in any way; simply observe and count. When your mind begins to wonder (which it will), don’t admonish yourself–simply bring your mind gently back to your breath. Continue in this fashion for the allotted amount of time.
8.) Grace. You won’t start off as a perfect meditator. Heck, you might not even start off as a good meditator. That’s okay. Meditation is about presence not perfection so give yourself some grace as you begin to build your meditation practice. If your mind wanders, don’t get frustrated–many people have a difficult time staying focused during meditation and that’s not such a terrible thing. In fact, scientists are now reporting in the journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that wandering thoughts can actually be a good thing. In their study, MRI scans showed that people who allowed their thoughts to flow freely during a twenty minute meditation session showed activity in more of the brain regions related to memory retrieval and emotional processing (both of which are key to managing stress) than those who remained focused. So…give yourself some grace and don’t beat yourself up if you suffer from occasional bouts of “Monkey Mind”–it’s normal.
9.) Evaluation. After thirty days of meditation practice, give yourself a quick review. Go back and look at what your goal was when you first started. Are you feeling more relaxed? Has your concentration level improved? Are you more easily able to find and maintain focus during your meditation time? Be honest with yourself regarding the things that you’d like to improve upon or changes that you’d like to make to your practice but also be proud of yourself for the positive strides that you are making.
10.) Thirty-six more days. A 2009 study from the University College, London shows that it takes 66 days of consistent practice for anything to truly become a habit. By adding an additional thirty-six days to your initial meditation practice, you will be at the magical 66 day mark and your practice will feel like a normal and routine part of your day. This is a great time to celebrate your accomplishment by adding a bit more time to your practice or maybe trying a new form of meditation. The important thing is that by now, your practice will be second nature to you and you will be reaping the numerous rewards.