You know you should meditate. Your mom/therapist/boyfriend/boss has said that you, in particular, for some reason, really should meditate. You tried it once or twice. It was hard. It didn’t stick. But you want it to. You really want a consistent meditation practice.
The good news is that you’re not alone. Every day I meet with people who want to start a consistent practice, have the best intentions for doing so, but can’t keep it going for more than a few weeks at a time. I have previously offered advice here on Sonima about how to get a meditation practice going, but I failed to mention the number one thing you need to do to make sure you don’t ever fall off the meditation wagon:
You need to be kind to yourself.
I know, I know—what a surprise that the Buddhist teacher will tell you that you need to be kind to yourself. But it’s true. If you don’t abide by this one piece of advice you will lose momentum in your practice. Here’s why:
The Technique May Be Simple but It’s Not Easy
The most basic meditation instruction I offer is one based in coming back to the breath, over and over again. Very simple, right? But our minds are prone to distraction. They are constantly generating thoughts all day long, so if you think meditation is going to magically trigger some switch and turn off your thinking you are sadly mistaken. Instead, meditation will help you become more focused and present in your daily life, but only as a result of gently guiding yourself back to the breath repeatedly.
A big part of meditation involves exerting oneself, having the discipline to tame our wild mind, and returning our attention to the breath throughout our sessions. At the same time, if you get too rigid with this discipline it can become aggressive, so you need to balance discipline with kindness. Just because you have trouble staying with the breath does not make you a bad meditator!
The Effects Are Subtle
Because the effects of meditation are subtle, you will find that they aren’t something you can brag about to your buddies in the same way you might if you lost 10 pounds or were able to double what you squat at the gym. It’s not like we’re able to quantify kindness, presence, or authenticity so sometimes people get frustrated that they aren’t seeing “results” because of their practice.
Sometimes I’ve found that meditation students who stop meditating for a week or so, having done it for a number of months, find that is the exact moment when they realize how potent the effects of the practice really are. It’s like when you get a cold—you no longer take for granted how nice it was when you were in good health. People who recently stopped meditating tell me they start to notice that they are quicker to leap to anger, jealousy, and other strong emotions. All of a sudden they think, “Huh. Maybe meditation was helping me with this. I ought to go back and give it another try.”
Because the effects are subtle, and we’re so accustomed to having a tangible payoff for so much of our activity, at some point you may feel like you’re doing it wrong or meditation isn’t working for you. It is, I promise. Be kind to yourself here; the effects will become apparent in time.
You’re Wired for Self-Aggression
Maybe you’re in a small minority of people that walk around giving inner pep-talks to themselves all day long. But a lot of people walk through life with what a friend of mine calls “inner bitch radio.” It’s the voice going off in our head on a continuous loop whispering things like “You shouldn’t have said that” and “Everyone saw you almost trip, you clumsy clown.” You may not even be aware of the ways you perpetuate self-aggression right now. Meditating may unearth the fact that you are constantly critiquing every aspect of who you are.
Having acknowledged this aggression, see if you can switch the dial from inner bitch radio to something a bit more peaceful: kindness radio. This is the act of noticing when you drift off into negative thinking, catching yourself from spinning out a lot of story line around that, and gently forgiving yourself. It’s the difference between “You jerk! Why would you say that?!” and “I might have said something awkward. Oh well.” Then you can come right back to the present moment, engaging whatever activity is in front of you with mindfulness. The bonus effect here is that the more present you are, the more likely you are to act in ways that you feel good about.
It Takes Longer Than You Want It To
We’re used to quick fixes in our society. Meditation is not that. The more you have fixed expectations around what you think ought to happen and how long that thing should take, the more disappointed you will become. The effects of meditation are not only subtle, they take time to manifest, so you need to simultaneously relax your expectations and keep yourself accountable all year long.
One thing that may prove helpful is keeping a notebook near where you meditate. You can designate this notebook solely as your excuse book. Whenever you do not think you have the time to meditate, just open it up and write down the excuse in the notebook. For whatever reason, more often than not simply having to write out the excuse and look at it on paper makes it clear that we’re deluding ourselves and that we do have the time to do it. We can then forgive ourselves for making excuses and do the practice. Making the time to practice each day is an act of kindness in and of itself.
Because we have spent so many years avoiding the habit of meditation it’s not going to be easy to maintain it now. If you can pace yourself and meditate every day for just three weeks you will find it easier to get going. Then, when you’re in the groove, you will stay consistent in your practice if you can master avoiding some of these obstacles by simply being kind to yourself.
Related: 10-Minute Loving-Kindness Meditation