I used to think that meditation was impossible. Sitting silently by myself with no distractions, counting down the minutes as I tried to keep my mind from wandering… it seemed like a horrible chore. When times in my life were tough, what I wanted most was to escape from my mind. I wanted to flee to a place where I didn’t have to deal with the stress of my job, caring for my terminally ill mother, the never-ending problems with my condo, or my chronic back pain. Drinking, working, and binge-watching TV shows were my primary escape routes, but they never really helped. What was worse was that the problems were always there when I returned to the present moment or even just woke up the next morning… and often they were amplified as I beat myself up for not taking care of myself and making what I considered to be bad choices.
I had never tried meditation, beyond a few guided meditations or sitting silently for a painful five minutes, until my month-long yoga teacher training. The very first morning, the teacher lied to us and said that we would only sit in silent meditation for 10 minutes, but it turned out to be 20. I was astonished that I had been able to sit still and silent for so long without dying. As the month-long training continued, our meditation time grew until we finally reached a whole hour of silent sitting. We were encouraged to not talk or check our phones before meditation, as it would fill the mind with distractions that would prevent us from really “dropping in” to our clear meditation space. Some days were harder than others (and that will likely always be true), but by the end of the month I witnessed the positive benefits of meditation and saw that I could do it. All I needed was to commit to developing a good habit.
At first, I found it challenging to continue on with my meditation practice after I returned from my yoga teacher training, mostly because I am not a morning person and waking up 20 minutes earlier felt painful. However, since then my practice has ebbed and flowed. This year, I participated in an amazing spiritual freedom and awakening course – for which one of the pillars was a developing a deep meditation practice. I found myself again committing to meditation each morning when I woke up, before I looked at my phone, and I noticed my difference in mindset almost immediately. My anxious and negative thoughts didn’t necessarily stop, but instead of thinking that I was those thoughts, I was able to witness them float by without latching on.
Rigorous studies (Harvard, people!) show that meditation can have positive effects for people suffering from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. When I’m regularly meditating, if I have thoughts that begin to spiral towards sadness or escalate towards a panic attack, I can get a grip on them before they go too far. But – the trick is, one meditation session is not enough. I need to do it every day, and it’s best if I do it in the morning. It’s like going to the gym, but for your mind. If I can battle my overactive mind and start a meditation practice, then anyone can! Give it a try.
Here are a few tips for launching your own meditation practice:
- Get a meditation buddy! Also like going to the gym, it can be enormously beneficial to have someone else who can help keep you on your meditation path. This can be your partner or roommate, if you are lucky enough to have someone at home who is also interested in meditation, or a friend that you text with every day to make sure that you are staying on track.
- Download a meditation app. My favorite app is Insight Timer, which is free and allows you to track your meditation days. I have also tried their premium content for one year, and it is excellent and was well worth it for me. I used the premium content when I was dealing with chronic pain and it helped me stick to a mindfulness practice when I had lost motivation or energy to do anything else that was good for me. Many people also say that HeadSpace is great for new meditators. Find a course or a meditation challenge that gives you some motivation.
- Meditate every morning, before you check your phone. Consistency is key if you want results… and really, why else would you be doing it? Set an alarm a few minutes early and roll out of bed to go meditate without thinking too much about it. How many minutes do you spend snoozing or checking your phone in the morning? What have those minutes done for your state of mind? Keep your phone on “do not disturb” until you are finished meditating. You will likely notice a world of difference in your ease of meditation if you look at your phone vs. waiting to look at it until afterward.
- Pick a comfortable meditation spot. You don’t have to be like an ancient yogi sitting in a full lotus pose, your legs bent in an uncomfortable contortion. I discovered that even sitting cross-legged without back support was untenable for me. My back would start to hurt and one foot would fall asleep. Now, I either sit with my back supported by the bed or a chair, or sit with my legs tucked under me with my butt on a pillow or yoga block. It’s important to sit away from people and pets that will distract you and try to avoid direct sunlight, which can be agitating. Some people like to set up a small altar or to light candles or incense to help remind them to stay in the moment.
- Pick the type of meditation that works for you. Silent meditation is one of the deepest ways to reach a calm frame of mind. However, you might find it might it quite challenging, especially at first. Guided meditation can be a good strategy for new meditators. Listening to recorded mantras (on Spotify, for example) is another type of meditation, and singing along to them is even another. For many people, sitting in silent meditation is most effective if you say a mantra to yourself in your head, over and over again. “I am” is a good mantra, as well as “shanti” (peace), or even “let go.” I hold a mala (prayer beads) in my right hand and use one bead per full breath and one round of mantra. If you don’t use a mala, you might time your breath with the mantra. Finally, it could be fun to explore more dynamic forms of meditation, such as walking in nature and carefully taking in everything around you or looking into meditation with breathwork or movement. Meditation experts recommend focusing on one type of meditation for three months before you switch to another, although I believe that silent meditation in the morning can be supplemented with other forms of meditation later on in the day.
- Focus on your breathing and turning inward. Breathe slowly, in and out through your nose. Initially, pay attention to what is going on in your body. Try doing a full body scan where you move from head to toe relaxing each part of your body and letting go. If you notice a part of your body that hurts or itches, see if you can just sit with the sensation without moving. Every few breaths, check where your attention is. Are you focused on the mantra, or thinking about your grocery list? If you are lost in your thoughts, smile at yourself and return to the mantra. Everyone gets distracted during meditation. It is the nature of our monkey minds.
- Start small and work your way up. Start with five minutes and then add a minute every day until you reach 20 or 30 minutes. I have read that you need at least 12 consecutive minutes of meditation per day to start reaping the benefits. However, if you are totally new to meditation, even 12 minutes might feel long. See how you feel with five. If it’s easy – jump to 10 and go from there. If you are strapped for time or forget to meditate, it’s more important to get at least a few minutes in, outside of your normal routine, than to skip it that day.
- No one is “good” at meditation. All you need to do is show up, drop in, and bring your attention back to the breath and to the mantra. Be patient and gentle with yourself, and so happy that you’ve shown up to your meditation space. I promise that you will feel a difference if you stick with it!