(And That’s a Good Thing!)
My two cats are such little creatures of habit. One insists on being chased around the house daily; her brother has a box he loves to climb into: he practically lives to be brushed there several times a day!
We humans are similar mammals, for whom habits form easily. Behavioral patterns literally create neural pathways in our brains, which we seek to replicate again and again. Since so many habits can be harmful (such as tobacco, alcohol, and drugs), it’s good to know that there’s a habit that’s 100% good for you: namely, meditation. It calms and centers you; it makes you more naturally compassionate and has numerous mental and physical health benefits.
But while these benefits are well-known, actually making meditation habitual can be a challenge. Occasional meditation is useful and helpful, but to reap the full rewards meditation has to offer, you need to make it a daily habit. Why is it that this behavioral pattern is difficult to keep going, while the harmful ones we seem to simply “fall into?”
One answer may lie in the fact that meditation is deceptively simple. It looks so much like “doing nothing” (“You’re just sitting there!”) that our minds may come up with a few dozen other, more “active” subjects that seem more important. There’s a saying that I’ve adopted as a kind of animating principle: “Don’t just do something; sit there!” I’ve found that sitting in meditation makes me so much more effective at all the so-called “active” things I have to do that it’s an absolute must. But there’s a hurdle that nearly every meditator encounters, called “Monkey Mind.” This is the tendency of the meditating mind to leap—as if from branch to branch—from one topic to another. It derails some novice meditators, because they assume those other subjects demand their immediate attention. Meditation seems to underscore their importance by clearing the mental slate, allowing them to vie for the meditator’s attention.
Meditation teachers tell us to simply observe these topics as they inevitably fly across the screen of our consciousness, gently returning to the breath, the mantra, or whatever point of concentration we have chosen for our meditation. This phenomenon usually kicks in for me at about the five-minute mark. When I first started meditating, I found it hard to get past ten minutes, as those thought topics all seemed so vitally (and equally) important. Once I learned to simply observe the phenomenon, rather than resist it, I was able to make it to the 20-minute target. Once I managed that a few times, I realized that the benefits were so great I just had to push past the “squirmy” phase!
Meditation may look like doing nothing, but in fact, you are engaged in an extremely valuable activity that has ripple effects in every area of your life. You’re centering and calming your mind, lengthening and deepening your breath, and allowing yourself to simply be; these activities yield clear rewards very quickly. People who get into the meditation habit report fewer headaches (that has certainly been the case for me), deeper sleep with fewer nightmares, clearer cognition, reduced anxiety, and an enhanced sense of well-being. Medical studies have linked regular meditation practice with lower blood pressure, improved lung function, reduced anxiety, and other substantive health benefits.
If you’re just getting started with a meditation practice, I recommend shooting for ten minutes daily (it will help immensely if you carve out ten minutes in your daily schedule and devote them to your practice). A few minutes every day will yield better results than long periods of meditation done intermittently. You can gradually increase the time spent in meditation, moving gradually toward the 20-minute mark. Once you’ve achieved that, chances are you won’t want to go back!
I recommend using a very gentle-sounding alarm clock to take you seamlessly out of your meditation and into the flow of your day. You don’t want to be jarred out of your meditative state by a loud, obtrusive alarm clock! I use this wonderful little beauty from Now and Zen:
It produces a quiet, long, bell-like tone (the Tibetan bell sound), providing the ideal aural transition from meditation to daily activity. (If you’re in the habit of inviting a Tibetan bell to sound before and after you meditate to remind you to “come back to yourself,” that sound is doubly ideal.) Alternatively, you can simply find an unobtrusive alarm sound on your cell phone and turn the volume down to a quiet level.
Once you get in the meditation habit, you probably won’t want to stop. The crucial phase is in the beginning; don’t let “Monkey Mind” defeat you! Find a comfortable posture, a mantra or other point of concentration that works for you, and a time in your schedule when you can be uninterrupted for 20 minutes. Make meditation your daily habit, and the benefits will flow quite naturally.
William Ferro is the author of Opening to the Sacred: A Humanist Approach to Holistic Spirituality.