In architecture, the keystone plays an indispensable role. It’s the top stone in an arch that locks all of the other stones into position, allowing the arch to bear weight.
Meditation is the keystone for a vibrant, fulfilling, and creative day. The mindfulness it produces lowers anxiety, increases focus, and keeps you in touch with your deepest intentions.
When you’re mindful, you can bear the weight of life with a little less suffering.
There will still be pain. Catching the flu, getting your heart broken, getting fired, etc., are inevitable. But you will suffer less.
You’ll spend less time adding a story on top of the pain — which is what the mind likes to do.
You’ll have more time and energy to face whatever happens in your life.
You’ll cut down on the moments when you’re on autopilot, going through the motions.
You’ll live more.
As of this spring, I’ve meditated every day for the past five years.
Daily practice led me to living at a residential meditation and yoga center in Washington, D.C., and then to teaching.
I know many people who meditate every day and who aren’t meditation teachers. I know even more people who want to meditate every day because they sense — correctly — that a little more calm and focus would do them some good.
I often get asked for tips on starting a daily practice. I’ve whittled my answer down to five tips, which I will share with you. But first…
Why you should meditate every day
Sure, studies have shown that meditating every day can increase the benefits of the practice, like reducing anxiety and lowering blood pressure.
But to be real, I meditate every day because the way it makes me feel — mindful — wears off when I sleep at night.
It’s like brushing teeth. Every morning I wake up feeling pretty much the same: tired and groggy, as if a layer of plaque had built up on my brain. My daily morning meditation clears away the plaque, leaving me more awake, calm, and present.
To develop a habit — especially one without visible results — it helps to have an experience of feeling the benefits for yourself.
Some might be motivated by hearing that regular practice can shrink the amygdala, the “fight or flight” part of the brain that processes emotions like anxiety, fear, and aggression.
But I don’t meditate because it shrinks my amygdala. I feel the massive difference it makes it my life, and I want to feel that difference every day.
You’re about to begin a journey that millions of people over thousands of years have traveled.
There will be rough patches, but there will be more moments of happiness and deep connection along the way.
If you stick with it, you’ll develop an inner freedom that no one can take away.
Alright, here my five tips for starting and sticking with a daily meditation practice:
1. Set goals for duration and length.
My daily routine began by setting a goal of meditating every day, no matter what. If that sounds intense, try meditating every day for a week or ten days or a month. Once you see the benefits, you won’t stop.
Pick a duration of time, at least five minutes. I started with 15 minutes but over time stretched to 20 and now 30 every morning. In the beginning, though, I sometimes did just five minutes just before falling asleep because I had forgotten during the day.
Don’t worry about missing a day here and there. As Zen meditation teacher Norman Fischer writes:
“Don’t fall into the unconscious trap that ‘Since I missed a day, I guess I can’t do this, so I might as well not even try, or try less hard tomorrow because this missed day has weakened me.’”
Set a goal but be gentle — treat your-self as you would a good friend.
2. Don’t be ashamed to rely on guided meditations.
For the first year of my daily practice I played guided meditations on my phone. I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it if not for meditation teacher Tara Brach’s direction and soothing voice.
Find an app and teacher (or two) who resonate with you. My favorite is Insight Timer, which has thousands of free guided meditations.
Don’t use headphones. Find a relatively quiet place, like your bedroom or car, or in a park, and let your phone play out loud.
A guiding voice is helpful especially for those of us who think we think “too much.”
And, no, you don’t think too much. News anchor and author of 10% Happier Dan Harris calls this the “fallacy of uniqueness. People think that their minds are uniquely busy, but that’s just not true.”
3. Drop in on a class from time to time.
When your routine becomes boring — which it will — seeing others go headfirst into the unknown of the present moment can re-inspire your solo practice.
Groups meet in centers, monasteries and living rooms in most U.S. cities and regions, many of which are sustained by volunteer effort and donations. Look for public events. Often, you can hear a talk by a teacher without having to say a word to anyone.
Try various types of meditation to see which resonates. Common types include insight (Vipassana), Zen, and various Tibetan Buddhist lineages. Many are secular and require little commitment, if any.
Keep in mind: meditation groups in the U.S. have a long way to go to be more inclusive, particularly to people of color, the working class, and the LGBTQ community. Search until you find your people, even if it’s an online community who meditate over video chat.
4. Read books for inspiration.
There are three kinds of meditation books, generally speaking: how-to books, theoretical explanations, and personal takes. I find that third category to be the most helpful because it’s the closest to learning from a living, breathing teacher.
Start with Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, and Charlotte Joko-Beck’s Everyday Zen. Read free excerpts online before buying one to start with.
Based on which of these resonates most with you, you’ll get a sense of which type of meditation is best for you.
If you like Brach, read more about insight meditation (also sometimes called mindfulness meditation).
If you like Chödrön, read about Tibetan.
If Joko-Beck speaks to you, read about Zen.
If all of them sound too woo-woo and New-Agey, read Dan Harris’s Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.
5. Go on a meditation retreat.
I didn’t start meditating daily until I went on a weekend meditation retreat. I had spent years reading about meditation but only trying it every few months, thinking each time: this feels amazing, I should do this more.
Retreats offer time and space to withdrawal from the speed, conflict, and work of daily life. This allows you to just be yourself for a change, as messy, broken, and beautiful as you are.
It can create an experience so deep that it becomes an anchor you can return to every day afterwards.
While retreats are often expensive, many organizations offer discounts and full scholarships to low-income and otherwise marginalized folks.
To find one, Google “insight meditation,” “Zen,” or “meditation” along with your city/town/state and look for retreats on the calendars of organizations in your area.
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