Five Easy Ways to Finally Start that Meditation Practice You’ve Always Wanted
You’re certainly not alone if you’re struggling or frustrated with getting your meditation practice off the ground. Starting a meditation practice, or any other new health behavior, can be challenging in ways we never could have imagined. But why? It should be simple, right? We know meditation will help us, not only in the short term (enjoying an immediate and increased sense of well-being), but also in the long-term (improving our overall state of health and a capacity to cope with challenging health and life situations). Why don’t we simply meditate as much, or as frequently as we committed and dreamed we would? It’s so common that I got curious about the reasons that it can be hard to integrate a new behavior into our lives and what to do about it. This article includes 5 simple and powerful ways to get that meditation practice going and suggestions on how to stick with it.
As a Professor in Holistic Health Education and a mind-body medicine, meditation and health behavior change teacher, I work with people who are struggling to commit to new health behaviors. It turns out that we actually have what’s called an “Immunity to Change” (Kegan and Lahey, 2009). Even when we know something is good for us, our self-system (the entirety of our being — physical body, mind, emotions, spirit) likes stability and likes what it is used to. So much so that even if we want to start a new behavior that is good for us, but it’s different from how we normally do things, our self-system will actually see it as a threat and perceives that the whole system will be de-stabilized.
Have you ever been totally gung-ho about a new health behavior and dove in deep, feeling proud and successful, only to find that two-three weeks later, you find yourself having serious resistance to this new behavior (and you have no idea why!). When this resistance to a new behavior pops up, we often feel like something is wrong with us, or that we are weak, but in fact, this resistance is likely to be part of a dynamic self-protection mechanism. In the book, Immunity to Change, authors Kegan and Lahey (2009) talk about the “arms of resistance” that our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual body puts out in order to orient us back into our “regular” life. And there is nothing wrong with this; in fact, this immunity to change mechanism is meant to protect us and keep us safe, because “newness,” until it has been proven otherwise, can pose a threat and danger to us and our well-being. Interesting, right? But what do we do?
Well, it’s a little counter-intuitive and is really about making small, bite-sized shifts and allowing ourselves the gradual process of change, so that it doesn’t feel like a huge challenge to our already established self-system. Here are some great ways to integrate meditation into your life (or initiate any behavior change), which are simple and easy:
Commit to doing less than you think you can. I know this sounds crazy, but we often try to start a new behavior by going gang-busters right out of the gate, like promising to meditate for 30 min, six days a week from here on out. Research shows that when we try to make drastic changes to our current behaviors, we often don’t hit the goal and then feel discouraged, which leads us to discontinue the behavior altogether. Under-promising is about setting goals for yourself that you know you can meet. In fact, the under-promising tool asks you to be honest with yourself about what you can accomplish and then actually plan to do even less than that. Now, before you decide this isn’t for you, just think about how good you feel when you meet a goal (no matter how small). That feeling inspires you to do MORE, right? And it’s counter-intuitive to the way we normally do things… more is better right? Well, when we start something new, it turns out that less is actually better. Under-promising means being honest and gentle with yourself about what you can realistically accomplish and increasing the amount of time and energy you need to get things done. Here are 3 steps to setting up an under-promise:
· Step 1: Be really honest with yourself about how much time and energy you have (amidst all your other life activities and responsibilities) to engage in this new behavior. Increase the amount of gentleness and compassion you have for yourself and decrease your expectations of yourself so that you have more room to fail and more room to succeed.
· Step 2: Give yourself increased time frames to get things done. If you think it will take 1.5 hours to do something, give yourself two.
· Step 3: Decrease the number of times you commit to engage in something new. Be honest with yourself about how many times you can engage in this new behavior in the next few weeks or so, and then, commit to one or two times less than that number.
So, getting back to meditation, instead of planning to do six — 30 min meditations the first week, you might want to plan to do two 5–10 minute meditations for the first week, if you absolutely know you can get that done. Then your excitement from accomplishing that goal will inspire you to do more next week! Really, you’ll be astonished at how well this tool works even though it seems counter-intuitive.
2) Pair Your Habits
Habit-pairing is about connecting a new behavior with an already well-established behavior. For example, I had a client who would drive her kids to school in the morning and she decided to pair that behavior with going to the gym. She began working out immediately after dropping off her kids. It helped her to begin to think about doing the two activities together. She even kept her running shoes by the door, near her keys, to associate the two activities in her mind and remind her to wear her gym clothes, so that if she forgot this goal, the shoe/key association was a reminder. The idea is to think about something you do regularly, which comes naturally, and that you can connect your meditation practice to. It might be brushing your teeth, or getting ready to go to bed. Again, you need to be honest with yourself about where you can realistically pair a new behavior. For example, if you’re a morning person, perhaps that’s a good time to pair a meditation — to brushing your teeth after you wake up. Or, if you’re a night person, that might be a better time for you to pair brushing your teeth with meditation. You know yourself best, so check in to see what would work for you.
3) Pick the Best Meditation Style for You
This is important. There are many different kinds of meditation, and, after teaching meditation for years, I have learned that meditation is definitely not “one size fits all.” Some people enjoy sitting in silence, others enjoy listening to someone guide them with visualization or imagery, and others prefer to get up and walk or even shake and dance (yes, those are forms of meditation too!). Trying out different kinds of meditations can help you figure out what works best for you and what will be enjoyable, so that you will want to continue meditating. Here are three basic styles of meditation:
1. Concentrative Meditation
Focused awareness on objects, words, thoughts, images, or phrases (e.g. guided imagery, relaxation meditations, mantras, repeated prayers).
The purpose of this type of meditation is shifting one’s internal state toward a more peaceful, calm, or positive state of mind/body.
2. Mindful or Awareness Meditation
Awareness — of thoughts, feelings and sensations — is the focus of this kind of meditation (e.g. mindful eating exercises, mindful breathing and awareness meditations).
No particular object, thought or feeling is the focus of this type of meditation. The meditator is not trying to change anything, just observe and be a witness to what is happening in their experience.
3. Expressive Meditation
Expressive meditation is a way of using activity and movement to bring our bodies and minds to stillness. The idea is that moving our bodies vigorously allows us to move through excess energy and only then can we drop into a quiet or peaceful state of the body and mind(e.g. vigorous yoga, walking, shaking, dancing, whirling).
This type of meditation can be effective with people who have trouble sitting still for mindful or concentrative meditation (e.g. people with ADHD, people who need to expend energy).
Picking the right kind of meditation for you is key to the desire to continue your practice. The right kind of meditation for you should leave you feeling in a state of more peace and well-being when you are done. You can try different types of meditation and see what really works for you.
4) Find an Accountability Partner
This can be a powerful tool in the process of starting and sustaining a new behavior. It’s challenging to keep something going when we feel alone in holding ourselves responsible for meeting our goals. But, finding friends, or other people who are working towards similar goals and are willing to be partners in accountability can be incredibly helpful, because we can help each other in the process. There are lots of ways to set up accountability partnerships. Depending on what I am working on, I set up accountability partnerships (or groups) where I check in every day, or once every 1–2 weeks. It all depends on what you think would be helpful; although, I do recommend, the more accountability check-ins, the better. Also, it’s useful to figure out what works for both/all of you in terms of communication (e.g. timing, email, social media check-ins, phone calls, texts, etc.). You can also ask your accountability partner/group to check in with you if they haven’t heard from you after a certain time-frame. It can be really reassuring to know that someone, other than you, is keeping track of what you have committed to.
Also, there’s an important evolutionary component to accountability. Research shows that our nature is to be aligned with a tribe (from ancestral times) for our very survival. Tribes were what helped keep us fed, safe, and cared for. Being separated from our tribe might even mean death. For these reasons, affiliation with a tribe is hard-wired into our self-system. So, if we are embracing a new behavior that doesn’t necessarily fit with the tribe we’ve been affiliated with (family, community), it can be critical to start to engage with a new tribe of people who are on the same page. This doesn’t mean you have to abandon your old community. You can stay affiliated with an existing tribe while aligning with a new tribe. Accountability partners or groups can go a long way in terms of meeting this evolutionary need.
5) Discover Your Competing Commitments
Everything up until now has been strategic in nature, but this section is about your internal relationship to meditation, or any change. We usually think of resistance to change as a bad thing, but often resistance signifies that there is deeper meaning for us in the new or old behavior. It may also mean that we have what are called “Competing Commitments,” which are getting in the way of moving forward. A Competing Commitment, a concept developed by authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, is something that you have committed to in the past to get a certain internal need met. When you begin a new behavior, if it conflicts or competes with that prior commitment, then suddenly resistance will rear its head. There’s actually good reason for this and, again, it has to do with our self-system. Let me give an example of one of my students who was really struggling with starting a meditation practice. She was baffled as to why it was so hard because she actually really liked meditating, and knew what a difference it made in her life. When we went through a competing commitments exercise, she discovered that because she came from a fairly conservative family who thought things like meditation were self-indulgent and for “hippies,” she had unconsciously made a commitment in the past to never engage in such things. The benefit for her of that prior commitment was that she got to feel connected and aligned with her family. When she began meditating, her self-system resisted for fear that her family would judge her and that she would no longer feel connected to them. As you can imagine, resistance that comes from something as important as family connection can be very powerful. So, what do you do when your new commitment is bumping up against an old competing commitment? Here are a few tips:
- Instead of feeling self-blame and frustration, when you experience resistance to a new behavior, see if you can shift into curiosity about the resistance. You might focus on how the resistance feels in your body or notice what thoughts come up when you experience resistance. Becoming curious shifts you into a state of discovery rather than anger or self-recrimination.
- Imagine what your life would be like if you effectively make this change. Ask yourself if there are other aspects of your life which would also change (e.g. relationships, family, work, expectations that you or other people have of yourself). Notice if you feel any discomfort or fear around any of these secondary changes. That’s a sign that there may be a competing commitment in play.
- Take a look at the things you are doing (or not doing) that are getting in the way of you reaching your goal. Ask yourself if there is some way those resistant behaviors are serving you.
- Mentally search your past to see if you can identify any prior commitments that you might have made that could conflict with your current goal. Ask yourself what benefits you got from those prior commitments. Recognize that those prior commitments have served an important purpose on your life.
- Shift your perspective on resistance to change. If you believe that resistance is a form of self-care, rather than something negative or a sign of weakness, you can approach it with compassion, curiosity and patience rather than self-doubt or anger.
- Finally, if you have identified a competing commitment and the underlying benefit for that commitment, see if you can find another way to get the same benefit while still accomplishing your new goal.
Back to my student; once she had uncovered her competing commitment of not-meditating in order to stay aligned with her family, she felt a tremendous amount of relief to know that there was not only a reason for her resistance, but it was about taking care of her personal need for connection. She decided that in the beginning of her meditation practice, she would not talk to her family about this new behavior until she felt it was well-established, so as not to create any disconnection from them, while her practice still felt new. She also decided that she would start having a Sunday dinner with her family once a month to connect with them in another way because they all really loved to cook and share meals, so she got her need to connect with them met in new way. Additionally, she found a meditation class where she could be around other people who were learning to meditate and began to align with a new tribe of people, while also staying close with her family.
So, as you can see, a lot goes on when we are trying to implement a new health behavior, such as meditating. Simply knowing that it’s good for us and that we will feel better often doesn’t get the job done in terms of creating a new sustainable practice. That said, there are lots of different tools that you can use to make the transition easier and help your whole self-system ease into a new pattern of behavior. Change of any sort can also provide an amazing opportunity to look at the ways that different behaviors you already have meet important needs for you. Understanding that our behaviors are an extension of our healthy and human desire to care for ourselves can help us reframe our frustrations about any resistance we feel to new behaviors or changing old behaviors. Ultimately, some well-planned structure, understanding our personal style for meditating, and getting to know our underlying motivations for taking care of ourselves can be a powerhouse combination to help us create a solid and sustainable meditation practice.
Kegan, R. and Lahey, L.L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization (Leadership for the common good). Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.