How to Go from Aspirational Meditator to Daily Practitioner

The Buddha in dhyana, a deep state of meditation. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Images

It is not easy to build a habit, let alone a daily meditation practice. We are time-starved and overbooked, which makes our excuses that much easier to give in to. I get it. Sometimes it feels like I’m giving up valuable time that I could be using to crank through my to-do list.

On top of that, the benefits of meditation don’t always reveal themselves right away. My students often tell me that they struggle with pain, agitation, and distraction. These challenges are very normal, and it’s not easy to see past the immediacy of them. The benefits are worth it, but you need a regular practice to realize those results.

You may have heard that it takes only 21 days to form a new habit, but that’s not quite right. Research has shown that it takes 18–254 days to create a new habit. Success depends on you and what sort of habit you’re trying to build.

I recommend 90 days to establish a daily meditation practice. It might take less time, but since you are not going to stop after 90 days, this is a nice, round number to aspire to. Below are some tips to get you through the first 90 days.

Tell Someone
Talking about your goals makes them real. The more people you tell, the more people are going to hold you accountable. They may not ask you about it every day, but six months from now what are you going to say when someone asks you how your practice is going?

I had a spiritual mentor support me through the early stages of my practice. I would check in with her about how things were going, and she would give me advice based on her experiences overcoming similar challenges. You don’t need a guru. Find someone who has been there and is only a little further along than you.

Practice at the Same Time Every Day
Whether you meditate in the morning or the afternoon, try to practice at the same time every day. Consistency is the key to developing a habit. At first, it may feel forced, but it will become second nature like brushing your teeth.

Many people practice in the morning because nothing has had a chance to derail their schedule. Once evening rolls around, I’m either way behind or I want to relax with my family. If I’m tired, I’m more likely to give myself a pass on my practice. As you think about what time works best for you, make sure that it’s at a time when you’ll be awake and clear-headed.

For the first 90 days commit to 12 minutes a day. After 90 days, increase the amount of time to 18 minutes. After another 90 days, increase your time to 24 minutes. Try to stick to 24 minutes a day after that. Sometimes you might need to do a shorter sit, but don’t worry. You will have established a habit that can withstand a disruption in your routine.

Create Personal Rituals
Rituals can help make your practice something to look forward to. Light a candle, recite a mantra, ring a bell, or draw on observances from your spiritual tradition. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it has meaning for you. Consistency will reinforce a predictable rhythm to your practice.

Before I settle in, I watch the sunrise, turn on my alter light, recite a series of mantras, and ring the bell three times. At the end of my practice, I recite a closing mantra, ring my bell again, and then I bow. But my routine doesn’t quite end there. I take the time to tidy up my space before I turn off the light.

Rituals don’t have to be elaborate. I find the simplicity of my routine very comforting. Life can be hectic and uncertain. I love that this part of my day is uncomplicated and predictable.

Set Your Intentions
Like rituals, intentions lend a potency to your practice. They reinforce your goals and strengthen your resolve. Reciting my intention is the biggest reason I stick with my meditation practice; it reminds me that I’m doing it for a reason. For some tips on how to write your intentions, check out my “Two Simple Rituals for Sustaining a Home Practice.”

Stick With It
There will be times when you feel agitated while sitting. At other times you’ll feel like you’re spacing out and not doing anything. Try to maintain the habit of sitting anyway. When this happens to me, I regard it as “logging the time.” At the very least, I’m keeping to my practice schedule. I know that as soon as I start giving that time away to other activities, it will soon be gone for good.

Have heart. We do gain something from logging the time. It’s ok to sit in a non-reactive way to our resistance, distractedness or spaciness. The awareness of knowing that you have these feelings is part of the practice.

If you experience prolonged periods of resistance, seek out support. Attend a meditation class, listen to an online talk, dig into an inspirational read, or attend a retreat.

Go On Retreat
Longtime meditators will tell you that one of the best ways to maintain your practice is to go on retreat. Whether it’s a half day or ten days, taking time out of your daily life helps to refill your cup. You will also get an extra dose of the benefits of the practice to remind yourself why you do it.

These days I try to plan my retreats ahead of time. I look at my calendar several months out and try to anticipate when I will need support. I like to schedule retreats after long family visits or shortly after I finish a big project. If my life has interrupted my practice, then a retreat will put it back on track.

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I know I didn’t share with you any specific information on how to meditate. For that, I recommend Bhante Gunaratana’s book, “Mindfulness in Plain English.” It really is exactly that.

Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook or www.sati.yoga.
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