How I Kept Up With Meditation For an Entire Year
by phil on Monday Feb 20, 2012 7:13 PM
A little over a year ago, I wrote a post titled, "Eight Changes To My Life After Just Four Weeks of Meditation." The post generated a lot of traffic, but many people wanted to how I motivated myself to stick with it. Some even doubted I would stick with it beyond my initial honeymoon.
Well, one year and 28 days later, I am proud to say that I've meditated on every single day since I started. All the changes I mentioned in that post have been permanent. What follows are all the stages of self-motivation I went through to install meditation into my daily routine:
The Background (1 year before meditation)
I had tried meditation twice before. Both times I did it because I read articles describing the mental health benefits of meditation. I had struggled nearly my entire adult life with bouts of neurosis, but I was also very reluctant to get hooked on anti-depressants. Meditation appealed to me, because it offered a way to stop myself from over-thinking without any extra bodyload, side effects, or chemical dependency.
However, each time I tried meditation, it was always touch-and-go. In the first week, I meditated about three times for twenty minutes each. The initial sessions were eye-opening, and I would promise myself to meditate everyday. But then after my fifth session or so, I would lose that initial glow, starting to hate the practice, and I'd give up.
So I'd say there were two important elements to my background: 1. My past failures with meditation made me realize I had to try something completely different if I wanted to get into it again. I wanted to only meditate if I could guarantee my commitment. 2. I believed I really needed something like meditation to stop the reign of terror my mind had been causing me.
The Lure (2 weeks before)
At the start of 2011, an article popped up on my radar titled, "Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in 8 weeks". It described a study of non-meditators who were given meditation training, told to meditate for 45 minutes a day, and were given MRI scans before and after. The subjects were told to keep a journal of how often they meditated and the results were astounding. After just eight weeks, with an average of 27 minutes a day of meditation, the subjects showed increased activity in parts of the brain associated with stress-regulation, anxiety-control, self-awareness, and empathy.
This specific study, and the way it was structured, was crucial to me sticking with meditation early on. This was the first time I had ever seen the mental health benefits of meditation laid out so specifically. This kind of set up (measurable inputs, measurable outputs) is a key feature for achieving flow, and it provided me with a straightforward program. If I didn't stick with it for eight weeks at 27 minutes a day, then I couldn't blame meditation for not delivering. I could only blame myself.
The Pact (1 day before)
I forwarded this article to my friend Ricky, who loved it and also noticed the same flow-like characteristics of the study. He then asked me, "Why don't we try to duplicate the study ourselves?" I initially hesitated, given my past stumbles with meditation, but I eventually warmed up. Ricky wanted to create a spreadsheet where we could keep a log of every day we meditated. This would add a layer of competition to the program. Plus, the study was very concerete and specific about what you had to do and what you could expect. While I didn't have a MRI machine, I could pay attention to see if my anxiety levels did go down or if I noticed any other changes to my life.
Finally, I promised myself that I was going to proactively motivate myself this time around. I told myself not to meditate unless I could, everyday, commit at least some time to make sure that I was committed to meditation. Call this a meta-commitment.
With my meta-commitment, the pact with Ricky, and the perfect structure of this study, I felt like this time would be significantly different than all the other times I meditated. And so I agreed to meditate everyday for eight weeks, 27 minutes per day.
The Attitude Shift (2 weeks after)
The first meditation sessions were similar to the other times I tried to meditate. The sessions were eye-opening, and I remember in those first couple days, laying on my back after meditating, in awe of life. This feeling faded quickly though, and I then hit my first motivation hurdles with meditation.
Before each meditation session, I often sat there, seeing if my body naturally wanted to meditate. If it didn't, I'd then talk to myself until it did. My conversations in those first couple weeks were all about changing my attitude toward meditation. Why was it that it didn't require any effort to do physical exercise every day, but I struggled with meditation? Theoretically, I argued, my mental health was more important to me than my physical health, so I should be even more motivated to do it.
I then realized that part of why it's easier for me to go jogging is because our society encourages it. Especially living in Austin, I see beautiful people jogging and biking every day. I told myself that while physical exercise has a very public component, millions of Americans meditate in private. And of those that don't meditate, they have other routines like daily prayer that feed their soul. I then Googled around about famous people who had meditated, and found out that Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison both were into the practice.
These thought exercises helped re-condition me to not think of meditation as something exotic or weird. I started to think of it as something fundamental, essential, and more importantly, normal.
Observing Results (4 weeks later)
I think I have a special skill at describing my inner mental state, and I think this was key in solidifying my commitment to meditation. A key aspect of flow is having measurable inputs and measurable outputs. While I didn't have an MRI machine, I paid special attention to see what changes happened to me psychically and emotionally, and writing these things out in a blog post helped reinforce the practice.
If you can see concrete results, even if they're incremental, you'll become more confident about your inputs.
After the Pact (8 weeks later)
The spreadsheet that Ricky and I used worked marvelously. Our natural competitiveness made us have to meditate every single day. One time he sort of "missed" his meditation, or as he describes it, had a split-meditation, where he had to meditate a little bit in the morning and a little bit later in the evening. He voluntarily put an asterisk by his entry, and I ribbed him about it later. This motivated him to get a perfect streak for the rest of his sessions, and I had to also bolster my streak, lest I get an asterisk like him.
The spreadsheet also contributed to the flow-like aspects of the program. Seeing a column of "Yes"-es grow was like watching a progress bar in a video game:
Afterwards, Ricky and I agreed to move beyond the spreadsheet. But since I liked the device so much, I fashioned a similar one in the from of a calendar. I then crossed off every day I meditated. Here's my calendar from last year:
Like the spreadsheet, crossing off days on the calendar provided incredible satisfaction. Plus, there was a fear of having an empty spot in the calendar. If you do the calendar method, I actually recommend doing exactly what I did, and use a physically printed calendar, as opposed to an app. With the physical calendar, you can keep it right by your meditation area, serving as a constant reminder. Also, every mark you make on the calendar isn't going to be exactly the same, so visually, this makes for a much more interesting thing to look at instead of a never-ending series of the same symbol on a screen. Thirdly, when you finish a whole year, the calendar can serve as a wonderful artifact. I've laminated mine which serves as a kind of trophy commemorating "The First Year I Meditated."
Cultivating Natural Motivation (20 weeks later)
Those early phases of self-talk, when I tried to change my attitude toward meditation, achieved their goal. At this point, I felt like I valued and prioritized meditation very highly in my life. However, after eight weeks, I was no longer in awe of the changes I was experiencing. Plus, I couldn't summon any more new arguments to myself about meditation, because my attitude had already become very positive.
I'd sit there, waiting to meditate, hearing myself think, Yes, meditation is really good for me, but for some reason, I don't want to meditate. I then realized that I could no longer rely on my attitude toward the idea of meditation to push me forward. Instead, I would have to rely on a natural real-time interest in the activity. My motivation for meditation had to become as natural as my motivation to play video games. I had to want to do it for its own sake, not because of some external benefit, like improving my health.
This is where some key passages in Mindfulness in Plain English came in handy. Gunaratana suggests that it's when we don't want to meditate that we really need meditation. This coincided with my experience. I found that when my motivation to meditate was low, I was also usually in a neurotic or pre-neurotic state-of-mind (i.e. I had woken up on the wrong side of the bed.).
So then I asked myself, "Okay Phil. So you don't want to meditate for 30 minutes. What do you want to do instead for the next 30 minutes?" I would then outline what I would likely do next. In those dystonic mindsets, I imagined myself surfing Reddit or Huffington Post for thirty minutes while munching on something someone said to me in the back-of-my-mind. Or I imagined myself working and re-working my business plans, trying to forever optimize my career choices. When I presented myself with such a dreary picture of the 30-minute alternative to meditation, I immediately pushed away from my desk and went straight to meditating.
This eventually became a habit, and I only occasionally need to do this thought experiment now.
Dealing with Schedule Changes (30 weeks later)
Inevitably, life will throw wrenches at you, and you will find it difficult to meditate because you're on a 3-day road-trip with your family or you live in a college dorm. The first family vacation I went on posed some major challenges. My parents didn't know I meditated, and so I was initially apprehensive about saying, "Hey guys, I need thirty minutes by myself, and I can't be disturbed." So I tried to sneak in my meditation whenever my parents took a gym-break.
When you go someplace new, the first thing you do should is designate a sanctuary. I've found that stairwells in hotels are the best places to meditate if you have other guests staying in your hotel room.
Buy noise-canceling headphones. These have been an indispensable tool for me. They block out lawn-mowers and they let you meditate on an airplane. In other words, they give you more options and opportunities to meditate.
At the start of your day, you should always know when you are going to meditate. I have a normal routine: first exercise, then errands, then meditation, then lunch, and then I go to work. But sometimes, due to sleeping-in or appointments, it's not convenient to meditate in the morning. When this happens, I immediately look for the next most convenient time in my schedule. If I anticipate there are potential interruptions to the new plan, I find back-ups, and I cancel some other commitments. i.e. if you can't find room, make room.
Oh, and I finally told my parents I meditated. They love the idea of it, primarily because they see how much it's improved my life. Now, whenever I meditate at their house, I put a little sign on my door that says, "Please do not disturb for the next 30 min. Thanks!" and everybody in the house respects it.
My Current Meditation Setup (now, 56 weeks later)
I meditate for 30 minutes every morning before I start my day. I follow the vipassana practice of monitoring my breath. My techniques come from Mindfulness in Plain English and Wherever You Go, There You Are. I fix my attention to a spot under my ribcage where I can feel my chest expand and contract. If I get distracted by thoughts for more than 5-15 breaths, I follow these five steps: I estimate how many breaths I missed because of the train of thought, I notice the content of my distraction, I observe my mental state, I observe my state of distractedness dissipate, and then I return my focus back to my breath. I try not to switch to counting my distractions too often, so as to keep the primary focus on my breath.
I sit upright in a chair, but I don't force my posture, and sometimes I lean against the backrest. I use the Clock app on my iPhone (which is on mute), and I set a count-down timer to 30 minutes with a harp sound to finish.
It's taken me a year to get to this specific setup, and I still tweak my process every couple weeks. Those books should help you with your personalized progression.
If you like this blog post, please be on the look-out for my upcoming book Dear Charlotte, which tells all about my journey through self-improvement.
TINJ said on February 25, 2012 11:22 PM:
Hey there. Are you pursuing "enlightenment" at all? If not, why not?
Not pursuing it isn't a waste of time. You will develop concentration and calm, but these are the first level of meditation.