How to get rid of excuses and start meditating

by phil on Tuesday May 10, 2011 2:03 AM

One of the most common questions I get from my post on the benefits of meditation is, "How do I stay committed to meditation?" The common excuse is, "Who has the time?" I usually counter with, "Well, who has time to exercise?" Arguably, meditation, which is a form of mental exercise, is more important than physical exercise. I started meditating 15 weeks ago, and since then, I haven't missed a single day's 30-minute session. I'm confident that I will be a lifelong meditator, and here's how I became this way.

Know what to expect

In exercise you can see muscles grow and fat disappear. But in meditation what do you see? I read a study showing that just eight weeks of daily meditation will increase gray matter densities in parts of the brain associated with empathy, stress-regulation, self-awareness, etc. Furthermore, the participants meditated for only an average of 27 minutes each day. I had read meditation studies before, but this was the first time I saw one laid out so specifically. This is a key lesson from the book Flow, about the need to have clear measurements and feedback. While I can't afford an MR scan, the study gave me confidence that all I had to do was duplicate those specific inputs (8 weeks x 27 minutes daily), and the output should be a relaxed, livelier, and happier new me.

Visualize how your program will play out

I then forwarded this study to a couple friends, and they suggested we form a group and try it on ourselves. Instead of jumping onboard immediately, though, I waffled for 24 hours. It turns out that those 24 hours were the most crucial in enhancing my commitment. In that time period, I reflected on my previous attempts at meditation. Why didn't I stick with it then? Why would this time be any different? So I visualized myself in the coming weeks taking the time, every morning to meditate. I tried to anticipate what scheduling challenges I would encounter, and how I would mitigate them. I mentally made room in my life for 30 minutes, every day, for eight weeks of just sitting.

By doing this, I also foresaw my initial excitement waning and excuses increasing. I then set out to defeat each excuse one-by-one.

Get rid of excuses

I don't have the time
If you can make time for the gym, you can make time for meditation. I spend an average of one-and-a-half hours every other day running and lifting weights. And since mental health is more important to total well-being that physical health, then clearly I can justify a half-hour for meditation.

It's a waste of time
Continuing on the exercise idea, I realized I live in a city that reveres working out. When you see people jogging and biking every day, you get conditioned into having positive associations about exercise. I imagine 95% of Austinites at the very least feel like they should be exercising. So what I had to do was condition myself to revere meditation. To do this, I visualized friends who were balanced, centered, and confident. I asked myself, "Wouldn't it be great to be as calm as so-and-so? Wouldn't it great to always respond with as much equipoise as so-and-so does?"

What's the point?
The words you use in your self-talk make a big difference. Our Western culture has little associated with the word "meditation." So I re-labeled it according to values that are already a part of my life. So instead of thinking about "meditation practice," I think about reducing neuroses, reducing overthinking, and achieving peace-of-mind and centeredness.

This is dumb
Another technique is to consider all the famous people who've meditated. I Googled around and discovered that classic figures like Einstein, Edison, Mozart and Wordsworth all practiced some form of meditation. Meditation can't be that dumb if these people sought it out.

I don't have the time (again)
What you quickly realize is how much time you save by meditating. So much time is wasted overanalyzing things. And so much time is wasted in recovering from those overanalyses. You will more than make up for the time you spend meditating when you minimize overthinking.

Join a group

After I felt confident my excuses were quieted, I joined my friends in meditating. We formed a Facebook group to share articles and support each other. We created a Google spreadsheet to tick off each day we meditated. Again, drawing from concepts in Flow, the spreadsheet provided a convenient visual representation of my progress. Seeing that column of consistent checkmarks grow was satisfying and motivating. Also the knowledge that others were watching my progress made me work harder to keep up.

Much has been written about the power of social reinforcement when it comes to commitment, and I believe the key is to join a small group of friends you highly respect. So consider a group of three close friends, like I did, as opposed to a group with whom you have weak ties.

Maintain your confidence

Another trick is at the beginning of each session, I close my eyes and evaluate my attitude toward meditation in general. Is my attitude positive? If not, then what are my excuses and how can I undo them? This daily attitude check is crucial to keeping consistent.

I also think beginning meditators often lose touch because they're unsure of the validity of their practice. This is why I picked up two meditation books, Wherever You Are There You Are and Mindfulness in Plain English (free online) so that I can compare and contrast their viewpoints. Although I'm not yet an expert on meditation, I've synthesized enough from various sources to have a sense of what meditation canon is about. You don't want to be sitting there asking yourself, "Am I doing it right?"

Just like with any disciplined habit, your meta-meditations are just as important as your actual meditations. This is especially true early on, as you transform from someone without the habit to someone with. If you can keep up meditating consistently for eight weeks, I guarantee you will keep it up for a very long time.

(Photo credit: Einar Einarsson Kvaran)


ezra said on June 30, 2011 5:50 AM:

Well if Wordsworth did it, I'm all over this!

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