After a month of working on the meditation habit, you’ve either gotten a pretty solid habit down, or you’ve learned a few things about the habit.
The temptation might be to rush into the next habit, and take the habit you’ve just created for granted.
I think that would be a mistake.
The meditation habit is such a fundamental one that it will have incredible benefits for your future habits if you keep it in place, and I think it can lead to increased happiness and appreciation for life and peacefulness. So it’s important to keep the habit going … but it’s at a shaky place right now for most of you. It’s at the point where it’s becoming more automatic, but it could easily be dropped. That’s because it’s not as firmly ingrained as brushing your teeth or drinking coffee are for many people.
There are three reasons the meditation habit isn’t as firmly ingrained as brushing your teeth or drinking coffee:
- There isn’t a big negative consequence for failure. If you don’t drink coffee (for those who’ve been drinking it for years), you might feel a loss, perhaps even physical withdrawal but definitely a mental loss of something you enjoy in the morning. If you don’t brush your teeth, your teeth will feel gross, and you’ll worry that your breath will smell bad when you talk to others. For meditation, if you dropped it right now, you might not really feel the loss. Solution: Increase accountability and your commitment, so that it would be embarrassing not to meditate for three straight days (set up a big consequence), and/or start to feel the loss on the days you don’t meditate.
- You might not see how great your day is after you meditate yet. When you drink coffee, you might really enjoy the experience, and even look forward to it. When you brush your teeth, you feel good afterwards. When you meditate, you might just feel like you’re checking off a box, habit done. Solution: Start to notice how good you feel after you meditate, how it improves your day. More on this below.
- You haven’t done it long enough yet. The other habits I’ve mentioned might be ones you’ve been doing for years. Most of you have only been meditating for a month (some of you for a few months now, which is awesome). The longer you’ve meditated, the stronger the habit. A month is not very long in the lives of habit (compared to years for more ingrained habits), but it’s a great start. Things start to become more automatic by this time, and it’s much easier to keep the habit going than to start it from scratch. Even a few months isn’t fully ingrained yet, but it’s becoming much stronger by now and is likely to keep going. Solution: Keep at it. Don’t overdo it, just slow and steady. Enjoy the process. Learn from little mistakes, make adjustments.
So let’s say you decide to keep the habit going … how should you do that? Some recommendations:
- Keep accountability. Make a commitment to your accountability team, or a spouse or close friends, to continue the practice for another month, reporting to them weekly. Set up some kind of consequence for missing three straight days, something you’d rather avoid.
- Stay small. If you’re up to (say) 7 minutes now, don’t try to jump to 20. Stay small, and you’re much more likely to continue. Add a minute per week if you like (only if it feels easy), but the length of the habit is not important at all right now. What’s most important is that you keep it going. You shouldn’t ever feel that you don’t have time for the habit, nor that it’s getting hard to sit for that long. This is really important.
- Focus on enjoyment and benefits. As you sit, enjoy it, don’t think of it as something you have to rush through. Notice how you feel afterwards, and during the day, when you meditate. You can expand on the benefits (see section below), but no matter what, it’s important that the benefits of the meditation outweigh the time you spend, or you’ll stop.
- Feel the loss on days you missed. If you do miss, for some reason, that’s OK … as long as you feel the loss. Feel that this is a negative thing in your life, and maybe find a way to do it later (as you would with brushing your teeth, for example). Really, make this a way to take care of yourself, just like showering, eating and brushing your teeth — non-optional.
- Set up a quick weekly review, learn & adjust. Each week, report to your accountability team/partner, but also review how you did for the week, what got in the way, what you can do next time to avoid missing. Adjust your method based on what you’ve learned. Write down the adjustments, so that you have an evolving habit plan that gets better and better each week.
OK, we have a plan to keep the habit going. What else should we think about going forward from here? The practice itself.
Ways to Expand the Practice
There are several ways to expand on the practice:
- Lengthen it. You can slowly expand the length of time you practice. I wouldn’t rush to do this, because there aren’t as many benefits as the other two ways to expand practice below, and there are greater risks. The risks are that you’ll make the practice so long that it becomes difficult or a chore, or that you no longer have time for it. So do this slowly and with care. I think 20 minutes is the longest most people will need to go, and if you do 20 minutes for a year, only then should you go longer. But this is a personal choice.
- Deepen it. Let’s say you get to 10 minutes a day, and this is becoming easy to do. You can now go longer, or you can increase the quality of your meditation. For example, you can try to improve your ability to focus on your breath and body during that 10 minutes, so that your mind is wandering less of the time. Or you could examine your breath in more detail, paying attention to how it changes in each fleeting moment, learning about the impermanent nature of life. Or you could expand your awareness so that you encompass your breath, body, and surroundings at once, and explore what that’s like. Or you could practice meditating on phrases like, “May I be happy, may I be free of suffering” and then others like, “May my daughter/son/spouse/friend (choose one) be happy, may she be free of suffering”. There are other ways to explore the practice too, but these are good places to start for a couple months.
- Take it to the rest of your day. Sitting practice is really mindfulness practice for the rest of the things you do in life, from chores and driving to work and being with others. You can start to take what you do in sitting practice — mindfulness of body, breath, surroundings, thoughts — and practice those as you go through your day. It’s hard to remember, so you might have little mindfulness reminders spread throughout your day. Another useful thing is to have phrases you might pop into your head at different times, like “Be mindful of breath” or “Be mindful of body” or “May all beings be happy and free of suffering”. Whatever you’re trying to be mindful of, have a phrase that reminds you of that.
So those are three things you could do to expand on what you’ve been doing this month. I would recommend only doing one per week, so that you get good at that before trying something new.
Best wishes as you continue and expand on your practice. This has been one of the most rewarding habits for me, both in terms of the actual time I spend doing it and the mindful benefits I find throughout my life. I wish the same happiness on all of you.