Easy meditation: It’s a bit of an oxymoron. I’ve been trying to start a meditation practice for at least a decade. Certainly since Eat, Pray Love came out, and that was 2006.
I had plenty of starts and stops, but when a new challenge arises, like moving, having a baby, or starting a new job, guess what’s the first thing to get crossed off the list? Yep. Meditation. Exercise is the next to go. For a long time this phenomenon had me thinking I was lazy.
I realized it’s because the two incredibly beneficial practices share some hidden psychological barriers.
Easy Meditation Roadblocks, Especially Where Perfectionists and Type-As are Concerned
Meditation really doesn’t have to be hard. But finding a way to stick with it did require some research from me. I think the following psychological barriers are why.
- Time Guilt: Both meditation and exercise can feel indulgent and even selfish in the moment. There is no easy way to explain to your toddler that you can’t play with him right now, no matter what you are doing, but it’s harder when the thing does not seem to have an immediate benefit to him, like making dinner would. This goes for pretty much any family member, actually.
- Focus Overload: With basic meditation techniques, the “goal” (there really shouldn’t be a goal, but let’s just all agree that I’m type A, and therefore everything has a goal, even if I know it doesn’t, REALLY) is to stop thinking. This requires extreme focus on something else, like your breath or a mantra. And well, frankly, it’s a lot of pressure to have to focus and stop thinking! It’s enough to send an anxious perfectionist—the very one who NEEDS to start meditation the most—into a full-blown hyperventilating panic. Yes. Yes, this happened to me. I once got an anxiety attack from attempting to meditate. …More than once.
- Benefit Delay: You eat and you are no longer hungry. You get a “like” on whatever social media platform is currently enjoying your data, and you get a shot of dopamine. You do some freelance work, and you know you are getting paid real money. The benefits with meditation (and exercise) are a little more squishy in the immediate moment. You certainly do get a mood lift in the minutes following a session. The mood lift may wear off, depending how your day is going. Then, in both cases, you see a massive benefit—here is the key—over time. Playing the long game is hard. But I found a way to get around that.
First, let’s make sure there’s a point to doing this at all.
Benefits of Meditation: A Quick Primer
There is a ton of proven literature out there on the benefits of meditation. I’ll just tell you that it’s been practiced by mankind for over 5,000 years and that many, many successful people do it.
That should be enough reason to try, right there.
If it’s not, I can also tell you that in my recent personal experience of actually sticking to it, I have found myself:
- Able to play with my toddler for longer stretches without getting distracted/ bored. This is probably the biggest benefit for me in my life right now. Toddlers really like to do repetitive things. Staying on their level (i.e. NOT glancing at your phone every three minutes) is a monk-like task.
- Slightly more patient with my toddler when he’s melting down (this is going to take time).
- Satisfied with my life, in general.
- Handling stressful work situations without a knee-jerk reaction.
- Able to stay on-task more easily at work and at home.
- Enjoying planning for the future (another important to-do with no immediate payoff)!
- More flexible, in general.
Now that I see this list, these are all incredibly practical benefits. For a “woo-woo” spiritual practice, it turns out meditation is really just a glasses-wearing, type-A productivity geek dressed as an ethereal hippie.
Now, onto the nitty gritty.
How to Start Meditating: Use a Cue and Reward System
I came up with this plan for easy meditation during a week where I did three things:
FIRST: I read the blog post “Buying the Best from the Outset” on Early Retirement Extreme. This blog is not for everyone, but I find it weirdly relaxing, and usually read whatever the latest post is before bed. I’m definitely not as extreme as Jacob, the author, but I love batting his ideas around and seeing if they can apply to me.
The key takeaway of this post is that if you’re tempted to buy something big, like a commuter bike, gym membership, or really nice running shoes, you should first spend some time proving your commitment to the activity that the purchase is attached to.
Before you buy the sneakers, make sure you can run 5K straight, no matter how slowly.
SECOND: I was using the free version of the meditation app, Calm and I wanted to sign up for the paid version to unlock more of the daily 10-minute sessions.
After I read Jacob’s post, I decided to challenge myself. If I could complete the free 7-day series on Calm without missing a day, I’d reward myself a one-month subscription.
THIRD: I read the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I recommend reading this no matter what you’re working on, but in this instance, I took away the idea of using cues.
According to the research studies cited in the book, our brains have these reptile-like cores that perform actions without any conscious thought. This allows us to complete complex processes, like backing a car out of the driveway, while our conscious minds are elsewhere.
The way our brains know to trigger these actions, or habits, is based on some cue. In the direway example, it’s getting in the car and buckling your seatbelt, let’s say.
We all have a ton of cues like this in our lives that set off habits. You just have to start thinking about a habit you’d like to change to uncover the cue. For me, I started thinking about how I snooze incessantly in the mornings. I probably hit snooze on my phone alarm five times a morning (yes, my husband is a saint).
- My cue is the phone alarm.
- My habit is to hit snooze.
- I really want to stop hitting snooze.
Morning Meditation: How I Pulled It All Together
The plan I came up with is this.
- When my alarm goes off in the morning (cue), rather than hit snooze, I replace snooze, with opening the Calm app.
- Once the app is open, it gives you this very soothing welcome screen and you can start your daily 10-minute session right away.
- I pop in headphones, sit up against my pillows, and follow the app.
See? Easy meditation!
Why Easy Meditation Works
The transition from groggy sleep to morning meditation is much easier for me that the transition from “go go go” all day to evening meditation. In this way, I was able to complete my seven-day challenge AND reward myself with a subscription. I started a 14-day challenge right after that, and haven’t looked back for months.
Disclaimer: I have missed a morning here and there, when my son gets me up before my alarm, but even then I was sometimes able to eek out a session later in the day.
By that point, the long-term benefits had become clear, and it was much easier to talk myself into “sacrificing” 10 minutes to be a better mom, wife, employee, etc.