It’s early January, and many people who made New Year’s resolutions are already going “Oops!” as they realize they’ve already missed a morning at the gym, binged on something unhealthy, or forgotten to meditate.
It’s very hard to change habits.
The habit I’m most interested in is daily meditation, which is something I nailed a long time ago. Mostly my interest is in helping other people to establish that habit. It’s something I struggled with for many years, until finally I had a breakthrough. I’ve shared that breakthrough with many people, and it’s helped them too.
The breakthrough doesn’t consist of just one thing. In fact the breakthrough involves recognizing that there is no one thing that will get you to the point where you’re what I call a Rock-Solid Daily Meditator. What we need is to build up an interlocking suite of tools and strategies that support daily meditation.
- Becoming a rock-solid regular meditator
- Overcoming resistance to meditation (a self-compassionate guide)
- Waking up together (Six benefits of spiritual community)
- The seven top frustrations for beginning meditators (and how to overcome them)
None of those tools and strategies relies on willpower. In fact, willpower is fairly useless. One study showed that a six-week training course in self-control failed to help participants to change any habits whatsoever in their lives. Even worse, participants noted that the main side-effect of the training was that they felt emotionally drained. Researchers have also found that people who are good at resisting temptations are those who don’t feel tempted in the first place, meaning that they don’t even need self-control. For example, those who apparently have good self-control tend to avoid putting themselves into positions where they need to resist temptation. Rather than walk past the donut shop and end up battling themselves, they simply walk down a different street. They put the alarm clock on the other side of the room so that they aren’t tempted to stay in bed.
The theory behind willpower is that you can change a habit based on wanting it to change. If you can just wish it hard enough, then it will be so.
The Buddha offered a hilarious illustration of the absurdity of this proposition:
Suppose a man were to throw a large boulder into a deep lake of water, and a great crowd of people, gathering and congregating, would pray, praise, and circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart [saying,] ‘Rise up, O boulder! Come floating up, O boulder! Come float to the shore, O boulder!’ What do you think: would that boulder — because of the prayers, praise, and circumambulation of that great crowd of people — rise up, come floating up, or come float to the shore?
Well, I think it’s hilarious!
What the Buddha points out is that if you want something to happen, it’s not enough just to want it. You have to do the things that support that thing happening.
So here are some of the key points that I teach people who want to meditate daily.
Set easily attainable goals
You go to a meditation class and do 30- or 40-minute meditations. And the teacher tells you that you should practice every day. So you try to fit a 30- or 40-minute meditation into your already busy lifestyle and find — surprise, surprise — that it’s hard to do this.
Yes, some people are able to carve out that amount of time each day for a new habit, but most people can’t. And it’s not because of a lack of willpower, any more than not being able to get your size 8 feet into a pair of size 6 shoes is because of a lack of willpower. You’re simply trying something that’s almost impossible.
So instead, aim to sit for just five minutes every day.
Yes, it’s not a lot of time. But that’s the point. Everyone has five minutes to spare every day. If you’re pressed, you can head to the bathroom at work and meditate in a stall. You can meditate for five minutes after you’ve finished reading your child to sleep. You can meditate in the car when you arrive at work, or meditate on the bus or train.
I’m not saying that five minutes is enough. Sure, it can be enough to bring about a little more calm, but it probably isn’t going to change your entire day.
But what it does do is to help you create and sustain a powerful habit. Because once you’re meditating for five minutes a day, you find that it’s not that hard to increase it to eight minutes, ten minutes, fifteen, twenty … and now you’re doing something that really can change your whole day, and even your whole life.
Hack the meaning of the word “day”
A day, for the purposes of meditating daily, is not the 24 hours between one midnight and the next (a “clock day”), but is the time between waking and going back to sleep again (an “organic day”).
This gets us around the problem of going to bed after midnight and realizing that you haven’t sat yet. If you’re counting by clock days, you’re screwed. If you’re on organic days, you can pull off a quick five minute sit and you’re still on track.
All the above is vital, but even more vital is that you actually do need to have the intention to meditate daily. I don’t mean simply having a vague thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if I meditated every day, instead of just every now and then.” I mean “It would be good to meditate every day; how can I make that happen?”
So we’re back to doing the things that support the habit of daily meditation, rather than trying to “wish” it into existence.
To meditate daily requires planning. Planning makes manifest your intention. It takes the idea or desire, and brings it into the world as an actual thing.
So you need to plan. When are you going to meditate? For how long? How are you going to time it? Are you going to use a guided meditation? Are you going to do it with someone, even if they’re not physically present with you, but instead you’re on a Zoom call or phone call with them?
If you don’t plan, but hope that you’ll somehow fit your five minutes in sometime, you’ll fail. You’ll forget. You’ve don’t have even a wish at that point, never mind an intention.
Beware of the inner voice that says, “I don’t like planning. I want to be spontaneous!” That’s the part of you that doesn’t want to meditate speaking. It wants you to spontaneously do something other than meditate.
So be clear in your planning.
Planning is great. But there’s a saying along the lines of “You make plans, and the universe laughs.”
Events are going to crop up that get in the way of your meditation. You’ve decided to sit before you leave for work, and one of your kids gets sick, or there’s a work emergency that means you have to leave early, or your alarm doesn’t go off, or someone knocks on the door asking you to support some cause or other. The permutations are endless.
Research shows that people who have a Plan B are vastly more likely to stick at their habits. They anticipate what they will do if Plan A is frustrated. They have a backup plan that’s just as specific as Plan A was.
One implication of this is that if your Plan A is to meditate just before going to sleep, then you can’t have a plan B. So that tells you that planning to meditate last thing at night is okay as a standby in emergencies, but it’s not good for a regular practice.
Hack your sense of self
Once you have a few consecutive days of meditation under your belt, you can bring on the most powerful strategy I know of for supporting a daily meditation practice. It’s a simple mantra, to be repeated frequently:
“I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.”
What this does is change your sense of who you are.
If you’ve tried and failed to set up a daily meditation practice before, you build into your sense of self the idea, “I am the kind of person who can’t keep up a daily meditation practice. I lack the willpower.”
This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you can’t meditate daily, you won’t. You’ll hit one of those times when you don’t really feel like meditating, and because you think of yourself as someone who can’t meditate every day and doesn’t meditate every day, you’ll cave and end up missing a sit.
When you repeatedly say “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am,” this too becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You hit the same crisis point where you really don’t feel like meditating, but you say to yourself, “Snap out of it! I meditate every day. It’s just what I do.” And you sit.
It’s this tool more than any other that’s kept me meditating daily. And I know that some of my students have found themselves meditating for several thousand straight days as a result.
But prepare for slip-ups
I felt terrible the first time that I missed a day after many months of meditating consistently. I felt like I’d failed. Like I should give up.
With me it was the result of being very busy with work and having two young kids to take care of. I was so frazzled that I forgot to create a Plan B, went to bed without even realizing I hadn’t sat, and work up the next morning feeling the way I would if I’d accidentally driven over a beloved pet.
Fortunately I pulled myself together and kept going, although I know others haven’t.
I think of missing a day as a slip-up, not a failure.
I think of missing a day as an opportunity to learn. Have I been forgetting my mantra? Have I forgotten to plan? To have a Plan B? If a day were to come up again that was as crazy as that one, how would I do things differently?
I have a ton more strategies, but I can’t cram them into one already very long blog post.
If you want to learn more, I have a Get Your Sit Together online course running at present, which you’re free to join. I also have a four-week live Get Your Sit Together course through the New York Insight Meditation Center coming up (it’s on Zoom), and you can register for that through their website. Both of these include community support, and if I’d had time to write about one more strategy above, it would have been the power of friendship and community.