By Anne McCready Heinen
Community Meditation Senior Teacher
Neurobehavioral research shows all kinds of great ways to start and stick with a new habit. But do these techniques work for meditation?
The short answer: Yes! In addition to looking to your teachers and the excellent books and articles out there for tips on getting a consistent practice rolling, you can increase your odds of success by applying hacks from people who study the best ways to turn intentions into repeated actions.
One of my favorite pieces of habit-creating advice comes from Gretchen Rubin, author of Better than Before. The secret, she says, is to “pinpoint the specific strategies will work for us. From finding the right time to begin a new habit, to setting up a counter-intuitive system of reward, to using the pleasure of treats to strengthen our good habits,” explore what works for you.
One way to discover those personal strategies is to play within a framework. In the bestseller Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Ones, James Clear recommends four guidelines that are based on brain science: Make the new habit obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.
How does that apply to meditation?
Making it obvious starts with creating a plan and a place to meditate. Studies show that people who make a plan to engage in a new activity (“I’m going to meditate Tuesday and Thursday mornings for a half hour at 7 a.m. with Mind Oasis”) are way more likely to actually do it.
The setting is key as well. Clear calls it “priming the environment” by organizing it for its intended purpose. If you’re joining Community Meditation in the morning, the night before, make sure that your chair or cushion is in place at home or work where you won’t be disturbed. Have the link to the class up on your computer and ready to click so that when the time comes, there’s no obstacle to joining.
If you’re sitting on your own, identify and prepare a quiet space, perhaps even creating a simple altar. Do you like to light a candle or incense while you sit? Have it set out with matches nearby. An alarm on your phone can remind you,”Time to meditate!”
Making it attractive. Stoke your desire to meditate by bundling it with something you want to do. This can be as simple as, “After I meditate, I’ll drink a cup of tea.” If you like checking email, tell yourself you can check your inbox after you sit. Do you like visuals of your progress? Keeping a meditation journal or chart can be a great way to tie together the action of sitting with the reward of checking a box and seeing gold stars pile up. Mind Oasis now has a Gold Star Meditation Group on Facebook to track your progress.
Making it easy. Repeating a new habit many times makes it automatic and easier. To establish a meditation practice, it’s better to sit often for a short amount of time than once in awhile for a long time. That’s because reps help make the new habit more automatic in our lives, and thus easier to do. “Habits form based on frequency,” Clear says. “Energy should go into building better rituals, not chasing better results.”
Make it satisfying. Identify the positive sensory experiences that meditation brings you. An activity that creates feelings of pleasure and reward is one that the brain will want you to repeat. It’s wonderful to consider the long-term benefits that you’ll experience after meditating consistently for a period of time, but immediate rewards help you return to the cushion.
Do you feel more relaxed and in touch with your inner life after meditating? When you meditate with community, do you feel supported and seen? Do you simply feel good that you sat, knowing that your practice benefits yourself and others, even if it’s not 100 percent easy for you yet? Notice, note and remember what you enjoy in the moment.
Be kind to yourself. No matter what approach you use to establish a consistent meditation practice, be sure to sprinkle in plenty of self compassion. Know that part of being human is the difficulty of establishing new habits, and that you have plenty of company if you fail at first or have trouble finding the approach that works best for you. Instead of being mean to yourself if you don’t immediately realize your goal, offer yourself kindness and curiosity. Just like our coming back to the breath with gentleness when the mind wanders, you can compassionately come back to establishing a practice as many times as it takes.
Establishing a new habit like meditation is a challenge, but neurobehavior-based recommendations can increase your odds of success. Share what works for you or the challenges you’re experiencing with your fellow practitioners the next time you join a Community Meditation session or the Gold Star Meditation Group Facebook page!