I struggled to find a natural rhythm for meditation. In my youth, the rapidity of my ideas gave me a sense of vitality. My head was buzzing with new and interesting thoughts and associations. Mindfulness meditation training, on the other hand, requires you to just observe your thoughts and let them pass. It seemed impossible to ever acquire this expertise. The accompanying feeling of ennui didn't help matters, however. It didn't bother me that my thoughts were jumping around like a monkey's.
Mindfulness and meditation were already gaining attention, but now it was impossible to ignore. It was a turning point in my life as well. After becoming a parent almost ten years ago and spending years reporting on heavy subjects like celebrity suicides and sexual abuse scandals, not to mention navigating the social and political upheaval of the Trump era, I began yearning for more tranquil waters within.
As we approach yet another new year, you may be thinking about how to begin or recommit to a meditation practice. First, it's fine if you had to take a roundabout route to get here. In an effort to become "someone who makes time, every day, to quiet my thoughts," I downloaded seven different meditation apps in 2017 and chronicled the experience in a blog post. Following an initial period of intense dedication that lasted a few months, I gradually eased back into my profession. After that, I merely dabbled in meditation here and there until the COVID pandemic, when I realized that regular practice for 10 to 15 minutes a day was necessary to deal with the endless what-ifs. Then, this summer, I contracted COVID and found myself spending large portions of each day meditating as a means of passing the time, alleviating discomfort, and dealing with the unknown timeline of when I would be back to normal.
Recently, I reached a milestone that my skeptic past self never would have believed: 100 weeks of daily practice, usually between 10 and 30 minutes each time, using my favorite meditation app, Ten Percent Happier. It was the typical "after meditation" feeling of having one's life completely transformed.
There are three main takeaways for me from this metamorphosis. The first and most important step is to practice every day for as long as you believe is necessary without aiming for perfection. Consistent practice puts you on a path toward realizing meditation's advantages. Second, despite my initial reluctance and skepticism, I can now say that I did eventually experience these purported benefits, which may include less stress and enhanced emotion regulation, and that doing so was incredibly satisfying. Finally, as you learn to control your emotions and reactions, resist the temptation to use your newfound ability as a crutch. Having a stronger emotional resilience is great, but it can backfire and cause some people to become emotionally numb or distant.
For further explanation of each of my takeaways, please refer to the following:
1. stop trying to be flawless and start putting in the time.
I would immediately go back in time and start doing longer and longer guided meditations while letting go of the illusion that there is a "perfect" method to practice.
I merely meditated for five or ten minutes a day for the first 100 weeks. I would tell myself that I just didn't have the time for extended sessions. While this is sometimes the case, I'll be honest and say that I have used brief exercises only to "tick the box."
However, studies show that in order to get the advantages of meditation, regular practice over several weeks is required, ideally for at least 10 minutes every day. A study published in 2018 in Behavioral Brain Research compared meditators to a control group who listened to a podcast and found no significant differences after 13 minutes of daily practice for four weeks. However, those who kept up their daily 13-minute meditation practice for eight weeks saw improvements in mood, attention, anxiety, and working memory.
I spoke with the study's lead author, Dr. Julia Basso, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech. She explained that the length of the guided meditation was deliberated so that it could fit into the busy schedules of the study's participants. It had to be substantial enough to produce results, but not so lengthy as to be impractical.