I didn't find it easy to meditate. When I was younger, the speed of my thoughts made me feel alive. My mind felt like it was full of interesting new ideas and connections. On the other hand, I found it annoying that mindfulness meditation training required me to watch my thoughts and let them go. It seemed so hard to learn that skill. Also, the boredom that came with it didn't help. I was happy to let my so-called "monkey mind," which has a lot of thoughts that aren't related to each other, run wild.
But there was too much talk about mindfulness and meditation to ignore. Even my life changed. I became a parent almost ten years ago, and I spent years reporting on serious things like high-profile suicides and sexual abuse scandals. I also had to deal with the social and political chaos of the Trump era. Eventually, I started to want calmer waters inside of me.
With the new year coming up quickly, you may be looking for ways to start or restart meditating. First, know that it's okay if you have to take a long way to get here. In 2017, I wrote about how I tried seven different meditation apps to become "someone who makes time every day to quiet their mind." After a few months of hard work, I stopped practicing as much. After that, I didn't do much meditation until the COVID pandemic. Then, I had to meditate every day for 10 to 15 minutes to deal with all the what-ifs. Then I got COVID this summer, and I spent a lot of time meditating to pass the time, deal with my symptoms, and deal with not knowing when I would be back to normal.
My favorite meditation app, Ten Percent Happier, recently told me that I had reached a milestone that my skeptical past self would never have thought possible: 100 weeks of daily practice, usually for 10 to 30 minutes each time. I felt like a different person after meditating, just like every cliched story about how it changed someone.
I learned three important lessons from this change. First, it's important to practice every day for as long as you feel comfortable and not try to get better. Meditation can be helpful, but you need to practice it regularly to get the most out of it. Second, after a lot of resistance and doubt, I can say that these benefits, which may include less stress and better control of emotions, were real for me and very rewarding, even though they took a long time to develop. Lastly, even as you get calmer and less angry, it's important not to use this skill to avoid feeling strong emotions. Even though it's good to be able to handle your feelings better, some people can become numb or detached as a result.
Here are more details about each lesson I learned:
1. Quit trying to be perfect and just do the work.
If I could go back in time, I would gradually make my guided meditations longer while giving up the idea that there is a "right" way to practice.
During most of the first 100 weeks of my life, I only meditated for five to ten minutes a day. I often told myself that I didn't have time for longer sessions. Even though this is sometimes true, I'll admit that I sometimes used a short practice to "check a box."
Scientific research, on the other hand, shows that the benefits of meditation don't show up until you've been doing it every day for a few weeks, maybe for at least 10 minutes or longer. In a 2018 study published in Behavioral Brain Research, scientists compared meditators to a control group that listened to a podcast and found that 13 minutes of daily practice over four weeks didn't make any difference. But after eight weeks of the same practice, those who kept up their daily 13-minute practice had less bad moods, better attention, less anxiety, and better working memories.
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, told me that the length of the guided meditation was chosen so that participants could fit it into their busy days. It had to be long enough to help, but not so long that it was impossible.