Beginning and maintaining a meditation practice, like establishing any other habit, can be challenging. It seems like it should be easy to choose to do something that we know is good for us, but anyone who has tried to quit smoking, give up sugar, or start an exercise program knows that it isn’t. But why is it so hard? Are we just lazy, thick-headed or gluttonous? Nah. It’s not you, my friend, it’s your brain.
Blazing new trails
Imagine for a moment that it’s 1720 or so, and you live on a farm with your family, fairly distant from the next town or farm. Let’s say on Sundays you hitch up your horse and wagon and haul your family to the neighbor’s farm for dinner. After the first few trips, your wheels would start to make ruts in the earth between your house and the neighbor’s. After many trips, those ruts would get deeper and deeper, making it easier and easier to make the trip. After a while, the ruts are so deep and your horse is so trained that you don’t actually need to guide him. You just end up at your neighbor’s house with little effort.
A similar thing happens in our brains when we do something repeatedly. The brain wants to automate as many things as possible so that it can devote more attention to learning new things and watching for danger. So anything we do repeatedly over short periods of time will become automated. If you get into the habit of eating ice cream after dinner, after a while you don’t even think about whether to eat the ice cream — you just find yourself looking down at a bowl of rocky road that’s already half finished. You’re on autopilot.
Now imagine a new neighbor moves in near your 1720 farm. You want to hitch up the wagon to go visit. But what happens? Your wagon wheels really want to stay in the ruts you’ve already made. It’s really hard to go in a new direction because the old one is so perfectly fitted to your wheels. So you have to work hard to turn that wagon, and it’s a bumpy ride at first. It feels like your wagon might break, or you might fall off. It feels uncertain and uncomfortable for quite a few of those early trips.
Choosing any new behavior will feel like this at first. It is infinitely easier to just follow the old path than it is to blaze a new one. Once you do the same thing enough times, your brain actually changes to make that thing easier to do in the future, much like the wagon ruts in my example. After enough repetitions of the new behavior (visiting the new neighbor), that route will have cozy little ruts for your wheels, as well, and will become automated.
Be willing to feel like you’re failing
In my old gym, there was a phrase written on the wall. I’ll paraphrase: In order to do something well, you first have to be willing to do it badly. When people first learn to meditate, they often feel that they aren’t good at it or are doing it wrong. It feels uncomfortable to just sit still and watch your breath or your thoughts. It feels wrong, because it goes against all the prior learning of our productivity-defines-our-worth culture.
But sitting still to meditate for a while is worth it. And guess what? It also can change your brain for the better. It improves concentration and focus, emotional regulation and compassion, as well as bringing about an increased sense of well-being. (There are more studies than I can cite here, but feel free to Google). And every day that you sit down to meditate, you strengthen the habit of sitting to meditate and make it easier to do. But first you have to get through the boredom, the fear of missing out, and the worry that you’re doing it wrong.
It helps to refer here to an analogy about meditation as taming a wild horse. Your mind is used to going wherever the hell it wants, all the time. What should I eat for lunch? Why did I say that thing 5 years ago? I really should call my grandmother. I wonder why Tarzan didn’t have a beard.
So the early days of meditation can be a struggle. Your wild horse of a mind does NOT want to be tamed. It will throw everything at you that it can find to get you to give up, get up and do something more entertaining. Take these thoughts for what they are, just thoughts. Before you sit, make a list of all the things you need to do today so your brain knows it doesn’t need to keep reciting them to you. Set a timer so your brain knows it doesn’t need to worry that you’re going to fall asleep or forget to get ready for work. Give yourself permission to feel like you’re a terrible meditator for a while, and commit to doing it every day. Remind yourself of your intention, and sit. down. on. the. cushion. Give yourself some grace, and keep going. Let this habit become automated, and pretty soon you will feel like a “real” meditator.
Be well, friends.