In my most recent blog post (Meditation – It’s for Every Mind!), I talked about how meditation can be helpful for anyone who has a human mind and how regular practice changes the structure and function of the brain at the neurological level. Benefits include such widely sought-after outcomes as improved focus, reduced stress and anxiety, better mood, and enhanced sleep. Nonetheless, many new meditators have trouble sticking with the practice. Meditation students in my clinic, workshops, and webinars typically voice the same concerns, such as not knowing if they’re “doing it right”, feeling like they don’t have enough time, being unsure about where to start, or believing they have to empty their mind of thoughts. This is the first in a series of posts designed to validate and address these common obstacles people encounter with meditation.
Perhaps the most frequent complaint I hear is, “I don’t have time to meditate.” This misconception stems from the notion that, in order for meditation to be beneficial, a person must meditate for long periods of time. This belief is a setup for failure. Initially, it’s hard for most people to sit and meditate for more than a few minutes at a time. They become very restless, or fall asleep, or get lost in endless mind-wandering. To set yourself up for success, it’s important to be realistic, patient, and practical.
Let’s start with being realistic about the total amount of meditation time per session. A 2018 study conducted by researchers at Swarthmore, Mass General, and Yale found that even short bursts of meditation (10 minutes per day) can deliver powerful benefits, enhancing cognitive performance. Now, 10 minutes can feel like an eternity to a new meditator with an untrained mind. At the beginning, establishing a regular habit of practicing meditation is more important than racking up meditation minutes. I recommend starting with 3-minute mini-meditations like the 3-Minute Mindful Breathing Meditation I mentioned in my last post. Aim for consistency, gradually increasing the number of days you meditate per week. Once you’ve established a daily or near-daily practice, extend the time per session to 5 minutes and then 7 minutes and so on, until you can semi-comfortably complete a 20-25 minute meditation.
Remember that meditation is a skill developed through systematic mental training. Similar to getting in physical shape, it may take quite a while to get your mind in shape, and you may experience some temporary discomfort or frustration in the meantime. That’s perfectly normal. Be sure to congratulate yourself for any effort you make to “take your mind to the gym” and recognize that you are doing something wonderful for yourself.
Finally, be practical. Use a timer to structure your meditation session. Technology-based assistance can be quite useful in this regard. For example, the timer on the free Insight Timer app will allow you to predetermine the length of your meditation session and select a bell to sound at the beginning and end. This eliminates what can otherwise become a huge distraction (“How much time do I have left??”) and gives your mind permission to let go of the need to keep track of the time while you’re meditating.
Stay tuned for my next blog post, in which I’ll give you some tips and tools to help you tackle another common obstacle of new meditators, excessive mind-wandering. Until then, happy meditating!
By Stephanie Best, PhD – Licensed Clinical Psychologist