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Meditation did not come easily to me. When I was younger, I felt enlivened by the rapid-fire pace of my thoughts. My inner world felt exciting, full of novel ideas and connections. By contrast, I found observing thoughts and letting them pass, as mindfulness meditation training requires, annoying. The skill seemed so far out of reach. An attendant sense of boredom didn’t help, either. I was content to let my so-called monkey mind, with its restless and disruptive thoughts, run wild.
But the buzz around mindfulness and meditation became too loud to ignore. My life also changed. What with becoming a parent nearly a decade ago as well as spending years reporting on serious topics like high-profile suicides and sexual abuse scandals — not to mention navigating the social and political tumult of the Trump era — eventually I began craving calmer internal waters.
With another new year fast approaching, you may also be looking for ways to start, or restart, a meditation practice. First, know that it’s OK if your journey toward this is circuitous. In 2017, I wrote about my odyssey trying seven different meditation apps in an effort to turn myself into “someone who makes time, every day, to quiet my mind.” After a burst of commitment that lasted a few months, my practice waned. From then, I only dabbled in meditation until the COVID pandemic, when practicing regularly for 10 to 15 minutes a day became essential for dealing with the nonstop what-ifs. Then I caught COVID this summer and spent chunks of the day meditating to pass the time, cope with symptoms, and manage the uncertainty of when I’d get back to normal.
Recently, my go-to meditation app, Ten Percent Happier, showed that I’d hit a milestone my formerly skeptical self would’ve never imagined: 100 weeks of consecutive daily practice, typically between 10 and 30 minutes each time. True to every clichéd meditation conversion story, I felt like a changed person.
Through this transformation, I learned three key lessons. First, practicing every day, for as much time as feels comfortable and without striving for perfection, is critical. Routine practice helps set you on a rewarding path toward reaping the potential benefits of meditation. Second, after much resistance and skepticism, I can attest that said benefits, which may include stress reduction and improved emotion regulation, were real for me, and very gratifying, despite taking a long time to cultivate. Finally, even as you become calmer and less reactive, it’s important to avoid using that skill as a way to bypass intense feelings. While it’s nice to be more capable of handling emotions, for some that can inadvertently lead to numbness or detachment.
Here’s more about each of the lessons I learned:
If I could go back in time and gradually lengthen my guided meditations while surrendering the idea that there’s a “perfect” way to practice, I would do so instantly.
For many of my early 100 weeks, I only meditated five or 10 minutes each day. I often reasoned that I was too busy for longer sessions. While occasionally true, I’ll admit that sometimes I relied on a short practice to check a proverbial box.
Scientific research, however, suggests that the benefits of meditation materialize with weeks of consistent daily practice, perhaps of at least 10 minutes or longer. In a 2018 study published in Behavioral Brain Research, scientists found that daily practice for 13 minutes over a period of four weeks made no difference for meditators, who were compared to a control group listening to a podcast. But after eight weeks of the same practice, the meditators, who continued their daily 13-minute practice, experienced decreased negative moods, enhanced attention, lowered anxiety, and improved working memory.
Dr. Julia Basso, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in the department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech, told me the length of the guided meditation was chosen specifically so that it could be incorporated into a participant’s packed day. It needed to be long enough to deliver benefits, but not unrealistically long.
“The idea is to try to get the brain to go into these more slow, rhythmic activities where the mind starts to become calm.”
“The idea is to try to get the brain to go into these more slow, rhythmic activities where the mind starts to become calm,” she said.
Repetitive practice is key, and if you’ve been meditating for months but still don’t feel the benefits, a longer practice may make the difference.
That said, you want to practice in a way that’s comfortable for you, not only in terms of length but also physical position, so that it’s easier to turn meditation into a habit. I found this impossible when I forced myself to meditate sitting upright, which is often what instructors ask of you. Sitting upright made my lower back sore. Certain approaches to meditation would have me notice and recognize those uncomfortable sensations without becoming attached to them. That’s a valuable skill, yet when I tried to do so, it only brought frustration and shorter sessions. (It’s important to note that if meditation prompts panic or anxiety, you may need to work with a trauma-informed practitioner, or meditation may not be right for you. Don’t force it simply because you think you should.)
Early this year, I chose comfort. Now I lie down for almost every meditation. When I asked meditation teacher Jeff Warren about this, for a story about making meditation fully inclusive to people with disabilities, he said the biggest risk of practicing while horizontal is the possibility of falling asleep. I can confess that’s happened to me more than once — and it felt great every time. Of course, it’s important to avoid drifting off regularly, particularly when meditating to cultivate a skill like focus. But if an uncomfortable position is a barrier to attempting or lengthening a session, give yourself permission to meditate in a pose that’s right for your body.
The new position enhanced my practice, but what supercharged it was contracting COVID for the first time this summer. With little else to do during quarantine, I’d listen to three 15-minute meditations in a row and feel deeply relaxed and less anxious afterward. I finally glimpsed what I’d been missing out on by keeping sessions short.
Practicing became unexpectedly vital once I was struck by post-COVID insomnia, and I routinely clocked upwards of an hour of meditation daily, much of it during the early morning hours when I lay awake. Deeply grateful for the calming and grounding effect of my practice, I knew that, on many days, it was all that stood between me and an emotional and physical unraveling.
A few months after my daily meditation practice reached 30 to 45 minutes, while walking on the street, I experienced an unpleasant confrontation with a reckless driver. When he sped off, I realized my heart wasn’t beating fast, nor did I feel any other physical or emotional sensations of panic or distress, as I might’ve in months or years past. This must be the meditation at work, I thought.
When I told clinical psychologist Dr. Marc Schulz, Ph.D., this story, he was inclined to agree. Schulz, professor of psychology and director of data science at Bryn Mawr College and author of the forthcoming book The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, studies emotions and well-being. His own research, conducted as part of the decades-long Harvard Study of Adult Development, has shown that people who practice mindfulness respond to stressful challenges with less anxiety and worry.
Mindfulness is an awareness that arises through paying purposeful attention, without judgment, to the present moment. Meditation is a primary way to develop this skill, but it’s not the only one. Nonetheless, when Schulz and his fellow researchers tried to understand why the study participants who practiced mindfulness appeared to respond to stress differently than those who didn’t, they found that the former group tended to contemplate negative feelings like sadness with some distance. They didn’t deny the emotions, but they also didn’t become mired in them. They could achieve what Schulz describes as “emotional equilibrium” and recovered more quickly from challenges.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that research on meditation has yielded conflicting results, sometimes suggesting it’s a superpower for well-being and other times indicating it doesn’t do much good. Skeptics point at poorly designed studies, which evaluate different types of meditation and a range of outcomes, and argue that we have scant evidence to support its benefits.
While I welcome rigorous studies on meditation, I don’t think people should wait for ironclad evidence before starting or enhancing their practice. If meditators can better regulate their emotions, Schulz says that has major implications for their happiness and well-being. That skill can help people navigate the highs and lows of life, build more fulfilling relationships, develop focus amidst an onslaught of information, and deepen empathy for others.
“Being able to sit with your feelings, being able to regulate them in adaptive ways, are really cornerstone skills of being happy in life,” he says.
What Schulz said is absolutely true in my experience, and yet I should warn you that mastery over emotions is tricky. There is a delicate balance between recognizing that emotions are transient and unconsciously avoiding feeling painful feelings.
Psychologist and meditation teacher Dr. Tara Brach, Ph.D., described the latter to me as “spiritual bypassing.” I called Brach thanks to a nagging feeling about an unresolved conflict, over which I felt quite angry. I practiced meditations that focused on emotions as a “mind state” to remind myself that these feelings would pass.
My mistake here, as Brach gently explained, was that I skipped feeling the anger in the context of healing it. It’s a common pitfall also known as the “near enemy of equanimity.” The Buddhist concept of equanimity refers to mental calmness and composure, but its “near enemy” is detachment that breeds indifference. Brach said three signs can indicate this dynamic is happening: not feeling fully present in your body, being in a thinking or mental state, and not feeling visceral tenderness or caring when someone else is suffering.
“What wants acceptance and inclusion?”
“If you notice one of those signs, you might ask yourself, what am I unwilling to feel?” says Brach. “What wants acceptance and inclusion?”
Brach was right. Because I couldn’t get justice for my anger, I tried to meditate it away. Her first suggestion was an obvious one once the words came out of her mouth: Add a meditation focusing on feeling into my routine. This was a great reminder that it’s sometimes easy to rely on tried-and-true tracks when we might need to explore a different theme or approach.
As an example, Brach offered to walk me through a RAIN meditation, one of her signature guided sessions that incorporates mindfulness and compassion. The acronym stands for recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture. (You can listen to it here.) The basic process is to experience feelings with presence and kindness, not escape them.
It was a revelation, especially under Brach’s guidance. RAIN helped me to identify the emotions and fears that gave rise to the anger, and Brach gave me permission to feel that fully. I’d instead been putting pressure on myself to let it go and be civil. The crucial part, however, was tapping into my fury, then showing kindness to the parts of myself that felt wounded. Brach says it can be as simple as telling yourself, “I’m sorry, this hurts. This is hard.”
Brach described RAIN is a valuable strategy for changing your relationship with difficult emotions and finding more “compassion, wisdom, and freedom.”
“If you stay with the anger, you’ll be informed by it,” says Brach.
I recognize that meditation isn’t for everyone. People may reap similar benefits from prayer, movement, and time spent in nature, among other pursuits that put us squarely in the present moment. But if you’re inclined to practice, it may change you in unexpected and wondrous ways.