Last year, I started meditating … a lot. Two times a day to be exact, once in the morning and again in the evening. Timers were set, candles were lit, and while I didn’t quite reach enlightenment, I did experience some serious feel-good side effects.
I did a combination of silent sits and guided meditations, ranging from loving-kindness and forgiveness practices to walking meditations and mindful-movement sessions. Silent sits vary in length and can be as short as five minutes or as long as an hour. They typically begin and end with a chime or a bell, calling you into stillness.
The basic practice is to sit with whatever thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise and gently bring your focus back to the breath when you become distracted. Sound easy? Not quite. Silent sits can be challenging, especially for beginners, so it’s best to start small and gradually increase the duration.
Guided meditations, on the other hand, are centered on a particular focus such as reducing stress or anxiety, dealing with a certain emotion like anger or even bringing more awareness to your daily routines. They, too, can vary in length and intensity, so whether you only have a few minutes to spare or a few hours, it’s easy to find an appropriate practice to fit your schedule.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve sleep habits, reduce stress, pain and anxiety, increase self-awareness and even improve heart rate, blood pressure and brain activity. The more we study it, the more benefits we seem to uncover.
Whether or not you buy into the idea that a regular meditation practice can have transformative effects, there’s little doubt that you will experience a change, even if it’s only waking up a half-hour earlier each morning. But if my experience is any indication, the impact will be far more deep-seated and long-lasting.
Five days in, I was having a hard time keeping up with my practice. I had already missed a morning session, and I started setting an alarm for myself to keep my practice times consistent, hoping to nip this initial barrier in the bud. At first, this helped me plan ahead, and I was able to plan my morning and evening routines around my meditations.
The silent sits that I reserved for the evenings helped better prepare me for a sound night’s sleep, and I was pleasantly surprised to have already started feeling calmer and more at ease, open and content.
By Day 10, I was still struggling to keep my practice times consistent. The timers didn’t work so well for me, despite my affinity for scheduling, planning ahead, color coding, you name it. So, I started creating more of a ritual around my practices and did away with the reminders that were proving ineffective. I had a cup of tea during my morning sits and dimmed the lights or lit candles for my evening ones. I continued to feel calmer and more present, pleased that my efforts were paying off in such a short time.
At the halfway point, I had transferred all of the meditations I had saved to my phone, and I can’t tell you what a difference that made. Inner peace was suddenly portable and pocket-sized. I uploaded my saved files to Google Drive, but you can just as easily import them into iTunes, Spotify or the like. With this added convenience, I began doing morning practices during my commute, and I could do my evening practices after crawling into bed for the night.
Guided meditations, especially those that incorporate breathing exercises, affirmations or repeated mantras, are great for short drives. If you’re going somewhere new or not entirely familiar with your surroundings, it’s probably best to skip it; but for a familiar drive, like a trip to the grocery store, you may just find yourself more forgiving of the driver who cuts you off or the pedestrian who darts in front of your car. (It’s also a great way to bring some peace and quiet into a carful of tired, hungry or rowdy tots.)
I was looking forward to my twice-daily practices by the time I reached Day 20, and the cumulative effects were really starting to add up. I was starting to feel more patient and centered, carrying the messages from the guided meditations with me throughout the day. My newfound practice had come to feel like a natural part of my daily routine.
By the end of my 30-day experiment, some significant changes had taken place. Not only was I feeling at an all-time calm, I noticed that I’d become slower to react to things that might have previously stressed me out. I was more open to the unfolding of each moment, and I had become less reactive and more responsive. Also, I had started feeling lighter and more open to others, noticing that I took more time to engage, listen and take in my surroundings.
I lost power on Day 30 during a big wind storm and couldn’t help but smile at what felt like a subtle (or not-so-subtle) reminder of the importance of unplugging, lighting a few candles and sitting in silence with nothing but the sound of a bell to bring me into stillness.
If you’re looking to start a meditation practice of your own, consider these tips:
- Try to practice at the same time each day. Even though it might be hard, it will help you be consistent and reduce missed days.
- Meditate first thing in the morning or as early as you can. I can’t emphasize how helpful this is in setting a positive tone for the rest of your day, and you don’t have to worry about squeezing a session into a jam-packed schedule.
- If you’re new to silent sits, start small. Try five or 10 minutes at first and gradually work your way up to longer sits. It can also help to repeat a mantra as you breathe in and out.
- Remember the effects are cumulative. The results of my month-long journey came about because I was diligent in my practice. The more you can make meditation part of your regular routine, the more likely you are to experience lasting benefits.