Daily meditation practice is a cornerstone of bringing mindfulness into your life. However, it is not easy to establish such a practice nor maintain one. Reminding ourselves of the six gifts a daily meditation practice brings, instead of focusing on what we lose - time spent doing something else - can help to fix a habit in place.
At the beginning of your mindfulness journey, putting in place a regular practice is difficult as it is not yet firmly planted in your daily routine. It can also sometimes be a struggle to maintain a daily practice perhaps because your usual routine is disrupted, your circumstances change or you simply get out of the habit.
When asked at Taste of Mindfulness sessions why we practice daily on completing a course, I usually talk about how athletes need to train for the moment when they will ask their body to perform and how, without practice, I have become rusty at my second language, French.
However, daily meditation practice provides more than preparedness. Below are 6 benefits or advantages you gain from a regular practice.
1. You get used to taking your seat
I was talking to a neighbour on the weekend and asked her how she was enjoying the new gym she had joined. Shyly she confessed that she had only been 3 times since we had last spoken.
When I asked her why, she said that she was finding reasons not to go; not leaving work on time, preferring to do something else. As we talked, we recognised that choosing to go to the gym was the hardest part as once through the door we knew we would workout or do a class.
The same is true when we have not yet established a daily meditation routine or are trying to re-engage with one. Just getting to the chair, cushion or lying down is the hardest part. However once in your chosen place, you find you will practice even if it’s just for five minutes.
The more times you go there, the more times you will go there. The stronger the pattern in the mind, the more the habit and intention is reinforced.
The longer you stick with it, the more likely it is you’ll develop a habit that you don’t have to think about. It doesn’t require self control, there’s not a lot of active internal debate. You just do it. That’s when you’re really going to stick with it, when something has become part of your life. (Christine Whelan)
2. You reinforce the habit of daily practice
Habits are formed out of repetitive actions that eventually slip into our daily routines without any thought (Blackmores). This means they are something we do on autopilot, they really are a no-brainer.
In the beginning we have to consciously choose to perform an action but once it has been repeated enough we no longer need to choose it in fact, when a habit is really embedded we don’t even have a choice. A trigger occurs and the behaviour happens – a Pavlovian response.
In the early days of our mindfulness practice it is difficult to choose meditation practice over something else – there is always an opportunity cost.
You must choose to practice many times before it becomes an automatic part of your routine. Something that you do right before you take your morning shower, leave for work, get ready for bed or, right after your morning coffee or get home from work.
How long it takes to create a habit is anybody’s guess.
For decades it was thought we needed to consistently repeat an action for three weeks (21 days) to make it stick. But researchers found (2009, Lally et al) that it can take anything from 18-254 days to make something automatic, with an average of 66 days.
Regardless of how long it takes to make the action automatic, it makes sense that once formed we should look to maintain it.
A way of maintaining it is to consistently take time in our day for formal meditation practice even if, sometimes it's just for a few minutes.
3. You practice giving to yourself
Also while talking with my neighbour about going to the gym we discussed how we will make time for others – leave work early, drop our chores - but don’t so easily make time for ourselves. We jokingly said that she would need to make an appointment with herself or see it like she had a date with a person called Jim!
Taking time out from our day that is filled with to-do can at times seem selfish, indulgent and impractical. Yet we know that doing so is beneficial; often feeling a sense of calm or more control or centred at the end of a practice.
When we choose to give ourselves time to meditate, to be with ourselves rather than do, we practice self-care.
A very necessary thing for ourselves and others. We cannot pour from an empty pot.
4. You deepen your self-knowledge
Every time we formally practice mindfulness, we are sitting down with our mind. In this way we are building a relationship with ourselves.
Just as the more time we spend with another we get to learn about them and their idiosyncrasies, the more we practice the more we deepen our understanding of ourselves. From regular practice, we get to know our patterns of mind and our go-to stories. Such understanding puts us in the driving seat and helps us to make wise decisions.
It makes sense then that daily meditation practice is a fast-track to self-knowledge and self-awareness.
5. You strengthen your witnessing stance
To be ready to do something physically, we need to train for it. The same is true with daily meditation practice.
The private, quiet place of our choosing is where we practice for the real thing, for that time when we find ourselves in the midst of a stressful or challenging situation.
In that moment of challenge we can take up our witnessing stance. In that moment we can pause to check-in with our internal dialogue and body sensations and at the same time see how things are in the external environment. And perhaps in the next moment make a wise and responsible choice of action. This might mean being less inclined to be dragged into the stories we might be telling ourselves, taking a time-out or taking a few mindful breaths.
Simply put we cannot use it in our day to day lives if we don’t own it. The way to own it is to practice it.
6. You practice mental hygiene
As I said at the beginning of this post, daily meditation practice stops us from going rusty.
We may think 1000s of thoughts a day but not all of them are useful, indeed many maybe unhelpful or what may be considered waste thoughts.
A clean house is not filled with clutter or things that are of no use. The same can be true of thoughts and patterns of mind. When we practice mindfulness we get to see what is of value and what is not.
Daily meditation practice might be compared to polishing a mirror or cleaning a window. If you don’t do it, over time you will not see clearly. To see clearly, we need to look after the mirror or window. And I don’t know about you, I find that little and often keeps me on top of my housework.
So whilst it is perfectly OK to stop, skip or shrink our formal practice if that feels right for us. It is wise to observe some sort of regular practice, even if at times you can only manage a few minutes. Not too dissimilar to Guy Winch (2014), I consider it mental hygiene.
Have you found other reasons to maintain a daily practice?
Feel free to share them below
Blackmores, 2014. How long does it really take to break a habit [Internet]. Blackmores Health Hub, Australia; accessed 13 July 2018
Lally, P., C.H.M. van Jaarsveld, H.W.W. Potts, J. Wardle, 2010 How are habits formed: modelling habit formation in the real world Eur J Soc Psychol, 40, pp. 998-1009, 10.1002/ejsp.674
Whelan, C. 2015, How to build good habits and actually make them stick [Internet] The Washington Post, 25 March 2015.
Winch, G. 2014,Why we all need to practice emotional first aid [Video file] TED, viewed 12 March 2018