So what exactly defines a “successful” meditation practice? Over the past 10 years of watching my own meditation ups and downs and speaking to others, I’ve come up with this. A successful practice is one that’s easy, enjoyable, enduring, effective, and makes you more you.
Let's quickly clarify those terms a bit:
- "Easy" meaning it doesn’t feel like an uphill battle each and every time you meditate.
- "Enjoyable” meaning it doesn’t feel like an annoying chore on the to-do list every single time (although there will still be obstacles to deal with some days).
- "Enduring” meaning you’re consistent with your practice and not just meditating sporadically or only when sh*t hits the fan in your life.
- “Effective” is a bit more subjective. But to keep it simple for now, let’s just say you get the benefits you crave from your practice (whatever those personal meditation aspirations may be).
- And finally, a successful practice will help you feel more aligned with your true-self (which will ultimately lead to a deeper sense of happiness, purposefulness, and fulfillment in all areas of your life).
A quick google search will show you there’s no shortage of free meditation instruction or guided practices out there.
But just because you have some guided practices or basic instruction, doesn't mean your practice will be successful.
If you truly want to cultivate a successful practice that’ll bring you consistent and lasting benefits throughout your life, here are 13 things I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my meditation journey 10 years ago.
1. Connect to your MEDITATION MOTIVATION
Let’s be honest. If you think you don’t have time to meditate, you’ll never find the time. You’ve got to make the time. So with kids, a demanding job, a side hustle, a new relationship, or [insert excuse], how do you do make the time to meditate?!
Making time for your practice takes both a mindset shift and strategy. Let's start with the mindset shift.
Rather than viewing your meditation practice as a nice luxury you wish you had time for, you've got to view it as a self-care necessity that's important enough to become a priority.
And the best way to do this, is to reconnect with your meditation motivation. The more you remember why you're meditating, the easier it'll be to allow other time-sucking, non-priorities to take a back seat to your practice. And the easier it'll be to allow yourself permission, to take time to meditate.
TAKE ACTION: If you’re having trouble prioritizing your practice, ask yourself "Why do I meditate?" or "What will having a successful meditation practice make possible for me?"
And then continue to revisit this question any time you lose your why and your way, in your practice.
2. SCHEDULE TIME
Once you make the above mindset shift and your practice becomes a priority, there's one more piece to making sure you do it. You need a strategy- a plan. Make it real, by scheduling it. We'll get into more detail on specific aspects of your meditation strategy, but for now start by simply adding it to your schedule.
TAKE ACTION: Decide when you want to meditate, and write it in your schedule (if you're like me and still use a handwritten planner). Or add it to your online scheduling system (if you're like most modern folk).
3. Create a SACRED SPACE
If you think about it, we have dedicated spaces in our homes for everything. Cooking, bathing, sleeping, eating, working, etc.
So why don’t more of us have a dedicated space just for being, reflecting, and reconnecting with ourselves?
Having a space in your home devoted solely to meditation (and other spiritual practices) is a very powerful way to establish a regular practice. It helps by both,
- Serving as a visual trigger to invite you to practice daily (we'll discuss this more in #9), and
- Creating an energetic area that can quickly help quiet your mind, and induce feelings of peace and calm whenever you enter it.
Your meditation sacred space can be as simple or ornate as you'd like.
The only non-negotiables are:
- you can meditate comfortably (a cushion, chair, or some blankets can help with this), and
- you won’t be disturbed during your practice. Although some outside noise from others is fine (we’ll address this more in #10).
Objects can also help amp up the energy of your space and meditation rituals.
I love decorating my space with pretty objects. Adding things like candles, gemstones, essential oils, goddess pictures, spiritual and personal growth books, etc., help me feel more connected to my space and make me want to spend more time there.
Take Action: Take a moment to scout your home for a place you’d like to dedicate to meditation. And then decorate it as much, or as little, as you'd like.
4. Start with CONCENTRATION
One of the biggest obstacles I hear from beginning meditators is “I can’t calm and focus my mind", “I can’t concentrate”, “I can’t quiet my thoughts”, or something else along those lines. While getting rid of thoughts is impossible and not the purpose of meditation, you do need to cultivate the ability to focus your mind and allow distractions to pass you by (without getting swept away by them).
Anyone can can focus and concentrate with practice, no matter how noisy your mind may feel right now.
Believe me, if this anxiety prone over-analyzer can do it, so can you! All it takes is the desire, commitment, and the right tool. And that tool is "concentration meditation” (aka. one-pointedness meditation).
Concentration has been called "the root skill of all meditation practices". When I did my first ten day meditation retreat, they taught us a simple concentration practice that we did for the entire first three days (before ever introducing us to any other meditation technique). They did this because they knew that if we couldn't focus our minds in a simple practice, we would find all other meditation practices frustrating and likely give up. (yes there are many types of meditation and we’ll discuss these further in #5)
Here’s the simple concentration meditation practice I learned in that retreat, and the one I continue to practice to this day to keep my mind clear and focused.
Take Action: Sign-up for the free guided concentration meditation below, and begin experiencing a calmer more focused mind.
5. CHOOSE the meditation(s) best suited to you
In my 10+ year exploration of meditation, I've come to realize that there are many different types of meditative practices out there.
Not only are there different general categories of meditation like "Concentration" or "Mindfulness", there are many different ways to practice each of these types of meditation.
I don't tell you this to confuse you, but rather to give you options so you can find a practice that feels best for you.
If you've struggled with meditation in the past, or feel like you just can't meditate (Spoiler: anyone can meditate), you may not have chosen the practice best suited for you.
If you're feeling overwhelmed and confused about where to start (or continue) on your meditation journey, here are 4 simple steps to determine which meditation type is best for you from moment to moment:
1. Start with CONCENTRATION
If you're a complete newbie or find it especially hard to calm and focus your mind during meditation, it's really important you start with a simple concentration practice (as we discussed above in #1). I've seen too many people (myself included) who skip this step, get frustrated, and give up when they can't focus during a more complex technique like "Mindfulness".
Before all of my meditations (no matter which type I choose), I'll start off with a few moments of a concentration practice to calm my mind and firmly ground myself in the present moment.
2. Decide on your meditation INTENTION each time you practice
Are you meditating simply to feel more calm and relaxed? Are you trying to connect with your intuition to make a decision or understand why you’re feeling stuck? Are you trying to manifest or create something new in your life? Being clear on your intention will help you determine which type of meditation is best for you in that moment.
If you're just starting out and meditating to simply reduce stress and feel more peace and calm, that's absolutely fine. That was my sole intention for the first year or so after I found meditation. And the relaxation CD's and mindful breathing practice (yep people still bought CD's back then), did help me feel more momentary glimpses of peace. Back then, I had no idea meditation could be used for anything else and didn't realize there were so many different types of meditation.
But eventually I began craving more from my practice (and life), and found ways to take my practice beyond simple relaxation and begin using it to transform the stuck areas of my love life, career, health, etc.
I did this by expanding my practice to include four different types of meditation. Depending on my current intention, I'll pick from one of the four meditation types below. Note that each general type can be broken down further into many different practices. This gives you many options to choose from based on your personal preferences (which we'll discuss next). I've also created a chart below to help you better understand how they all fit together.
- CONCENTRATION (also known as one-pointedness): best to start with to cultivate more acute mental focus and quickly ground your awareness on the present moment.
- MINDFULNESS: builds on concentration and helps you cultivate a more expansive present moment awareness, equanimity (or non-judgement), and acceptance of what is.
- REFLECTION: best for connecting to your intuition to gain insight, understanding, and solutions to obstacles or stuck areas of your life (or to make tough decisions).
- VISUALIZATION: great for grounding and more actively creating transformation of stuck areas of your life (areas that don't naturally shift as you go through the first three types of meditation above).
3. Honor your meditation PREFERENCES.
I’ve seen so many people beat themselves up over not being able to meditate “properly”. Does an injury prevent you from sitting comfortably? Do you sometimes get too sleepy when you’re sitting or lying down? Do you find it really tough to sit still at all? Don’t beat yourself up or assume you just can’t meditate. Did I mention, everyone can meditate!?
Meditation can be done in several different postures like sitting, lying, walking, or even standing. And there are ways to incorporate meditation into other activities like dancing, yoga, etc.
So you have options. And know that your preferences can and will change based on time of day, mood, energy level, etc. So check in with yourself before you meditate, and decide what feels best.
Some people get so caught up trying to decide which meditation to start with, they never get started. It took me weeks to decide which meditation CD to order when I first started out! Just choose one based on the steps above, try it out for a few days or weeks, and see how it feels. Remember, you can always try something else later.
6. Take your practice OFF THE CUSION
Meditation can be practiced “on the cushion", in a formal scheduled session. And it can also be practiced more informally “off the cushion”, throughout your day, by bringing more mindfulness into your daily activities and experiences.
We often forget a successful meditation practice isn’t just about showing up to the cushion for those 10+ minutes a day. It’s about using those formal practices to cultivate the ability to show up with more awareness, compassion, and equanimity in your everyday life.
After some practice, it’s relatively easy to find moments of peace, awareness, compassion, and equanimity on the meditation cushion. But it can be much harder to conjure those feelings in the midst of a hectic day or crisis. But these are the moments when you need it the most.
For the greatest success, set the intention to also bring your practice off the cushion and begin incorporating mindfulness into your daily interactions and experiences, as much as possible. This can be as simple as taking some deep breaths as you wait in the check-out line at the grocery store or heat your food up at work. Or if you know you're heading into a potentially uncomfortable discussion with your boss or partner, do some grounding and visualization right before hand.
Adding informal practices into your day doesn’t have to feel hard or like it takes up all your time. In fact, the opposite is true. The more you practice on the cushion, the more natural it'll become to also practice off the cushion during your everyday experiences and interactions.
7. Be CONSISTENT
When it comes to meditation, frequency is more important that duration.
While meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, scientific research behind it is relatively new, and only focuses on a select few styles of meditation like Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Mindfulness. I won't go into details of the research here because that's not the intention of this article (and there plenty of good articles out there on that).
From what I've read though, while meditation has been proven to have many outstanding benefits, research hasn’t discovered an exact amount of time that’s optimal for it. And even suggestions from experienced teachers vary.
But what does seem to be the consensus, is that consistency is key. Shorter (10-40+ min) sessions, more frequently (1-2 times/day), is ideal.
Again, experiment, and find what works best for you!
8. Keep it SIMPLE and just start where you're at
One of the quickest ways to fall off your practice before it even gets going, is by trying to do too much too quickly.
If you’ve never meditated before and have trouble sitting quietly, trying to sit 10-40+ minutes a day will likely feel like way too much. Maybe you just start out with a few minutes a day. Or if that feels overwhelming, start out with a few minutes, a few times a week.
The key is to choose something that feels doable, and commit to doing it. Aim for little wins to train your mind and body that meditation can feel easy.
Then add in a few more minutes or a few more days. Work your way up slowly. Experiencing little successes, will allow you cultivate the meditation habit (we’ll discuss this in #9) much easier than feeling like you’re failing by setting too lofty of goals out the gate and not meeting them.
9. Create meditation CUES
After reading the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg a couple years ago, I began noticing how much power habits truly have to make life feel easier and more joyful (or, if they're undesirable habits, to keep us feeling stuck).
It turns out our brains are very efficient and don't like to waste any energy. So they love to form habits out of anything you routinely do (or even think). This allows them to switch into auto-pilot the moment they recognize a habit beginning, thus saving valuable energy that can be used for other important functions.
One of the key concepts of the book is something called a “habit loop” which is a neurological loop that automatically runs through your brain each time a habit is recognized.
Understanding and leveraging this natural brain process will help you transform your sporadic meditation hobbies into consistent meditation habits.
Each habit loop is broken into three distinct parts- a cue, a routine, and a reward). The part I'd like to discuss here is the cue. What makes the cue so important is that it's what tells your brain a habit is beginning and triggers it into auto-pilot. So by setting up cues for each our your meditation routines, your practice can begin to feel as easy and automatic as brushing your teeth each day.
Cues typically fall into one of 5 categories. Here they are along with some examples you can use as your own triggers for your practice.
- Location: a home sacred space (like we discussed in #4).
- Time: a specific time of day. You can even set your alarm as a daily reminder.
- Emotional State: stress, anger, grief, etc. Emotionally difficult states used to automatically cue undesirable habits like drinking, but now they cue me to pause....and meditate.
- Other People: Surrounding yourself with a spiritual community (or just having a friend who's also serious about meditation) is powerful when it comes to maintaining long-term meditation habits. Doing daily or weekly accountability check-ins via text or email can really help you stay on track.
- An Immediate Preceding Action: Choose another daily habit you've already established, and do your practice right afterwards. My favorite is sitting to meditate right after I shower and brush my teeth in the morning!
Here's an example of the habit-loop of my morning meditation routine.
The reward is the pay-off for finishing the routine. And eventually, as the habit forms, you'll begin to notice that your meditation cues will automatically trigger you to crave the reward. Once that happens, your new meditation habit is born!
Take Action: Choose a cue for your daily meditation practice.
10. PLAN for CHANGE
Life isn’t static, so why should your practice be?
If your weekend schedule is different than during the week, create different meditation habits on the weekends. If you go on vacation, take some time when you arrive to decide when and where you’ll meditate (even if you decide there's only time for a 5 minute shower meditation). Or if you stay at your boyfriend’s place a lot, create different cues and meditation routines there. Maybe when you have the "toothbrush talk" you can ask about keeping a meditation cushion in the corner of a room there too! A little bit of planning now, can save you a lot of stress or missed sittings, later.
Take Action: Take a look at your schedule. Do you need to create some other meditation cues and routines to account for regular changes to your schedule?
11. EMBRACE OBSTACLES
Managing obstacles “on the cushion” will help you better manage them “off the cushion” (in life).
Like life, your meditation practice will have obstacles. You'll have obstacles like busyness or lazyness that that keep you from showing up to your practice. And obstacles like boredom or distraction that get in the way of you staying focused and mindful during your practice.
The obstacles themselves are not the problem though. It's how you respond to them that causes you difficulty.
When you experience an obstacle during meditation like a busy or wandering mind, or a physical pain, or a difficult emotion, rather than resisting it or beating yourself up over it, lean into it.
By observing the difficult emotion that arises due to any obstacle, bringing compassion to it, and using it as part of your practice, you’ll ultimately be able to transform it.
We often see obstacles that arise around our practice as blocks or nuisances to the practice. But in fact, those obstacles ARE THE PRACTICE.
If you didn't have any obstacles you probably wouldn't need to meditate, would you? And the more you can lean into and transform those obstacles on the cushion, the more you'll be able to do so off the cushion (in everyday life). Begin to think of your meditation practice as practice for life.
Take Action: Anytime you're feeling frustrated by a busy mind or other obstacle during your practice, smile and remind yourself, “All obstacles are opportunities to practice”.
12. Maintain a BALANCED practice
We’re all made up of both feminine and masculine energies. While studying Chinese Medicine, l learned them as yin and yang. And also learned that states of dis-ease came when yin and yang energies got too far out of balance.
In the context of your meditation practice, yang (masculine) is the drive and commitment to show up, stay focused, and maintain dedicated consistency. While yin (feminine) is having compassion and forgiveness when you fall off track and the ability to be flexible and adapt your practice when you encounter obstacles or change in your life.
When the yang and yin of your practice are in balance, it will feel good and successful. When one starts to overpower the other, you’ll start to see the shadow aspects of one or the other show up. And you'll start to experience struggle in your practice. Here’s a simple graphic that'll help you diagnose when you're out of balance, and if you need to add more yin or more yang energy to your practice.
13. Find a meditation COMMUNITY
In habit research, they found that those who interacted with communities interested in cultivating the same habit were able to develop and maintain those new habits more successfully. I’ve found that surrounding myself with others committed to their spiritual path helps me stay much more consistent in my meditation practices and personal growth. Here are a few ways I’ve done that over the years.
- Local meditation communities: Find a class at a local meditation or yoga center. Or start your own in your living room!
- Virtual meditation communities and live challenges: You can join my free "Meditate with Ease" Facebook community here where you can ask questions, get support, or join one of the free fun challenges I host throughout the year.
- Meditation retreats and workshops: There are many places that host different types of meditation workshops. Do a online search to find one near you.
So there you have it- thirteen ways to start and maintain a successful meditation practice. You don't have to do these all at once. Just start with the ones you feel most drawn to- the ones that are keeping you from getting the benefits you crave in your practice right now. I'd love to support you as you make these shifts in your practice, so let me know in the comments below which tweaks you plan to make first!