Secular Meditation: “How do you stick with it?”

I’ve read about (and listened to podcasts about) mindfulness meditation and have tried it some… Unfortunately, what I’ve found is that I had a hard time continuing with the mindfulness practice and didn’t keep it up for long. Did you have a hump to get over when you first started? If you have a routine, how do you (or how did you at first) stick with it?

-mistertwo, in a comment on Secular Meditation: How It Helps With My Depression

When I write or talk about meditation, I get asked questions like this a fair amount. Lots of people are interested in meditation and mindfulness, as a mental health care technique or just as a way of staying calmer and more present in the world — but they don’t know how to find the time, or the motivation, or the discipline, or all three, to stick with it in the long run. Or else they’ve dabbled with it in the past, and found it valuable, but still didn’t stick with it. How do you stick with it?

This is a large and complicated question. In fact, it’s currently my own biggest challenge with the practice. I am meditating fairly regularly, about five days a week, but maintaining a regular meditation routine over the long haul — folding it into my everyday life, finding the time and motivation and discipline to do it every day (or almost every day) — is definitely a challenge.

So here are a few thoughts about how I keep up the practice, and how other people might.

At the end of my eight-week meditation course, the teacher emphasized the importance of creating a regular routine. He said this was important if we wanted to keep up the practice and not let it fall through the cracks of a busy life: we should pick a particular form of meditation that works for us (a sitting/ breath meditation, a body scan, a walking meditation, a yoga or other body-motion meditation, etc.), and do it at the same time every day.

I think for a lot of people, this would be a really good idea. If you make meditating into something like showering or brushing your teeth — a self-care routine that you do every day, at the same time every day — eventually, doing it could become something you just… do. Instead of being an extra activity you have to fold into your life somehow, it could become one of the pillars of your life, something the rest of your daily activity gets folded around.

dali clock
But when my teacher recommended this, I knew right away that it wouldn’t work for me. My life just doesn’t look like that. My life is highly irregular, with a different schedule every day. There is almost nothing that I do at the same time every day: I wake up at different times, go to bed at different times, work and eat and bathe at different times. The only way I might meditate with anything resembling a regular schedule would be to do it when I first wake up or when I’m going to bed — and when I’ve tried those, I’ve just fallen asleep. But if you have a more regular life than mine (which most people do), this is probably a really good idea.

Another “stick with it” technique that the teacher suggested was to find a meditation group. For a lot of people, external social support helps them keep it up. Seeing the benefits other people are getting from the practice helps motivate them; it reinforces the activity as part of a group identity; they don’t want to disappoint their groupmates; and it helps it become a regular routine (“this is just what I do on Wednesday night”). It’s like having a Pilates class or a workout buddy.

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t work for me, either. In San Francisco, the only regular meditation groups that are open to the public are religious ones, or at least ones that have religious overtones or some sort of religious affiliation (generally Buddhist). Yes, I know that for a lot of atheists, this wouldn’t be a problem: if there’s something they find valuable that’s offered in a religious context, they can filter out the religious stuff or just shrug it off. (In fact, I have an atheist friend who goes to one of these meditation groups, one that’s in my neighborhood even, and she deals with the religious stuff fine.) And I get that secular Buddhism is a thing.

no i wont coexist with your delusions
But for me, there is no freaking way. I’m not just a professional atheist — I’m a professional anti-theist. Religion is like itching powder for me. I can’t hear it without wanting to argue with it. So in a meditation group, the minute I started hearing anything about energy, chi, chakras, karma, spiritual paths, mystical cores, the sacred world, the inner divine, or the life force, I would be snapped right out of my breath focus and into profound irritation. The only present-moment awareness I would have would be the awareness of how religion is bullshit. Even if 95% of the guidance or teaching were entirely free of religion or spirituality stuff, once I started hearing it I’d be bracing myself for that other 5%. In principle, I would love to be in a meditation group — I’m not immune to the social support/ group identity/ not wanting to disappoint others thing. But until there’s a 100% secular, woo-free, non-religiously-affiliated meditation group in San Francisco, that’s just not an option. (There is an online one, but the timing is unfortunately not workable for me.)

And frankly, there’s an aesthetic of most meditation groups and centers that I find.. let’s say “off-putting.” There’s a reason I took my original course in a medical setting. I hear about somatic experiencing, the alchemy of letting go, our heart as a light emitting entity, the natural outer expression of realization, and the embodiment of awakening in our lives, and I immediately want to drink straight bourbon and crank up The Ramones. Fuck that noise. Fuck it right in the ass.

So what do I do to keep this practice up?

hand on laptop keyboard
A couple of things. First and foremost: I write about it. There’s a lot of reasons I blog about meditation: I think it’s a valuable practice that others would benefit from; it’s a practice that a lot of non-believers are skeptical of because they associate it with religion, and they don’t know that there’s a secular, evidence-based version of it; other people do seem to be interested in it. But one of the main reasons I blog about meditation is that it helps me keep it up. Writing about it is a reminder of why I do it: if I’m finding my practice flagging, and I write a blog post about it, it helps get me back into the groove. And blogging about it is my own version of that “not wanting to let down the group” thing.

How could this work for you? If you’re not a blogger, you might Facebook about it. Or if you don’t blog but you do keep a journal, you might write about it in your journal. Create some sort of regular self-reminder. (And if you are a blogger and you do blog about it — let me know! Don’t be shy about sending me links.)

two people with speech bubbles
Another way that I reinforce my practice is to talk about it. I don’t evangelize, but if friends have expressed interest, I talk with them about what I’m doing — either specifically about the practice itself, or more tangentially about how the practice is affecting other things in my life (food, exercise, therapy, depression, sex). Finding people to talk with about it who don’t pooh-pooh it, even if they don’t practice it themselves, reinforces my identity as “person who meditates.” It reminds me to do it. And it reminds me of why I do it.

Speaking of which: It helps a lot to remind myself of why I do this. Meditation makes a big difference with my depression; it sharpens my focus when I work; it makes it easier to tolerate small annoyances; it makes it easier to sit still; it makes me feel more connected with my body; it alleviates stress. I meditate for a reason — and if I’m having a “short-term thinking” moment where I don’t feel like doing it right that minute, it helps to remember that. It helps to remind myself that I have never, ever, ever finished a meditation session and thought, “Well, that was a bad idea. What a waste of time.” I always feel better when I meditate — and not just in the long-term and medium-term, with depression and body-connection and whatnot. It helps in the short term. If I feel lousy, and I spend 20 minutes meditating, then 20 minutes later I feel better.

And it helps to remind myself that I do, in fact, find this practice pleasurable. If I’m really feeling pointlessly mulish about it — if I’m having a moment where I’ve set aside time to meditate but I just don’t want to, I don’t wannnnnnaaaaaaaaaaa, no no no no no, I want to dick around on Facebook or watch reruns of “Entourage,” I don’t want to and you can’t make me — it helps to remember that meditation isn’t just a technique for self-care or life-improvement. It’s a pleasure. I like doing this. Not always, but often.

I also cut myself a little slack. If I really and truly don’t have time for a twenty-minute session, I do it for fifteen minutes, or ten, or five. Doing even a very short session every day makes it more of a daily habit. I do have to be very careful with this one, though — I could easily see it leading to the practice slipping, and eventually fading into the “interesting enthusiasms I once took up and then let slide” category. You’ll have to decide for yourself if “I’m just going to do it for five minutes today” once in a while would reinforce the habit for you, or would be the first step on the slippery slope to falling out of it.

Finally — and very importantly, maybe even most importantly — I find ways to do the practice in lots of small ways, ways that don’t interrupt my busy everyday life, ways that are actually part of my life and that enhance it.

Here’s what I mean. I do a “formal” (for lack of a better word) meditation session — in which I set aside at least twenty minutes to sit or lie quietly and focus my awareness on my breath or my body or my emotions or the silence in the room — once a day, about five days a week. I do an “informal” (for lack of a better word) mindfulness session — in which I stop in the middle of whatever I’m doing to really experience it and be fully conscious of it — several times a day, every day. And these practices reinforce each other. The “formal” sessions make the “informal” moments easier, and make them flow more naturally into my life — and the “informal” moments of mindfulness remind me of why the “formal” sessions of extended meditation are valuable. Doing both makes it easier to… well, to keep doing both. So I do.

So that’s what helps me stick with it. If you’re a regular meditator — what helps you?

Related posts:
Secular Meditation: What’s the Point?
Secular Meditation: Flexible Discipline, Or, On Creating a Regular Practice in an Irregular Life
Secular Meditation: How It Helps With My Depression

Secular Meditation: “How do you stick with it?”

4 thoughts on “Secular Meditation: “How do you stick with it?”

  1. Lea

    You have a talent for explaining things so clearly. 🙂 I have trouble doing my meditation consistently so I read this article closely. Getting distracted is my nemesis.

    Even though I would like to get better at breath meditation, right now I am more successful with a body scan or something that engages my mind more actively. It helps keep my focus from drifting and I am less distracted by noises. Since I am more successful with this, I do a little better sticking with it.

    One thing I *am* good at doing consistently each morning is stretching, which I am highly motivated to do since it helps prevent flareups of plantar fasciitis and headaches. So that is a great time for me to focus and be mindful.

  2. 2

    There seems to have been a whole rash of these meditation things among the secular movement this year. It still always feels like trying to insert woo sideways.

    When I do “meditation”, it’s really just relaxing and entering a semi-dream state through slow breathing and eye movement.

    Interesting article though, I’m definitely never able to keep this stuff up =)

  3. 4

    There seems to have been a whole rash of these meditation things among the secular movement this year. It still always feels like trying to insert woo sideways.

    =8)-DX @ #2: Can I ask why? I’ve been writing about meditation for a little over a year, and I’ve never once mentioned anything supernatural except to shoot it down like a rabid dog. In fact, one of the main reasons I’m blogging about this is that a lot of atheists and skeptics are unfamiliar with the secular versions of this practice. Meditation is a physical activity, and there’s pretty good evidence supporting the idea that it has certain effects on the mind, much like other physical activities (such as exercise). Can I ask what I’ve written to make it seem like I’m trying to insert woo sideways?

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