Going to a retreat or program is a wonderful way to deepen our meditation practice. But how do we stay connected with these waking-up practices when we go home to the myriad projects, emails, responsibilities, and distractions waiting for us?
This is a question that applies not just to meditation, yoga, and other spiritual practices, but to any creative art we want to commit to, such as painting, writing, or playing an instrument. Paradoxically, the practices we know are most vital to our wellbeing are the very things that are usually pushed aside by daily tasks that feel more urgent.
You may start each day intending to spend half an hour on your zafu, practice walking meditation in the park, or write three haikus capturing the essence of your insights. But you’re out of yogurt and broccoli, there are 237 unread emails in your inbox, your taxes were due last week, and your child has knocked out a tooth skateboarding or needs you to buy Japanese print fabric for a history project. So you put off meditating or working on your memoir for one more day. And then one more. And then one more.
Lately I’ve been offering students a six-step plan that I’ve found effective for establishing and maintaining a home practice of almost anything—even in the middle of a crazily busy life. I’ve used these principles to maintain a yoga and meditation practice for almost 30 years—and also to pursue various long-term artistic projects, such as writing a novel.
Here are six steps you can follow to establish a daily practice of almost anything:
Get very clear about what you want to commit to—and even more important, why.
Why is it important to you that you sustain a meditation practice—or do tai chi, or paint wildflowers? What part of you does it nourish? Write down your reasons. The more specific you are, the more likely you will be to do it. It’s not just “I want to meditate more.” It’s “I commit to meditating for ten minutes before I wake up the kids for school because it keeps me calm, grounded, and more present for my family.” To make your intention even stronger, share it with someone close to you. However, be careful about talking about it too widely—that can dissipate the energy.
2. Establish a Cue
This is what reminds you to start your practice. The most simple and reliable cue is a specific time. For instance, you decide you will meditate every evening from 9 to 9:30 p.m.
It can also be a floating cue: you will do half an hour of yoga right after you finish work, whenever that happens to be. Or you will take ten mindful breaths whenever you are about to launch your email program. To ensure that your good intentions don’t get overrun by other plans, carve out the time in advance. Write it into your calendar and don’t schedule anything else during that period. Be sure to build in time for any preparations or cleanup that are necessary.
Remember, start modestly. Meditating for ten minutes every day for a year is more beneficial than meditating an hour a day for three days, then burning out. Again, it can help to let the people close to you know what you are doing, especially if you live together. That way they can support you in your commitment.
3. Round up Your Supplies
Make sure you have everything you need for your practice in a place where you can find it easily. That way you don’t have to waste your precious time hunting them down. Maintain a meditation nook with an inviting cushion, a small altar, and a supply of incense and matches. If you want to write down your dreams every morning, place a notebook and pen on your bedside table.
4. Do Your Practice
So you don’t spend your dedicated practice time spacing out or trying to figure out where to get started, it helps to have a plan in place, especially at first. Know what meditation method you intend to practice—for example, breath meditation or loving-kindness practice—and stick with one method for at least a week before switching. (If you’re planning on using a guided meditation, download or bookmark the instructions in advance, so you don’t eat up your meditation time surfing the web.)
If you’re doing yoga, outline a standard routine you can fall back on, knowing that if you get inspired, you can always change it once you get going. If you’re doing writing practice, put some prompts in your journal to get you started.
5. Reward Yourself
Yes, theoretically the practice is its own reward. But especially when you’re establishing a new pattern, it helps to have an external reward as well. After your dawn meditation, make yourself a cup of green tea and sip it slowly while watching the sun come up. After your evening yoga, watch a silly movie with your kids. After you draw in your art journal, put a gold star sticker on your calendar. Our brains love this kind of positive reinforcement.
6. Track Your progress
Keeping a record of what you have and haven’t done increases your sense of accountability. Make this part fun! You can go the old-fashioned route by checking off boxes on a calendar. Or you can use one of the many new habit-tracking apps that are available.