What I learned from a month of meditating 2 hours a day
by Katharine Bierce
Ok, so it wasn’t 2 hours every day, but it was close!
Some people set New Year’s Resolutions for the whole year. As you may know from the book The Power of Habit (summary here), it can be tough to change habits, and a year is a long time.
So, I picked a month – January – to work on one goal – meditation. I picked 2 hours a day because I first learned to meditate 10 years ago, around 2009, and have had an almost-daily practice since 2012 when I started with 10 minutes a day.
After doing a 10 day silent meditation retreat a few years ago, I increased my daily meditations to about 20 minutes, and in the fall of 2018 I was testing out the effects of doing 30-45 minutes a day, but not consistently or systematically. So I wanted to pick a goal that would challenge me, and to do so for a fixed – and moderate – amount of time.
I’m a morning person, so getting up at 6 am wasn’t too bad – my previous wake-up time was 6:20 or 6:30 am prior to this experiment. In the past, I found meditating in the evenings to be challenging, because a) my willpower was weaker at night than in the morning, and b) it was easy to stay later at evening events, get busy talking on the phone while doing household chores, and other things that eat up time quickly. I tied my evening meditation loosely to my bedtime schedule, and since I usually aim to go to bed around 10 pm, I found that I had to wrap up my meditation by 9:30 pm to handle brushing my teeth etc., which meant starting my evening meditation no later than 8:30 pm.
This made me realize that if I wanted to get in 2 hours a day, there were some very real trade-offs to be made. If I wanted to go to an evening networking event, teach yoga, or otherwise do something other than go home straight after work, I had to get in my hour right at the end of the workday (e.g. 5-6 or 5:30-6:30 pm), or I had to leave downtown by 7:30 pm at the latest, and preferably by 7 pm, to make sure I got in my evening sit.
While initially it felt difficult, to my surprise, after a few weeks I found myself looking forward to my evening sits more than I expected. It started feeling like a joy to have a “slice of infinity amidst the ocean of the ordinary” every night.
I also found that adding in a healthy habit, like meditation, had an unexpected positive side effect of “crowding out” other, less healthy activities. While I’m not a gambler, heavy drinker, or cigarette smoker, I found that time I might otherwise spend on “vices” like a glass of wine and Netflix to be significantly reduced. I don’t think I had any intoxicants all month, and that wasn’t intentional, it just happened that way because of prioritizing my #1 goal for the month and letting other things fall away. I also found it really fascinating that while I might begin an evening meditation (especially on a Friday) wishing I could go distract myself with things like Netflix or ice cream rather than meditate, by the end of the hour-long sit, I no longer felt the habitual cravings pull me as intensely.
What I learned in my “month of meditation” experiment
1. It’s possible. I stuck to it despite wanting to do other things. My willpower got a lot stronger because I had a clear priority and a deadline.
2. I could overcome obstacles e.g. not wanting to sit in the evening or being too tired – as I ended up having a few good sits unexpectedly.
3. I kept going even when I had an off day (e.g. 20 minutes rather than my goal of 60).
4. I felt WAY calmer overall – it felt like my baseline mood shifted significantly in the direction of equanimity. My mind felt more stable.
5. My body felt slightly worse – specifically because I de-prioritized exercise to have an hour to meditate in the evenings. My low back was particularly unhappy about an additional 2 hours of sitting a day.
6. I noticed I wanted to get out of the routine and wanted to do something different during PMS week – e.g. 7 am yoga at my favorite studio, rather than 7 am meditation.
7. I noticed the opportunity cost more closely: an hour of meditation was an hour less for doing laundry, going to the gym, seeing friends or loved ones, sleep, etc.
8. Wednesdays and Thursdays tended to be my “off days” – in the middle of the week, it was more challenging to overcome the inertia of my usual habits.
9. Weekends felt surprisingly challenging to meditate sometimes because the opportunity cost of meditation was higher – i.e. not going to some other fun activity.
10. I noticed my mind feeling more reactive when I looked at Facebook… In particular, I watched my mind / ego want to be right and tell other people about it, and how the platform is designed to make people want to comment on things; it felt “sticky.”
11. I noticed increased mindfulness “off the cushion,” such as noticing immediately after I said something awkward and regretting using words .
12. I noticed I rushed other activities to have time to meditate, such as hurrying up in in cooking.
Advice on Developing Healthy Habits
1. Start small: If you want to do more exercise or meditation every day, I do NOT actually recommend 2 hours. Start with something that only takes 5-10 minutes, like pushups and sit-ups or 10 minutes of meditation.
2. Pick a manageable amount of time: Work on a healthy habit every day for a month, not a whole year (or even start with one week).
3. Write down what you did every day on a calendar.
4. Keep going even if you have an off day or skip your healthy habit that day.
Advice on Getting Started with Meditation
1. Don’t start with 2 hours – start with 10 minutes. (I picked 2 hours because it was a fun challenge for me, as I’ve been at this for about 10 years.)
2. Pick a particular fixed spot in the house. A chair with a flat east is fine; it doesn’t need to be a meditation cushion specifically.
3. Pick a set time every day, such as first thing in the morning, last thing at work before leaving for home OR 2 hours before bed (to allow time to brush your teeth etc. without rushing).
4. Pick a fixed amount of time – a month is enough to develop a new habit but not so long that it feels unmanageable.
5. Don’t evaluate whether your meditation has “worked” until the end of the set time you’ve picked.
6. Notice what works and what doesn’t when you evaluate it. What do you notice that’s different in your life? Not just whether you can follow your breath for longer in meditation. What changes do you notice “off the cushion?”
7. Try making monthly commitments – can mix it up each month.
Want to chat about getting started in meditation?
Email me at email@example.com or follow @BizCasualYoga on Twitter.