Welcome to this article on how to start a daily meditation practice. I’ve done my best to lay out everything you will need to know to create a daily meditation practice that best suits your needs and will stick over time.
You may also have a few questions such as; Is meditation good in the morning? How do I start daily meditation? How long should I meditate?
In this article, I answer these questions, detail the benefits gained from more than twenty years of practice, and give you practical tips on how to stay the course. In my experience, starting a practice is not difficult. Making this decision stick is the key to gaining benefit from the practice.
Key Reasons to Begin a Daily Meditation Practice
There are many benefits to daily meditation. Here are five I feel are important to keep front of mind.
The Compound Effect of Meditation
Starting a daily practice has a compound effect. That is, by making meditation a vital part of a daily routine, the benefits of the practice accumulate over time into more than the sum of the parts.
In his book The Compound Effect, Darren Hardy puts it this way 1:
Your life comes down to this formula. Your Choices (decisions) + Behaviour (action) + Habit (repeated action) + Compound Effect (Time) = Goals.
While it is true to say decisions, plus taking action, each day, forms who we become, and who we become is a direct reflection of these actions over time, for me, a daily meditation practice is not at all like the formula above. The reason for this is momentum.
So I have rewritten this formula to reflect this:
Decision + Action + Repeated Action + Time = Momentum.
Therefore daily meditation is more like 1 + 1 + 1 = 5.
Momentum is key to gaining benefit from meditation.
Momentum makes it possible that over time, the decision to get out of bed and practice will require less conscious effort. Thus your practice will take on the characteristics of a flywheel.
And this is the compound effect of a daily meditation practice.
Meditation Sets the Course for Discovery of the True Self
Personal identity is a deep philosophical problem, both East and West. And philosophers have been arguing about these questions for thousands of years precisely because they are essential to our well-being.
In my article on personal identity called, The Cartography of Persons: Setting a Course for Self-Discovery I explore the ideas of synchronic and diachronic identity2. These are philosophical terms of art that boil down to who we are in the moment and over time.
These are important questions to seek an answer for because there is freedom in understanding. And meditation gives us first-hand access to the answers, such that and over time, freedom arises as we discover the true self, or come to know thy-self, as the Greeks would say.
Moreover, the methods used and the benefits gained from such philosophical seeking is how I like to think of meditation more generally. For me, meditation is not something we do to make us calmer, remove anxiety, or lower blood pressure. These are side effects, or by-products, of practice and not the purpose of meditation. Meditation is an analytic, diagnostic, and therapeutic tool used to consciously evolve—what I like to call the enlightenment project.
The enlightenment project is a project of the evolution of your consciousness. And the evolution of consciousness is key to living a good life. If you can make this idea of the development of consciousness central to your life, then your life’s direction moves you to a deeper quality of well-being, regardless of circumstance.
By understanding who we are and how we are, we are able to live to our fullest potential. Indeed, our fullest potential is expressed from within the view that is an understanding of who we are really, in truth.
Meditation Develops Your Ability to Focus
By meditating each daily, you are developing the key cognitive function of attention. The benefit of this has real-world and very practical implications. Whether you work part-time, full-time, are a student, or a stay-at-home caregiver, the ability to focus your attention is vital to determining the quality of the work, and thus your experience of the task at hand.
This is true because there is a natural feeling of satisfaction that comes from attention itself. When the mind is focused in a relaxed manner, there is less cognitive-dissonance, less “noise” so to speak, and this, in turn, relaxes the mind and thus makes it easier to attend to the task. The end result being that the task is completed with greater quality. And the feedback of this is a deep sense of satisfaction for a job done well.
Indeed, this sense of well-being arising from a concentrated mind is related to the notion of pliancy or praśrabdhi in Sanskrit—one of the fifty-one mental factors found in Buddhist psychology. In modern parlance, pliancy is called the “flow-state”—a sense of well-being that arises from doing something so deeply that everything around you dissolves into the background, thus shaping your experience of it.
Your ability to focus your attention on a given topic or task will directly affect your ability to understand, and therefore your experience. As William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States, said:3
My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.
James is considered by many to be one of the most influential philosophers of the late nineteenth century and the so-called “father of American psychology.” Be that as it may, his insight into the connection between attention and experience is of great significance regardless of titles.
Meditation Lessens the Impact of Dysfunctional States of Mind
It has been well documented that general anxiety is a negative effect of anxiety dreams. Indeed, individuals dealing with distress in their dreams have been found to have general anxiety more often than those who experience real-life events that could be equally as stressful.4
By meditating daily, we dissolve any negative affect accumulated throughout the night. You can think of meditation as the cleansing of consciousness. A metaphorical daily shower that cleans away the grime from a night where the unconscious mind has been handed the keys.
This in turn, wipes clean our consciousness that should we, throughout the day, undergo stress or anxiety-inducing circumstances, we will be in a better position to notice them, and therefore deal with ourselves in a productive and caring manner. If you parsed the above via the definition of meditation I mentioned earlier as an analytic, diagnostic, and therapeutic tool, then you will better appreciate what is going on here.
That is to say, a meditation practice will give you, over time, a greater capacity to analyze your state of mind to see when, or if, negative affect such as anxiety is manifest, and if so, do something about it.
As your practice improves and deepens, it will naturally integrate seamlessly into your daily activities, making everything you do easier and more enjoyable. You will notice more quickly when things go south! When stress turns to anxiety or depression, you will notice this and be in a better position to do something about it.
Finding Your “Why” Becomes Easier
By developing a greater capacity to navigate the vicissitudes of everyday life, your knowledge of what to do in any given situation, or how to deal with people becomes clearer. Should I do this or that? What should I say about X or Y? The questions of life become easier to resolve.
The reason for this is as consciousness settles and becomes clearer, so does what motivates us at a deeper level. It becomes apparent what you need to do and focus on at any given point in time.
This “knowing” does not always operate at the conceptual level. You won’t necessarily hear the answer in your mind. Instead, you will know the answer in a deep and abstract manner.
When this begins to happen, it is because your intuitive wisdom is being activated as a result of your meditation becoming stable. There is a correlation between the compound effect of daily meditation practice and the dawning of this deep abstract way of knowing.
Why this is important to note here is that one’s purpose in life becomes increasingly clear as a result of meditation because meditation increases your ability to see through the fog of daily life and mundane activities and into what really matters.
Understanding your life’s purpose is important because it gives you a direction in life—a sense of what it’s all for. And as Simon Sinek has said, “we can live our lives by accident, but in doing so, you will have no sense of direction.” And without a sense of direction, it is harder to make informed decisions. Like stepping into a dark room late at night without turning lights on, living life without a sense of where you are headed can create subtle anxiety arising from the fear of bumping into problems.
Increase Your Sense of Well-Being
By becoming clear of where you’re going in life and why you are headed in that direction, a deeper sense of well-being—what Aristotelian ethics calls eudaimonia—will naturally arise. And this, in part, comes from understanding what motivates you.
Finding purpose supported by meditation practice, therefore, lays the foundation of a deep sense of well-being that comes from your psychology and physiology being in balance.
The reasons for starting a daily meditation listed above are, in my opinion, a non-exhaustive list of the actual benefits of meditation because the purpose of meditation is flourishing, not the lowering of blood pressure. The lowering of blood pressure and other such benefits are positive side-effects, to be sure, but they are just that, side effects.
Now we will turn our attention to the benefits of meditation in terms of the three—physiology, psychology, and spirituality. What I’ve listed below, therefore, can be thought of as more list a non-exhaustive list of the effects of meditation that are generally listed as benefits.
Benefits of Starting a Daily Meditation Practice
The standard benefits of meditation are well documented in research papers, and you can find them all across the internet. So while these standard benefits below need to be included in this article in order for the article to cover everything as promised, the benefits that appear in the list, are by no means exhaustive. I will also limit these benefits to the most common and only add my own comments where I feel it absolutely necessary.
Physiological Benefits of Meditation
Below is a standard list of some of the health benefits of meditation.
- Lowers stress
- Improves digestion
- Reduces respiratory conditions by increasing CO2 levels in the blood
- Reduces insomnia
- Reduces heart rate
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves blood PH (acid/alkaline)
Suffice it to say, one of the key benefits of meditation is the effect it has on your physiology. As meditation deepens and stability arises from within consciousness itself, a warm, smooth, and deep sense of bliss begins to pervade the body. This starts subtly and becomes more obvious over time.
What’s happening here is that the body, your physiology, is beginning to balance itself out—more details on this process below.
Psychological Benefits of Meditation
As with the list above, so with this. I will simply list the typical benefits you generally find listed in research about meditation and then give my comments from a phenomenological perspective.
- Reduce Anxiety and overwhelm
- Increases emotional stability
- Increases mental clarity
- Increases attention and focus
- Increases creativity
- Decreases fear of uncertainty
- Increases confidence and self-esteem
As with the physiological benefits, the psychological benefits arise over time and out of the deepening of one’s practice. It is, therefore, imperative your practice be consistent.
From a phenomenological perspective, the experience of the psychological benefits arise because of the opening or expansion of consciousness. Through this expansion of consciousness, the benefits listed above are a natural effect.
Spiritual Benefits of Meditation
The word spiritual is a loaded term, to be sure. Some people react positively, seeing “spiritual” as an umbrella term for all things deeply meaningful and yet wholly unseen. For others, the opposite effect rings true, and for the very same reason. For these people, the term “spiritual” is just a little woo-woo.
However, I use the word spiritual here to refer to something that is not wholly physical nor wholly psychological. It might be best understood in the phrase, “he/she seems in good spirit today.” But I’m not talking about cheerfulness but rather the underlying energy that animates us. This is the spirit, in spiritual.
As with the list above, so with this. The three benefits:
- Increases energy
- Increases vibrancy
- Increases longevity
All three come from contact with the thing that is not wholly psychological nor wholly physiological but transcends both and consumes both. Touching the transcendent is not an easy subject to write about, for the very reason that it is a subtle phenomenon, and in citing energy, vibrance, and longevity as the three main spiritual benefits of meditation, I am, to some extent, falling into the same problem as the other two lists above.
This is because lists are by nature, reductive. This makes it easy to digest, but they suffer from a lack of useful detail as a result.
For this reason, the benefits of meditation with respect to mind, body, and spirit require stand-alone articles for each. If I may, I’d suggest entering your email address below to be notified when these articles become available.
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Overcoming Obstacles to a Daily Meditation Practice
The mind is a tricky thing. It will find ways to derail you from developing a daily practice, and some of these methods will be cunning. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield calls it, The Resistance.5
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
Pressfield believes the Resistance is a universal force that is actively working against all things good. He claims Resistance is the most dangerous element to one’s life as it’s sole mission is to keep you in your place. To crush dreams by undermining any project worth doing. It sabotages aspirations with a heart as black as a cold winter’s night!
Whether you prefer to relate to this Resistance as some kind of external force with the “sole mission to sabotage aspirations,” or simply as your own psychology pushing back against change, the same method for overcoming Resistance to meditation is necessary—ignore it.
Yes. Ignore it. Sounds easy but, it’s not. However, you simply cannot listen to the voice that tells you, “I’m too busy to meditate today!” It’s simply not true. Even if you are extremely busy, it’s not that difficult to find ten minutes. The Resistance, however, will provide a laundry list of things you should be doing, or could be doing, or have to be doing—anything but meditation.
This feeling of no time can feel very real. But if you are to gain the benefits of the compound-effect of meditation, you need to learn to ignore the Resistance. And I say learn to ignore, for you will, at some point, fall prey to the Resistance masquerading as logic. It will happen. And when it does, be gentle with yourself.
The next obstacle to meditation I hear a lot is, I cannot sit still. This one is very real but also quite easy to overcome with some simple breathing exercises and a little bit of patience. But it is Resistance, not logic, that is telling you that you cannot sit. And it will fight you like a four-year-old on a long road-trip.
The last common obstacle is, my mind never stops thinking. Believe it or not, this is actually a sign of progress. For your mind has not changed; you’ve simply become more aware of the contents of your mind due to the opening and expanding of your awareness.
If you get impatient with yourself or try and push the thoughts away, you are preventing the development of your practice. The trick is to learn to allow the mind to settle in its natural state. To simply allow the thoughts to settle on their own. By focusing on them, you give them energy. And by giving them energy they will continue to torment you.
This is not something you can force. It is not something you can create. It’s not what you are not doing that is preventing your development but rather what you are already doing that is preventing you from going deeper in your practice.
As with the above piece of advice, the method for overcoming excessive thinking is quite easy with some simple breathing exercises and a little bit of patience.
My final thoughts on overcoming obstacles are this: Resistance is sneaky—no doubt about it. It will try and deceive you. And it will win many times before it stops having power over you. The trick, if there is indeed any trick when it comes to developing a meditation practice, is that while it may appear as if, in the moment, the Resistance is making a whole lotta sense, you must learn to first recognize resistance as Resistance with a capital R, and then ignore it if you are to gain the benefits of meditation.
Creating a Daily Habit of Meditation
Overcoming obstacles and creating habits come as a pair. That is to say, by attempting to practice despite the continued appearance of ongoing failure, the habit will be created. The best example of this kind of practice is the story of the light-bulb and Thomas Edison. After ten thousand attempts at inventing the light-bulb, Edison was asked why he bothered continuing after all these failures. Loosely paraphrasing, his response went something like this: I have not failed. Not one single time. I have succeeded in 10,000 different ways of how not to build a light-bulb.
Meditation is a little like this. That is to say, it can feel like each day, each session, is just one more example of a failed attempt to achieve what one set out to achieve. And it can go this way for a long time. But you must understand that what appears to be a bad session is, in fact, taking you one step closer to achieving your goal of a truly blissful and peaceful state of mind.
You also need to be deliberate in your practice. Not deliberate in the sense of focusing your attention on a specific outcome of meditation. This would encourage the involvement of ego. Nor is it about improving your performance during the session as, say, sportspeople do. Adjusting your meditation during the session is fine as long as no results-based-ego-grasping is involved.
However, we still need a way to track something about our session to know if the habit is being formed. For this reason, it is better to track your momentum, not your results. And the best way I’ve found that works is to simply download a yearly calendar from the internet, print it out, stick it on a wall somewhere so you will be reminded of it every day.
Then after every session of daily meditation is complete, you place a big red cross through that day’s date. And you do this, every day, trying to extend the series of red crosses without breaking the chain.
By focusing on the momentum of turning up each day, not the quality of your meditation, the compound effect of meditation will take care of the quality of your meditation over time.
Meditation for Balancing Your Body and Mind
Once on the cushion, there are many different types of meditation we can practice, but I believe the best meditation we can practice when we first wake is a practice for balancing your mind and body through breathing.
Before we get into the actual practice and the guided meditation that follows, I want to first give you a sense of what is taking place at a physiological level so you can better appreciate the practice. Of course, I cannot go into too much detail here as there is not enough space, but I will give you enough information to get the sense of what is taking place at a subtle level, so you come to a good understanding of what the practice is doing for you.
Now, breathwork is thousands of years old and is found in many spiritual traditions. The tradition I was taught as a Buddhist monk started in India in 1000 CE and moved into Tibet during that same period.
From a western perspective, breathwork is an activity manipulating the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is a control system within our body that acts mostly unconsciously and regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, sexual arousal. It is made of two parts—the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). The SNS regulated systems are related to flight-or-flight, and the PSNS regulates biological functions related to rest-and-digest.
Through special practices, it is possible to manipulate the energy associated with the autonomic nervous system to become healthier—both psychologically and physiologically. Indeed, the reason for learning how to manipulate, or even what is taking place at this level, is because we are mostly stuck in one or the other of the ANS, much of the time. That is to say; we are often out of balance.
This practice is subtle yet profound because it results in benefits to both our physiology and psychology at the same time. Let us now turn to the guided meditation.
A Guided Daily Meditation Practice
Sit comfortably in a chair, or on the floor, or lay flat on your back with your hands to the side.
Imagine your spine is like a pillar of energy. Let your body hang loose and relaxed from this pillar of energy.
Place your hands in a comfortable position. If you are sitting, your spine should be straight with your head tilted down on roughly 30-45%.
Your eyes can either be half or fully closed. If your tired or sleepy, leave your eyes slightly open as the light will prevent falling further into drowsiness.
Now bring your attention inside to the natural rising and falling of the breath.
Do not force your breathing. Simply witness the natural movement of your breath as you would watch gentle waves wash up onto the sand and then dissolve back into the ocean.
Do this until the mind is somewhat calmed or for at least 30 seconds.
Now take your right index finger, and place it over the right nostril, then press it closed so that no air can escape.
Take a long deep breath and hold it for one second into your belly through the left nostril (do not breathe into your chest).
Then move your index finger to cover the left nostril making certain to not let any air escape as you move your finger.
Then breathe out sharply with force through your right nostril.
In through the left slowly; out through the right sharply with force.
Repeat this cycle three times.
After the cycle of three is complete, we repeat this again in the opposite direction.
Take your left index finger and place it over the left nostril to close it off.
Breathe in deeply through the right nostril.
Hold it for one second as you move the index finger to close the right nostril.
Then breathe out sharply with force through your left nostril.
Do this three times.
Next, we breathe in deeply and slowly through both nostrils. Breathe into your belly, not your chest.
Hold for one second.
Then breathe out sharply and with force through both nostrils.
Repeat three times.
This is the first round of the Nine-fold breathing technique.
The second round is the same as above, but when you breathe out, you do so slowly and gently.
Every other part of the meditation is the same as above.
The third round to complete the breathing meditation to balance and strengthen your autonomic nervous system extends the holding of breath.
As before, breathe in through both nostrils deep into your belly and hold the breath.
Holding it until just before you feel uncomfortable.
Then release the air slowly out through both nostrils.
Repeat this breathing technique three times.
At this point, you can either do the full nine-rounds again, or you can relax your breathing and go back to a simple witnessing of the natural rising and falling of your breath without trying to manipulate it in any way.
You can meditate in this witnessing mode as long as you wish. Or go onto other practices of meditation, such as meditating on the nature of consciousness, or simply go on with your day.
If you’d like to know more about these practices, see the meditation techniques above demonstrated, and learn more about the theory, I’ve put together an implementation guide that is a series of video lectures with theory, so you understand what you’re doing, demonstrated practice for clarity, and advice for integrating the practice into your everyday life.
Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin
- The Compound Effect
- Gallois, Andre, Identity Over Time, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Principles of Psychology, Vols. 1-2
- Joelving, Frederik (2010). “More Than Just a Bad Dream”. Scientific American Mind. 20 (7): 1.
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield