Whether it’s meditation, yoga, or your favorite creative activity, you’ll get so much more of it every day. Follow these six steps, says Anne Cushman, to get all the benefits of daily practice.
Attending a retreat or program is a wonderful way to deepen our meditation practice. But how do we stay connected with these wake-up practices when we go home to the myriad of projects, emails, responsibilities, and distractions that await us?
This is a question that applies not just to meditation, yoga, and other spiritual practices, but to any creative art we might want to engage in, such as painting, writing, or playing an instrument. Paradoxically, the practices that we know are most important to our wellbeing are the very things that are usually pushed aside by daily tasks that feel more urgent.
You can start each day with the intention of spending half an hour with your zafu, practicing walking meditation in the park, or writing three haikus that capture the essence of your insights. But you don’t have yogurt or broccoli, you have 237 unread emails in your inbox, your taxes were due last week, and your kid knocked a tooth out skateboarding or needs you to buy Japanese prints for a history project. So you put off meditating or working on your memoir for another day. And then another. And then another.
Recently, I’ve been offering students a six-step plan that I’ve found effective for practicing and maintaining almost anything at home – even in the middle of a crazy, busy life. I have been using these principles to maintain a yoga and meditation practice for nearly 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:
1. Set your intent
Make sure you understand what you want to commit to – and more importantly, why.
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Why is it important to you to have a meditation practice – or do tai chi or paint wildflowers? What part of you does it feed? Write down your reasons. The more specific you are, the more likely you are to do it. It’s not just “I want to meditate more”. It is, “I make a commitment to meditate for ten minutes before waking the kids for school because it keeps me calm, grounded, and more present to my family.” To make your intention even stronger, share it with someone who who is close to you. However, be careful if you talk about it too far – it can dissipate the energy.
2. Create a cue
This is a reminder to begin your practice. The simplest and most reliable clue is a specific time. For example, you decide to meditate every evening from 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
It can also be a floating cue: you will do half an hour of yoga right after work whenever that happens. Or you can take ten conscious breaths when you start your e-mail program. To make sure your good intentions are not overwhelmed by other plans, plan the time ahead. Write it down on your calendar and don’t plan anything else during this time. Make sure that you plan in good time for any necessary preparations or cleaning.
Remember to start humbly. Meditating ten minutes a day for a year is more beneficial than meditating for one hour a day for three days and then burning out. Again, it can be helpful to let people around you know what you’re doing, especially if you live together. This is how they can support you in your commitment.
3. Round off your supplies
Make sure you have everything you need for your practice in one easy to find place. That way, you don’t have to waste your precious time hunting them down. Have a meditation nook ready with an inviting pillow, a small altar, and a supply of incense and matches. If you want to jot down your dreams every morning, put a notebook and pen on your bedside table.
4. Do your practice
So that you don’t spend your dedicated practice time saying goodbye or figuring out where to start, it is helpful to have a plan, especially in the beginning. Know which meditation method you want to practice – breathing meditation or loving kindness, for example – and stick to one method for at least a week before switching. (If you plan to use guided meditation, download or bookmark the instructions ahead of time so that you don’t waste your meditation time surfing the internet.)
As you practice yoga, sketch out a standard routine that you can refer to, knowing that you can always change it with some inspiration once you get started. As you do writing practice, write a few prompts in your journal to get you started.
5. Reward yourself
Yes, in theory the exercise is its own reward. But especially when you are establishing a new pattern, having an external reward also helps. After your morning meditation, make yourself a cup of green tea and sip it slowly while watching the sunrise. After your evening yoga with your kids, watch a goofy movie. After you’ve drawn your art journal, stick a gold star sticker on your calendar. Our brain loves this type of positive reinforcement.
6. Track your progress
Keeping a record of what you have done and what you have not done increases your sense of responsibility. Make this part fun! You can go the old fashioned way by ticking the boxes on a calendar. Or, you can use one of the many new habit tracking apps that are available.
Remember, this is about celebrating your accomplishments and not beating yourself up if you miss a day. Small changes to the routine every day can shift your whole life over time. Remember to enjoy the trip.
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