A few years ago, I read the book, “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.” In this book, I came across a pretty interesting theory – practise something for 21 days, and it becomes a habit. I found this rather intriguing. In the past, I have tried building habits such as regular exercise and meditation but failed to make them stick.
So this year, in hopes of building some lasting positive habits, I decided to take up a 21-day challenge. Every month this year, I’ll practise a certain habit for 21 days and write about my experience. At the end of the year, I’ll also share which habits stuck to the end, my theories on why, and the benefits I’ve reaped from them.
I kick-started the year with meditation in January, and after 21 days, I’m excited to share my experience with you. Some of you may be interested to learn more about meditation, so I’ll also share useful information along the way. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
What is meditation?
What the books say
I’ve come across a number of definitions, but for me, the most straight-forward and easy to understand is from the book Unplug: A Simple Guide To Meditation by Suze Yalof Schwartz. It is “a practice that teaches you to unplug from distraction and experience the present moment.”
I don’t know if this is the most technically accurate definition, but it feels right. For 21 days, when I sit to meditate, this is what I’ve been trying to do. Focus on the present and allow thoughts and other distractions to float by like clouds in the sky. I don’t always succeed – who am I kidding, I’m an overthinking, type A personality – I rarely succeed, but I’m learning that it's okay. I’ll get there when I get there.
What are the benefits of meditation?
What the research says
Research shows that meditation offers a long list of benefits including:
decreases blood pressure
alleviates chronic pain
A lot of the studies that highlight the benefits of meditation are based on around 8 weeks or more of practice. So far, I’ve only meditated for 21 days. Though it’s a little early to expect results, I do feel a nice sense of peace after meditation and this energy is carried forward into my work in the morning. I find meditation to be a good way to start my day off on a positive note.
What are the different meditation techniques?
What the experts say
There are various different meditation techniques you can try including:
Focused attention. This is where you focus your attention on something, for e.g. your breath. When your mind wanders off, you slowly bring your attention back to the breath.
Body scan. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the busyness of life, we ignore our body and how it feels. This technique helps to get your mind and body in sync. You start by doing a mental scan from your head right down to your toes. Pay attention to any discomfort, pain, or other sensations you might feel anywhere in the body.
Visualization. This is where you visualize someone, something, or a scene in your mind. Instead of the breath, here you focus on a positive mental image.
Mantra meditation. This is similar to focused attention, but instead of focusing on the breath, you focus on a mantra. The mantra could be a word or phrase that is close to your heart.
Mindfulness meditation is also a term that is very popular nowadays. This involves remaining aware and present in the moment. According to Medical News Today, a form of mindfulness is involved in most meditation practices. For e.g. with focused attention, we become more aware of our breathing, and with body scan, we become more aware of the physical sensations we feel throughout the body.
One mindfulness activity that helps to ease anxiety is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. This is where you focus your attention on the present moment using your five senses. Pause, take a deep breath, and start by identifying 5 things you can see around you, then 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and finally, 1 thing you can taste.
You can try this simple exercise anywhere – as you enjoy your morning cuppa or even while waiting in line at the grocery store. This trains your mind to be more mindful and present in the moment.
As a beginner, I find guided meditations really useful. With guided meditations, you have someone to guide you through your session. It feels almost as if you have a meditation instructor right by your side, walking you through this new practice.
I’ve heard good things about the Headspace app and its guided meditations, so I decided to give it a try. I’ve used it for the past 21 days and I love it! The Basics Course guides you through meditation techniques such as body scan and focused attention. You are given the option to start small and gradually increase your meditation time according to your preference.
Some guided meditations are available for free, but most of them are only available for paying subscribers. I signed up for the 14-day free trial and since I really like their guided meditations, I’ve decided to invest in a Headspace subscription. Once I use it for a month or two, I’ll definitely write a review for those of you who want to know more about the app!
How long to meditate each day?
What the research & experts say
Meditating at a specific time and place each day can help to make meditation a daily habit, but how long should we meditate each day? This is a question all beginners (including myself) struggle with!
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a study to better understand how meditation changes the brain. They found that when participants meditated for 27 minutes on average a day for 8 weeks, the regions in their brain associated with learning, memory, cognition, compassion, and emotional regulation thickened. On the other hand, the area of the brain associated with anxiety, fear, and stress got smaller. This is incredible! Meditation can actually cause physical changes to the structure of the brain. So, is 27 minutes the magic number?
Well, according to Andy Puddicombe, meditation and mindfulness expert and co-founder of Headspace, for the habit to stick, it’s good to start small and build up slowly. Find your own sweet spot over time. The sweet spot varies from person to person and can range anywhere between 10 and 60 minutes.
In the beginning, it’s important to find a length of time that feels doable. This helps you to establish a daily routine of meditation. Andy emphasizes that with meditation, quality trumps quantity, and frequency trumps duration.
I tried my hand at meditation last year. Part of the reason why it didn’t stick is that I started with too long a duration. I tried meditating for 20 to 30 minutes per day and as a beginner, it wasn’t easy. After the first 10 to 15 minutes, my mind would wander and my attention would waver. I would just sit, waiting for the time to pass by. I soon began to dread meditation because I found it boring.
This year, I decided to take Andy’s advice and started with 10 minutes. It was perfect! I enjoyed the experience and found it beneficial. It helped me gain a sense of peace. After 15 days, I started to find that 10 minutes flew by rather quickly. So, I increased the duration to 15 minutes. When it comes to habit building, starting small is definitely key!
How long does it take to work?
Alright, say you meditate diligently every day. How long will it take for you to reap the multitude of benefits meditation has to offer? As with anything in life, if you focus solely on results, you end up putting too much pressure on yourself and your practice, without allowing yourself the time and space to grow.
Research on meditation tends to follow participants for weeks or months, rather than years. So, the data suggests that it doesn’t take too long to start reaping the benefits of meditation. Since you can’t measure or predict the changes you will experience in your brain, I think the best approach here is to just believe in the science and meditate consistently. The results will come over time.
Alas, my 21-day challenge for January has come to an end. Will I continue to practise meditation hereafter? YES! I’m really impressed with the benefits that meditation stands to offer. Plus, I enjoy the sense of peace the practice gives me. I can’t see all the benefits now, but I intend to take my own advice – believe in what the data shows and just do it consistently. After a few months, I’ll update you on my progress!
I’ll see you again soon.