As a psychologist and therapist, I think a lot about mental health and emotional well-being.
And the longer I work as a therapist—listening to the many different forms of struggles and suffering that people go through—the more I believe that the single best thing most people could do for their mental health and emotional well-being is to practice mindfulness meditation every day.
To a large extent, our mind and the way we use it determines the quality of our emotional experience. So, the ability to use our own minds well—to skillfully regulate our attention, in particular—is they key to undoing much of the emotional suffering we experience.
The trouble is, most of us don’t know our own minds very well. And it’s hard to use something well if we don’t understand it.
In my own experience, there’s no better way to get to know your own mind and how it works than the habit of a daily mindfulness meditation practice.
25 Tiny Lessons I’ve Learned from a Daily Mindfulness Meditation Practice
If you’ve been thinking about getting started with mindfulness meditation, or you’re just curious to learn more, I’ve put together 25 small lessons and reflections on mindfulness and meditation that I’ve learned over the years. They range from the logistical to the philosophical. I hope they’re helpful (or at least clarifying).
1 | The morning is the best time to meditate, but not first thing.
I’ve experimented with meditating at many different times throughout the day. First thing in the morning I’m still too groggy. But once I’ve started my day I’m too distracted. After I’ve showered each morning but before I start working is the sweet spot for me. Of course everyone’s different, but most of the successful meditators I know have a morning meditation practice.
2 | When you first start meditating, it’s best to start small but build up quickly.
For the first few days, shoot for just a few minutes per session. By the end of the first week, try to be hitting at least 10 to 15 minutes per session. Get to 30 minutes as quickly as possible—by the end of week two at the latest. Most of the enjoyment and benefits of meditating come with longer sessions. You deprive yourself of this motivating reward if you only ever meditate for 5 minutes.
3 | Meditation apps are tempting in the short term, but counter-productive in the long term.
This is one of my most unpopular opinions about meditation: Meditation apps are a crutch. They reinforce the mistaken belief that meditation is or should be complicated. Fundamentally, meditation is about observing your own mind. You don’t need a iPhone app to do that.
4 | Even though I write a lot about how to get started meditating, the thing that persuaded me most was listening to others talk about their experience meditating.
Tim Ferris and Sam Harris are podcasters and regular meditators who often talk about their own experiences with meditation in a way that’s intriguing and practical. They also frequently bring on guests who are experts in meditation. Listening to people’s personal accounts of meditation is often much more instructive than listicles from the Huffington Post about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
5 | It’s amazing how difficult not thinking is.
I define mindfulness as the ability to be aware without thinking. It’s conceptually simple, but staggeringly difficult to achieve in practice. We’ve been taught to constantly think our whole lives. Flexing a muscle in the opposite direction is a challenge.
6 | Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not working (the opposite is true).
Meditation should be frustrating. If you don’t finish your sessions tired and at least a little bit frustrated, you’re probably not doing it right. The fact that it’s challenging means you’re growing. All growth requires struggle—meditation is no different.
7 | My inner tone of voice is surprisingly harsh.
One of the most striking things I notice when I meditate and watch how my mind works is how mean my own inner voice can be. I’m very harsh and judgmental with myself. This is a perfect example of the value of meditation: You get to observe and really see how your own mind works. And it’s only once you’re aware of a problem that you can start to fix it.
8 | Our thoughts want us to believe that they’re important—like really important, all the time, no matter what.
But most of the time they’re not. Just like our bodies produce hundreds if not thousands of small little sensations and movements throughout the day that are mostly random and insignificant, our minds constantly throw thoughts at us throughout the day. If you meditate enough, you start to see how unimportant and un-meaningful most of these thoughts are. Certainly not worth engaging with and having more thoughts (and emotions) about.
9 | It takes about a week of daily meditation to get back into it if you’ve stopped for a while.
If you haven’t run for a while, your legs with be sore the first few times you go for a jog. If you haven’t picked up your guitar for a while, your fingers will feel clumsy and raw. If you haven’t spoken Spanish in a few years, it may take a few conversations before things start to click again. Meditation is no different than any of these.
10 | It takes at least two weeks of near daily meditation to “get into it” if you’ve never meditated before.
Don’t expect meditation to be life changing over night. Or even after a week or two. In my experience, it often takes at least a couple weeks of near-daily practice for the routine itself to become somewhat familiar. This is normal. Unfortunately, most people who “try meditation” never make it this far.
11 | The term “meditation” makes people squirm. “Attention Training” is a good alternative for more straight-laced types.
Attention is the doorway to the mind. Every conscious thought, emotion, or experience that finds its way into our mind gets there through the doorway of our attention. If you find your mind full of undesirable stuff, meditation is like hiring a doorman to help you regulate who gets access to your mind and who doesn’t.
12 | Meditation is the best way I know of to get to know your own mind and how it works.
“Observing and getting to know your own mind” is my favorite definition of meditation. It’s striking that we use our minds our entire waking lives to do everything from tie our shoes to asking for a raise and saying “I love you” before bed. But how many of us have taken the time to really get to know and try to understand this thing called mind that makes our entire lives possible?
13 | Meditation is an opportunity to practice noticing the differences between thoughts and emotions—and then doing nothing.
One of the most fundamental distinctions for our mental health is between thoughts and emotions. Learning to notice the difference between the two and what their relationships looks like, is key to untangling just about any psychologically distressing situation we find ourselves in. Meditation is the most powerful and efficient way to do that.
14 | My mind’s favorite way of distracting me from my meditation is with thoughts about meditation.
Sometimes when I meditate, my thinking mind consciously rebells and resists. Perhaps its best strategy is to throw lots of thoughts about meditation at me. And it works! It’s as if on some semi-conscious level I tell myself, Yeah it’s a thought, but it’s about meditation so it’s okay. Sneaky brain.
15 | A meditation practice in isolation is no guarantee of a mindful disposition toward life generally.
I have a theory that one of the primary reasons most people don’t get as much benefit from meditation as they imagine they will is that they don’t put it into practice. No one would keep practicing scales on the piano if they didn’t get to put that knowledge to use by playing a full sonata or song. Similarly, the benefits we get from practicing mindfulness meditation would be much stronger and more tangible if we had a regular habit of applying them to real-life situations.
16 | As someone who struggles a lot with patience, mindfulness really helps me to be patient with myself.
I suspect that a lot of our impatience with others actually stems from chronic impatience with ourselves. Almost by definition, meditation is a slow process that’s not amenable to quick, efficient action. Practicing regularly helps me to slow down and become more patient with myself. Which, I think, helps me to be more patient with others.
17 | There’s so much more to our minds than mere thought.
Thinking is the sexy cheerleader, but awareness is the shy girl down the street. Our culture lionizes cognitive activity associated with analytical and active thought, but we tend to ignore the quieter types of mental activity that fall under the umbrella of awareness—sensation, perception, observation, etc.
18 | Maybe my favorite thing about regular meditation is that it teaches me to be gentle with myself.
You can’t meditate harshly. It makes no more sense than sprinting slowly or yelling quietly. Gentleness is a quality most of us—I would guess—don’t think much about or appreciate. But because it’s an intrinsic part of meditation, we can learn to appreciate it and perhaps even apply it more in our own lives simply by meditating regularly.
19 | Much like our lives, meditation is sometimes a joy, sometimes a struggle, and often fairly ordinary.
The mind is a complex thing. Best not to put too many expectations on “the way it should be.”
20 | Like poetry, meditation is a window into the beauty and power of the ordinary.
There’s so much that’s valuable and intriguing and even exciting about ordinary experience. And the ordinary experience of our own minds is no different. By learning to see and appreciate the ordinary texture and workings of our own mind, it’s easier to get along with our own minds when things are difficult.
21 | A good way to never get anything out of meditation is to demand lots of stuff from it.
Imagine an important person in your life. Now imagine that every time you interacted with them, you demanded something of them. How long would that relationship last or continue to function well? Meditation is like building a relationship with our own minds. Keeping the demands to a minimum.
22 | Meditation builds space between stimulus and response.
We’re all animals. Which means we all operate in large part based on the laws of behavioral learning. And we all spend much more of our lives than we like to imagine simply reacting to the stimuli that gets thrown at us throughout the day. Luckily, we have the capacity to pause, disregard certain stimuli, and act according to some other higher good or value. Meditation helps with that. A lot.
23 | We are what we habitually attend to.
Meditation teaches us how to pay attention with purpose, and by extension, live with purpose. Attention is the most important skill no one talks about. And meditation is the best way to cultivate that skill.
24 | Saying there’s no time to meditate is like saying there’s no time to exercise, or read, or call an old friend.
25 | Meditation is training in Mental Minimalism.
Our minds are like a house. You can let it fill up with old magazines, trinkets, furniture, and Lord knows what else. Or you could be intentional about what you let in to your mental house. And despite how much people claim to love their physical clutter, nobody loves mental clutter.
Bonus | Meditation is an antidote to taking your self too seriously
One of my favorite (if sometimes painful) things about meditation is that it shows me how absurd and silly my own self can be. In fact, it shows me that the thing we call self is a lot less substantial than we like to believe. But don’t worry—meditation won’t cause you to lose your sense of self. It may, however, help you take that self a little less seriously.