Do I really have to meditate?

Holly meditating in her Treehouse

The answer is yes, you do have to meditate if you want to be mindful, and I’ll tell you why. Living mindfully is a skill, like juggling or playing the kazoo. It is not an innate talent. Anyone can do it, but it takes practice, and meditation is the way you practice mindfulness.

As you practice meditation, you are building your capacity to hold your attention calmly on the moment at hand. Almost nobody in our culture can do this very well at first. Above you see an image of me meditating in my tree house. Although it looks like I am a super-serious meditator, you can’t really tell anything about what’s going on in my head, which is where all the action is in meditation. (That’s why it’s a lousy spectator sport.)

Though I look as if I have perfect concentration and focus, I’m probably sitting there thinking about my next snack. Fancy cushions, tree houses, and perfect postures aren’t really necessary for meditation. All you need is the will to do the best you can bringing your attention back, over and over, to your present-moment experience.

Practicing meditation trains your brain the same way physical exercise trains your body. Just as you get faster by running 10 miles a week or get stronger by lifting weights, you can become more mindful by practicing meditation. Sometimes we even refer to meditation practice as “building your mindfulness muscle.” Most people in their twenties are willing to put in hours a week working towards fitter, more attractive bodies. Might it be worth putting in some time to develop a happier life?

Think about it. If I told you that I would give you a million dollars if you would learn to bench press 200 pounds, what would your reaction be? Would you think, “Darn, too bad my arms aren’t that strong?” Or would you immediately understand that if you wanted to get that million dollars you were going to have to start working out. Of course you wouldn’t begin trying to lift 200 pounds; you’d start with 20 pounds or 50 pounds, and slowly work your way up to the heavier weight.

Holly's Treehouse

Having a beautiful place to meditate in helps, but it isn’t necessary! All you need is the will to do the best you can bringing your attention back, over and over, to your present-moment experience.

It’s exactly the same way with brain training. The ten-pound weight of mindfulness training is ten minutes of meditation, seated in a comfortable chair in a quiet location. A slightly heavier weight would be longer durations of time or less ideal conditions. We lift these lighter weights so that we are ready for the heavy lifting that life will inevitably provide. And what’s the prize for being able to lift those heavy, mental weights? Greater happiness, of course.

The 200-pound mental weights come around in those situations that produce great emotional intensity like anger or anxiety or impulsive desires that make it hard to act in ways that are more helpful than harmful. Everyone’s heavy weight may be different but situations like being rejected for a job, blowing an important exam, or fighting with your room mate tend to be the situations that are hard to manage mindfully. They are also the situations that, if learned to manage mindfully, will have the greatest positive impact on your life.

So how do you get started? Our study of college students enrolled in a four-week Koru Mindfulness class showed that 10 minutes of meditation most days for four weeks produced significant reductions in stress, greater mindfulness, greater self-compassion, and better sleep. So what are you waiting for? Access the guided meditations and start lifting those weights.