How do you make changes in how you do your relationships? What psychologists know is that making changes — and keeping resolutions — needs to be broken down into small, achievable, and measurable steps. The same rules apply to rewiring your brain for healthier relationships. Here are twelve tips for getting there.
From my perspective, having a full, authentic life is about having healthy, vibrant relationships — your relationship with yourself, with others you know, with the world at large, and/or with something greater, if that suits you. Without relationships, there can’t be much else.
So how do you make changes in how you do your relationships? What behavioral psychologists know is that making changes — and keeping resolutions — needs to be broken down into small, achievable, and measurable steps.
If you want to make positive changes to support healthier relationships, pick one do-able thing — a small, achievable, measurable change. As you might reasonably guess (based on what I write about here all the time) my suggestion is to practice mindfulness meditation, as a way to rewire your brain to be able to “do” relationships in healthier ways.
Then, if your resolution is to meditate, break that down into small, achievable, measurable steps as well. More on that in a moment — first, take a look at what goes into making a clear resolution to create a new habit.
Help yourself make meditation a resolution you can keep
First, get clear about why you’re doing meditation: What’s your intention? What’s your motivation? Challenge yourself to boil those two things down to one sentence each.
Then, know that “stuff” will get in the way, be it external stuff (like your pipes have burst first thing in the morning, so you need to take care of that rather than do your morning meditation), or, more likely, your internal resistance.
“What internal resistance?”, you say. “I really want to meditate regularly, it’s just that other stuff keeps getting in the way.” Consider these commonly lurking thoughts, which can rather sneakily turn into “external stuff,” or the belief that you can’t meditate:
- Nothing seems to happen when I meditate, so making time for it isn’t worth it.
- Something does happen when I meditate — meditation is changing me, and that’s scary, because then I’m in unfamiliar territory.
- I’m afraid of what I might discover or feel if I slow down, if I listen to myself, if I open my heart.
- I won’t be able to do it right/perfectly, so what’s the point?
All of these can be thought of as ways we shift our gaze away from the real culprit: our fear. The good news is that by meditating regularly, your fear won’t take your brain (or your relationships) hostage the same way any more. You’ll still experience your fear, but it’s more like sitting firmly in the saddle and holding the reins of the horse — it won’t gallop off with you helplessly dragging behind. So, meditating more will help you avoid it less.
Okay, enough about the philosophical part of the program — let’s get down to practical matters.
Here are a dozen tips for making your meditation practice a worthwhile habit that sticks:
1. Pick a time. For example, get to it immediately when you get up in the morning. Before coffee (gasp!), before a shower, plop yourself down and just do it. Meditation sets the tone for your nervous system for the day, so you’ll reap the benefits that much more – plus, you’ll feel noble and accomplished all day.
2. Let go of the idea that you can’t meditate. One thing I hear a lot is “I can’t make my mind stay focused.” There’s no “doing it right” – it’s a practice. The practice of bringing your wandering mind back again and again is actually what researchers believe does the re-wiring in your brain. Having a mind that wanders is actually a useful tool in meditation. There is a video over to the right-hand side of this page about how a difficult-to-focus mind can be an asset in meditation practice.
3. Set your calendar. Planning to do a new behavior every day for a year is beyond what most of us can accomplish — setting ourselves up for failure. Make your resolution just long enough to become a habit — and then do that same time period over and over.
How long does it take to create a new habit? (Here’s a link to a great post on this.) Estimates vary, because (a) people vary, and (b) the depth of the habit varies. For example, it takes less time to establish the habit of drinking a glass of water every morning than to get in the habit of doing fifty pushups every day. As for developing a meditation practice, in my experience, it takes most people one or two months of regular practice to make regular meditation a habit. The good news is that there are already measurable changes in your brain after just two weeks, according to one leading researcher, Richard Davidson, PhD.
4. Be the exception. Be aware that the dropout rate for new meditators is high — some say that only two in ten will be practicing, even periodically, after a year. Resolve to be the exception to the rule, and also know that you have good company with others who are struggling. Be kind to yourself about how hard it is to develop a new, healthy habit.
5. Keep your expectations in line with what meditation is, and what it isn’t. For example, don’t expect to always get an immediate “hit” or relief like you get when taking medicine (although you might feel that way during, or after, meditation). And remember that you’re changing your brain, not just decongesting your sinuses — it takes time.
6. Start small. I agree with Daniel Siegel, MD, who says that rewiring the brain can be helped by even as little as three minutes of mindfulness meditation, done regularly, and that the brain seems to benefit more from frequent, shorter meditations than less frequent, longer ones. I often recommend starting with five minutes a day, and perhaps working up to twenty if you feel it is working for you. (There are other benefits to longer meditations, but for the purposes of brain integration, it’s fine to go for less time, as long as it is regular and frequent.)
7. Have fun! Meditation can be serious, but it can also lead you in some delightful directions. I’ve actually fallen off a meditation stool from laughing so hard.
8. Do it naturally. I strongly recommend against using technological short-cuts like brain-wave inducers. The benefits of mindfulness meditation, from a brain-integration perspective, comes from the practice of getting different parts of your brain working together. The techno “shortcuts” brag that they force the brain to switch gears — so you can just be the passive receiver. Passively getting your brain activity to change is like having someone else lift your arms for you when weightlifting.
(A relevant joke: A monk ordered a hot dog (vegan, I guess) from a hot dog vendor: “Make me one with everything.” (Insert first laugh here.) The monk pays for the $2 hot dog with a $5 bill. The vendor takes the cash and does nothing. When the monk asks for the $3, the vendor replies, “Change comes from within.”)
9. Learn the basics. When you’re first starting out, you might find it helpful to start with a guided meditation. (There are many good resources for this, including a free mindfulness download, as well as guided meditations from people I respect a great deal, including Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Jon Kabat-Zinn.) Eventually, though, for the same reasons in #8 above, once you learn to meditate, and know more about how to guide yourself, then I recommend moving away from guided meditation. It can still be useful if you need a “refresher,” but training the brain to do the task of meditation on its own seems key in the sort of re-wiring seen in the research literature. Also, if you choose to use guided meditations to learn the ropes, then I recommend that it be without background music, if for no other reason than the music is an added “event” for the brain to process.
10. Change it up. Meditation doesn’t have to happen while you’re seated in lotus position in a perfect tranquil space (again, “perfection” is not required!) Due to an old ankle injury, I can’t sit cross-legged, so I meditate on a chair or stool. People with back or hip injuries sometimes lay down and use a chair under their lower legs to lay in “astronaut” position. You can do a walking meditation, meditation during yoga, meditation while eating — there’s even a raisin meditation. The focus of your meditation can also vary: It can be helpful to balance your practice between the sort of breathing/noticing practice (called insight meditation, or vipassana), and a series of focused intentions like metta practice (you can read my post on the basics of how to practice metta, and you can search “metta” and “Sharon Salzberg” for excellent resources on this form of practice).
11. Aim for imperfection. Know at the outset that you’ll not be perfect in keeping your resolution. Research on creating new habits shows that missing single days doesn’t reduce the chance of forming a habit. Additionally, positive reinforcement (giving yourself gold stars for the days you meditate, or your own personal equivalent) is demonstrably more effective in changing behavior than punishment (beating yourself up for the days that you don’t meditate).
12. Irritation and challenges can be meditation aids. Remember that having challenges when you meditate can make the session “easier,” and even more potent. If I have an itch during meditation, I don’t scratch it at first — I’m usually grateful to have something to focus on other than my breath. (If the itch continues — which, after focusing on it, it often doesn’t — then I can use it as a way to practice being mindful of my hand moving to scratch it, and of the sensation of the scratching — you get the point.) To quote Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, “sometimes negative emotions and problems are good for practice. If everything is good and convenient – there is a nice temperature in the room, I’m not hungry or thirsty – then there is not much meditation because it is easy to forget. But once you have some challenge or suffering, then it is easy to meditate.”
I hope you find these ideas helpful, and I wish you a New Year filled with joy.