how to start (and actually stick with) your meditation practice


As I write this, I’ve just hit an 18-day streak and 57 total times meditating since mid-December. It’s been 70 days since I started tracking, and weirdly, I actually feel more proud of my 57 check-ins than I would if I’d had a perfect 70-day-streak. Why? Well, I can tend to get all-or-nothing with things (especially new habits), and even when I got sick or busy and missed a day or two, I got right back on the horse rather than getting discouraged and stuck in a rut. I finally feel secure in developing a habit that I’ve wanted in my life for years, and in this post I'm sharing tools and tips to help you do the same. But first, let’s rewind…

Howdy, Pot! Name's Kettle...

A few months ago, I felt like such a hypocrite. 

I had consumed seemingly infinite books, blog posts, and podcasts on the wide-ranging, evidence-based benefits of meditation and constantly talked with my clients about the value of mindfulness — yet I wasn’t meditating regularly. (Of course, there are other ways to practice mindfulness besides formal meditation, but still!) Last fall, I was at a point where I would sit to meditate once every week or so, with sporadic spikes of greater or lesser frequency. I wanted to walk my talk, but something was getting in the way.

I vividly remember writing one day in my journal (just checked and it was an entry from October) that I was frustrated with myself for not meditating regularly because I knew too much not to, and wondered how I could get past whatever was blocking me from making it a regular habit. I had been doing so well with creating other new habits in my life like waking up early and working out more regularly than ever before (in a healthy way), but the meditation habit seemed much more elusive.

Any of this sounding familiar to you yet? I've encountered so many people both in my work and online who, like me, talk about wanting to start a meditation practice, but really struggle to stay consistent with it. 

To give a little context about why this has been so difficult for me, I should tell you that I am definitely that chick who wants to roll up the yoga mat after about 30 seconds of savasana. Time to get on to the next thing! No need to lie here and get all comfortable if I’m just going to jump back into the day full-force! I’ve really been working on becoming more okay with stillness, slowing down, and being in a low-charge state, since I feel much more at-home in the high-charge state of GO-GO-GO, DO-DO-DO! Both savasana and meditation are ideal ways for me to practice this, and I’ve learned more recently about how both of these not only promote relaxation, but also integration whether it's integration of the yoga practice, or just of my overall recent experiences. 

Meditation to Integrate Mind + Body + Spirit

This idea of integration is a big part of what has sold me on the whole meditation thing (and truly softening into savasana), because one of my greatest passions is mind + body + spirit integration. So much of the pain that I see with my clients, and that I experience in my own life, occurs because the core aspects of being human become siloed. That could mean:

  • You’re up in your head and ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, overly concerned about what others think about you, etc.
  • You’re working out to look toned and fit without really considering your emotional and spiritual “fitness"
  • You’re into daydreaming and otherworldly divinity and spirituality, but feel disconnected from your own physical body

It should come as no surprise that we feel much more happy, balanced, and fulfilled when these aspects of our lives are integrated rather than fragmented. A consistent meditation practice can shed light on how you may be separating your life into these different buckets, and also gives you the tools to practice integration both during the practice and “off the cushion” in your day-to-day life (I say this in quotes because I, for one, do not meditate on a cushion. No offense, purists…I keep my spine in alignment, but I need some back support!) Generally speaking, I believe our culture lives very much Up In Our Heads, and practicing mindfulness via a body scan meditation, focusing on the breath — and simply learning to pay attention with non-judgment to body sensations, emotions, and thoughts — are all ways that we can better bridge the gaps between these facets of human existence. 

How Behavior Change Really Works

I’ve written a little about habit formation in the past, and I'll focus specifically here on how I turned this goal into a reality, and how you can do the same. Dr. BJ Fogg  founder of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, created a model of behavior change called the Fogg Behavior Model, which he simplifies as “BMAT,” or Behavior  = motivation X ability X trigger (all three aligning at the same moment.) He posits that when a desired behavior does not occur, at least one of these three elements is missing.

BJ Fogg's BMAT Model

In my case, I had probably moderate motivation level, moderate ability, and insufficient triggers. Here’s how I increased each of these elements enough to create a consistent meditation practice: 

Motivation: On one level, I really wanted this new habit — but I also didn’t love doing it, since I prefer to be on hyper-speed. So, my motivation probably wasn’t going to dramatically change. It was not going to carry me all the way, by any means. In that case, I really needed to focus on the latter two elements…

Ability: Where motivation flags, it’s important to make your desired behavior change easier by finding ways to increase your ability to do it. I like guided meditations, and I found that I was more likely to meditate if I had easy access to good guided meditations. I’ve tried numerous meditation tracks available on Spotify and YouTube, bought a few tracks from folks I’ve found online, and created a couple of my own, too. But I like to have a lot of variety so I can choose the best track for the time I have available and what I have going on at that point in my day. (Yeah, yeah, a bit of a guided meditation snob.) Thus, I’ve experimented with over a half-dozen meditation apps in the past few months. In the next email I’m sending out to my tribe (going out in the next couple of days), I’m including a free downloadable Meditation Apps Resource Guide that will succinctly outline all the apps I’ve tried, the pros and cons of each, and which is my overall favorite. Sign up now to make sure you’re on the list to get that one!

Triggers: Speaking of apps, if you wondered why or how I know the exact number of times I’ve meditated in the past two months, it’s because I started using a free smartphone app called that allows you to create your own goals (or join others who are already working toward the same goal), track your progress over time, and have access to the whole community of app users for accountability and Q&A. You also have the option of hiring a coach to help you work toward your goals for $15/week, but I haven’t used that feature so I can’t speak to how it works. You can choose to set reminders for certain goals, so every morning at 7 a.m., my phone reminds me to meditate. I don’t always do it in the mornings, but there are definitely days when that reminder helps me to stop what I’m doing and practice in the morning, which sets me up to go into my day with the clearest mindset.

I actually first learned about Fogg's BMAT model recently on one of my favorite podcasts, The One You Feed, when the guest was founder Tony Stubblebine. Tony is an expert in behavior design, and the triggers from his app have been a critical element in making meditation a consistent practice for me. (The One You Feed host, Eric Zimmer, talks on the episode about how the same was true for him, and he’s now clocking a meditation streak of over 475 days!) Along with the triggers come the “rewards” of getting to see the days build up, the little “flame” that represents my days in a streak, and the “props” I get from other community members when I complete a check-in. By increasing both my Ability and my Triggers, my so-so motivation level is no longer a barrier preventing me from making meditation a consistent habit. If you want to start meditating, or get more consistent with your existing practice, I highly recommend downloading the app to track your goals and improve your success. (If you do get the app, search for me so we can connect!)

I also encourage you to sign up for my bi-weekly emails before I send out the next email this week, where I’ll include a freebie Meditation Apps Resource Guide, exclusive for my email tribe. And when you sign up, you’ll get a free download of my brand new Mind + Body + Spirit Guided Meditation (13 minutes),  which you also can't get anywhere else.

Happy meditating, friends! 

the 3 types of mindfulness: are you practicing them all?

wise-mind-dbt Earlier today, I listened to the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Insights at the Edge, hosted by Sounds True publisher and founder, Tami Simon. The interview guest for this episode is Dr. Erin Olivo, a clinical psychologist and author of the recently published book, Wise Mind Living. Before digging into the Mindfulness topic, let's unpack that title a bit.

The "Wise Mind" concept, borrowed from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), is one that often resonates in a big way with almost all my clients. Here's the quick version: on one side of the spectrum, there's Rational/Logic Mind, which (as it sounds) uses purely logic and reason to guide choices. (Wouldn't we be a super-functional and cold robot world if we all only operated from this state of mind?) One the other side is Emotion Mind, which is when our thoughts and actions are guided by our emotions. That's certainly not always "bad" (since most of us don't, in fact, want to live in said robot world), but I'm sure you can think of more than a few times that Emotion Mind gave you bad advice about what to do, and you had to live with the consequences later. Wise Mind, on the other hand, is the synthesis of both logic and emotion -- so we can assess the facts of the situation, cause-and-effect, and also validate and tend to (rather than negate or suppress) our emotional experiences. Win-win. The tough part is the process of getting to Wise Mind in the first place,  so we can make choices from this wisest part of ourselves.

And that's where mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness is one of the four core modules of DBT -- the others being Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness. Many of the skills in all four modules are all about helping us access our Wise Mind. Mindfulness is also one of my favorite topics, because it is so foundational to healthy living. I'm glad that it's finally getting so much time in the spotlight (including tons of research proving the gajillions of benefits of mindfulness practice), but that can sometimes mean that the word is just thrown around without much context. I liked how Erin simply explained the three main types of mindfulness (covered in both her book and on the podcast), so I'll break those down for you below.

Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose to whatever is happening in the present moment (internally and externally) from a stance of curiosity and non-judgment. 

Formal Mindfulness Practice

The most common type of formal mindfulness practice is mindfulness meditation -- and there are many varieties of it. For many people just starting a formal mindfulness practice, it helps to work with a smaller chunk of time (perhaps 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening) and to have something to focus on, whether it's a guided meditation track, your breath, or simply noticing all the individual sounds in the room. Most of the research done on the benefits of mindfulness is based on some sort of formal meditation practice. While some may find that sitting for 45 minutes to an hour a day is incredibly life-enriching, I am oh-so-not at that point in my own practice and don't know if that will ever be my cup of tea. My main goal right now is consistency, which many argue is way more important than duration.

Informal Mindfulness Practice

Informal mindfulness practice is basically the process of setting the intention to bring a quality of mindful awareness into a some sort of activity or task, such as taking a shower, washing the dishes, or exercising. In the example of taking a shower, you'd say to yourself, "I'm going to take this shower mindfully," and then you'd pay attention to all the experiences of your five senses and any internal (thoughts or feelings) experiences that show up while you're in the shower -- rather than making your to-do list for the day. I find that making the conscious choice to be mindful during daily tasks is part of what helps me wake up to the wonders of the world that I so often take for granted. Of course, I could do it far more often -- but hey, progress not perfection, right?

Mindful Living

Dr. Olivo calls the third type of mindfulness "Mindful Living," and it's essentially the overall goal of developing your mindfulness muscles via the other practices. When you're living mindfully, you can get distance from your thoughts and feelings, and be truly present in this moment, rather than ruminate on the past or worry about the future. Every human being will go on autopilot at times (it's part of what helps us survive!), but the more that we can bring this quality of gentle, curious awareness of the present moment in our day-to-day, the more "awake" we really are to the experience of being fully alive. Having a consistent formal practice and sporadically adding in informal practices will ultimately help you more readily access this third type of mindfulness.

What is your favorite way to practice mindfulness? What helps you get from Emotion Mind to Wise Mind? 


Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.