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Meditation: how to make yourself sit down and do the damn thing

In the opening pages, they tend to include some phrase like, “First, pick a time when you know you’ll be undisturbed”, and I never find out what comes next because I’ve flung the book across the room in disgust – although not, to be clear, at the baby.

Meditation: how to make yourself sit down and do the damn thing

Illustration: Michele Marconi for the Guardian

So it’s a relief to discover Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris, the US newscaster whose earlier book, 10% Happier, chronicled his adventures in meditation following an on-air panic attack. This new book isn’t mainly about how to meditate, but how to actually meditate – how to make yourself sit down and do the damn thing; in that sense, it’s really a manual for cultivating any good habit. Specifically, the book makes the case for transforming how we think about “falling off the wagon”. In most approaches to habit change, unsurprisingly, falling off the wagon is seen as a bad thing. (In Alcoholics Anonymous, which has much to answer for here, it’s exceedingly bad.) But Harris argues that sometimes it’s not just excusable, it’s essential.

Meditation teachers are generally warm and smiley people, and they explain basic meditation in a warm and smiley way: sit comfortably, close your eyes, pay attention to the sensations of your breath, and if you get distracted, don’t beat yourself up; just gently return your attention to the breath.

But this isn’t just them being nice about your ineptitude. Getting distracted genuinely isn’t a problem; indeed, noticing when you’re distracted is arguably the whole point – the very moment in which the skill of meditation is developed, equivalent to the moment that you pick up a dumbbell at the gym. “Every time you catch yourself wandering and escort your attention back to the breath, it is like a biceps curl for the brain,” Harris writes. “It is also a radical act: you’re breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of rumination and projection, and you are actually focusing on what’s happening right now.” Getting back on the wagon, over and over, is the practice. And good luck doing that if you haven’t fallen off first.

A similar logic applies to establishing a daily meditation habit, or many other habits, such as physical exercise. If you stop doing it for a while, and then notice that you’re feeling more crotchety, tired or downcast, you’ll have a strong motivation to return to it – far stronger than trying to force things using willpower. Or maybe you’d like to get better at listening to your partner, or not checking your phone during meals, or whatever; again, the more times you notice you’ve failed, the more you’re entraining exactly the presence of mind the new habit requires.

You might think of this as a kind of superhabit, which makes acquiring any new habit easier. If you can turn falling off the wagon into an integral part of the process – even to learn to relish the experience of climbing back aboard – you’ll be using your failure as fuel for success.

You’re not doing it wrong. Or, to be precise: doing it wrong is right.

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