“Waking up this morning I smile
knowing there are 24 brand new hours before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
and look at beings with eyes of compassion.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh via zenhabits
“I’m not a morning person.”
I’ve said this statement countless of times in the past few years. It was easy to use as an excuse. I’ve said it in the mornings when I was forced to wake up early in the morning for school, teaching, or meetings. I didn’t realize that the more I said it, the more I closed myself off to the possibility of ever changing and becoming a “morning person.”
Earlier this year, I decided to challenge this belief. I no longer wanted to wait until the end of the work day or the weekend to carve out time for myself. I wanted to read. I wanted to write. I wanted to work on fun, creative projects. By the time I came home from work, all I had the mental energy to do was either turn on Netflix, hastily make dinner, or drag myself to the gym. Mindless tasks. After spending so much effort and energy at work, I was too tired to make use of the remaining scraps of time for other activities, even though I knew they would fulfill me. This sort of lifestyle felt backwards.
I had three choices. I could either continue with my status quo routine. I could make use of late evenings for personal time. Or I could wake up earlier. The thought of more monotonous weekdays filled with Netflix shows and web-surfing seemed comfortable yet empty. Staying up late in the middle of the night seemed tiresome and torturous. That left me with the mornings. I would learn how to become a morning person.
I Googled and tested nearly every strategy I could find for waking up in the morning. I made myself go to bed earlier. I set the alarm an hour ahead of my usual time. I tested the alarm with increments of 15 minutes. I put my alarm further away so it would force me to get out of bed. I stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. I started the morning with stretches and light exercise. I jumped in the shower right when I woke up. I used my phone so that the screen would stimulate my senses.
It was a long process. There were several mornings when I defied the entire exercise and intentionally snoozed through the alarm. I can’t remember which strategies worked because I mixed and matched them sporadically. However, with a month of deliberate practice, I started to notice a shift in my attitude. On the days I was able to wake up earlier than my usual time, whether it was 20 minutes or 45 minutes or an hour, I rewarded myself. For days I woke up 20 minutes early, I read a blog entry. For days I woke up 45 minutes early, I journaled or squeezed in a writing session. For days I woke up an hour or more early, I headed to Philz coffee for leisure reading and writing. My mornings transformed into something to look forward to instead of something to dread or disregard. That mental shift alone attributed the most to my success than any strategy could.
After another few weeks, the times became more consistent. I was able to wake up with a full hour all to myself. There’s a luxurious comfort and stillness that comes with waking up before the rest of the world. Before the frantic pace of rushing in the morning, getting ready for work, commuting in traffic, running into the office, and checking e-mails. All of that would eventually arrive. But that hour belonged to me– untainted by the demands of the outside world.
My morning ritual has evolved since that spring. I used to spend that hour for coffee, leisure reading, and journaling. It was a great way to wake up my mind and stimulate my creativity first thing in the morning. In late May, my husband J introduced me to a device called emWave that uses Heart Rate Variability science as part of a relaxation practice. The device measures your pulse either through the finger or earlobe and signals your coherency levels with your breath and heart rate. He purchased two devices for us to test out at home. I had been interested in the idea of medtiation for some time, but was too intimidated to try. My mother-in-law is a devout Buddhist, and she has encouraged me to read spiritual books and attend temple with her. I imagined myself as a clumsy spiritual being, so the emWave device seemed like an accessible place to start.
For the first few days, I used the emWave device while I prepared my coffee. I was eager to jump straight into my reading and writing routine. Needless to say, the HRV results were not that great. Multi-tasking is the antithesis to meditation. By day 4, I took the task more seriously. I rolled out my purple yoga mat in front of the living room window and sat there in silence. I lasted for 3 1/2 minutes before I ended the session. However, to my surprise, the HRV coherency score was significantly higher. I was so excited by my improvement that I meditated later that day for twice as long, also getting a high coherency score.
For that month, I challenged myself to devote at least the first few minutes of each morning to begin with meditation. Before the coffee and the reading and the writing. If I could only do 5 minutes, that was okay. Some days, I would go longer. Just like a shift took place when I started to enjoy waking up early, another subtle yet powerful transformation took place from my morning meditation. I noticed that I would write more freely, the ideas were more creative, and my mood significantly improved throughout the day. All I had done was the daily practice of mindful meditation for five minutes!
Prior to using the emWave, the closest I had come to a secular spiritual practice was taking a yoga or pilates class every now and then. My favorite parts of yoga were the beginning sun salutations and the ending with shivasanna. Sun salutations moved and stretched my body from the ground to upward, embracing the heavens. Shivasanna was quietly laying in the stillness, pulling myself to the present moment through all five senses. After reading Josh Kaufman’s book, in which he covers yoga practice, I was inspired to incorporate sun salutations into my morning meditation.
This is now my morning ritual. I wake up at 6am. Even though I may still be tired, I calmly ease into the morning by walking to the kitchen to begin brewing my coffee. I head to the purple yoga mat, where it now consistently lays by the windowsill. In that space, I have a candle that I light and a sound machine set to ocean waves. Sometimes I’ll open my window to feel the crisp morning air. I start with 5 sun salutations — slow and deliberate movements that gently stretch and awaken my body. If my joints are tight, I use the foam roller which loosens my back and shoulder muscles. When I feel ready, I set up the emWave device on my phone, sit, and breathe. I appreciate the still simplicity of the moment.
I take comfort in knowing that the next two hours are mine before the outside world comes into focus. And when it does, I reach a place where I’m ready to welcome it.
* * *
Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages exercise
Daily Rituals book by Mason Currey
The First 20 Hours book by Josh Kaufman
zenhabits post Creating a Lovely Morning
Sam Harris post The Mirror of Mindfulness and guided meditations
emWave and HeartMath information