Why Meditation is the Most Important Habit

Of all the tools we have to help us navigate life, the mind is the first and most important.

Everything we do, think, feel, and remember is facilitated by our mind. It’s our starting point, our perceiver, our interpreter, and ultimately has the last word on how we experience our lives.

The paradox is that the mind can be an amazing tool to help us actualize our desires and goals, but it can also be our worst enemy.

A mind that is chaotic, racing, undisciplined, and defaults to our worst experiences and memories is torturous!

It’s like being held captive aboard a ship while it tosses in a storm. You move from one set of waves to the next with little reprieve in between.

It makes sense that learning to harness the mind and control it should be a primary goal, because everything else follows.

I have found that the very best tool for regulating the mind and making the most of what it can do, is meditation.

This is not a new concept, and I think everyone has heard of meditation.

You may even have tried it. But have you established a regular habit of it?

If not, you’re missing out.

Here’s Why

We get the most mileage out of our minds when we can maintain a mental attitude and feeling of calm energy and alertness.

That means you are wide awake, can focus easily without strain, and yet have a stillness of mind and a sense of calm.

You feel open and can easily shift your attention from one thing to the other without much effort. You can feel things acutely, but you’re not overly reactive. You are engaged, yet can maintain objectivity and distance.

This feeling is good. It’s very alive, yet peaceful at the same time.

What Meditation Does

Meditation is ultimately aimed at bringing your awareness to deeper levels of consciousness that lie below thoughts. That may sound impossible, or a little mystical, but it really isn’t.

Our thoughts are like bubbles that arise out of consciousness. You cannot have thoughts without consciousness, but you can have consciousness, even an awareness of consciousness, without thoughts.

Long time meditators have greater periods of that kind of awareness without thoughts. When that occurs, you also experience deep rest to both mind and body. When you emerge out of that kind of meditative experience, you feel very calm, yet energized and aware.

It’s what people are aiming for when they take stimulants and sedatives at the same time. Not a good idea, by the way, but that’s the feeling sought. Obviously, you can’t get it that way.

Benefits of Meditation

I’ve given you a taste of what meditation can do for you, but here’s a list of some of the main benefits you will get from a daily practice of it.

#1  Puts You in the Driver’s Seat

When you are both calm and aware, you create mental space that allows you to live consciously by choice rather than being driven from a place of reactivity. The locus of control comes from inside of you instead of from things coming at you. You are in the driver’s seat. You are in control.

#2  Reduces Overwhelm and Increases Calm

Calmness is one of the most rewarding benefits, especially since it is not a sedated type of calm. It feels clear, awake, and energized. This is especially true right after meditation. I find that this feeling lasts for much of the day. It can wear out as the day goes on, but you still handle things much easier than you would without meditation. Regular practice increases the stability of the calm.

#3  Increases Clear Thinking and Objectivity

When you have mental space, you can think more clearly. You have greater objective capacity. This is a major benefit for work, decision-making, and sorting through complex situations.

#4  Promotes Emotional Regulation & Stress Relief

Along with mental space, meditation gives you emotional space and can prevent unbridled emotional reactivity. Regular practice over time can decrease anxiety, worry, mood disturbances like depression, and obsessive focus on past experiences.

It’s like someone lifts you out of your emotional preoccupations and says, “See, you’re still intact and you’re fine. That experience is not you. It’s something you went through.”

It doesn’t mean you become impervious to your emotional experiences. You may even feel things more acutely, but your reaction to them is different.

#5  More Tolerance

Most people who meditate regularly are more tolerant in general of other people, different ideas, stressful experiences, changes, disruptions, or stress overall. At the same time, meditation will likely help you become very clear about your own values.

#6  Increases Attention & Focus

The act of meditation itself involves bringing your mind back to a single point over and over with the goal of keeping it there. This is a form of concentration, but meditation is done without any strain. It increases focus, and the more you do it, the longer you can hold it in one place.

When you can focus at will, you can attend to whatever you choose without the interference of mental static.

Meditation is also a practice of slowing down the onslaught of thoughts until you can dim them and eventually eliminate them.

Just think, if you could keep your mind quiet and alert, and then crank it into gear at will when you needed to, and then return it to a state of rest, you could probably accomplish ten times more than you currently do.

#7  Enhances Creativity

Many meditators tell stories of aha moments during meditation when solutions to problems crop up, or they get some really great idea that probably wouldn’t have ever surfaced if they were trying for it.

When you are really relaxed, solutions to problems and creative ideas are more likely to surface because you are in touch with all sorts of pieces of information that reside in your subconscious and unconscious realms.

When you meditate, you drop into those other areas of your mind and you have access to them.

When I want to write, I usually do it in the morning after I have meditated 45 minutes to an hour. It always goes much better that way, and ideas ripple up more easily than they would after I have been engaged in a lot of other activity and my mind is crowded and tired.

It’s similar to what happens when we sleep on a problem, and the solution comes up the next day. Only with meditation, you get even more help than you would from sleep, and in shorter order.

How Do You Know It Will Work?

There is significant research that has been conducted at Harvard University that shows correlations between only 8 weeks of meditation and improvements like:

  • Reduced stress response which has been verified by a decrease in amygdala activity in the brain which is the center related to fight or flight
  • Decreased activity in the default mode of the mind, which is the wandering or ruminating mind that worries
  • Increased grey matter in your brain, associated with muscle control, seeing, hearing, emotions and speech
  • Increases in the hippocampus activity associated with learning and memory
  • Increases in emotional regulation and mood stability
  • Increased concentration and attention
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Slower aging of the brain

Studies conducted on Transcendental Meditation which is a mantra-based meditation technique show benefits to the body:

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Increased insulin resistance
  • Slow biological aging
  • Reduced rate of heart attack, stroke and death
  • Reduced anxiety and negative emotions
  • Aid in learning and memory

The real proof is in your own experience. If you’ve never tried meditation, or even if you have, it is important to understand that the benefits occur with regular practice. You can meditate here and there and feel calmer for a brief period of time, but the benefits I’ve outlined above come with regular, daily practice.

Most people have difficulty with finding the time to make that happen. It can be difficult if you already have a crowded schedule. I remember when I was a single mom with a toddler. It seemed near impossible.

Do the best you can, and if you can only meditate 10 minutes a day, you will still get the benefits.

The key is to find a regular time and do it the same time everyday under the same circumstances. That will help you stick with it.

I’ve written instructions for a simple meditation technique to get you started if you’ve never tried it before. Click here to access that.

Feel free to send questions or share your own experiences with meditation. It’s always helpful to know the different ways people practice meditation, and what works best for them. Here’s to a tall glass of peace and calm!

So-Hum Meditation Technique

Meditation is a life-changing habit that has cumulative effects over time. There are many types of meditation, and I encourage you to explore them all and decide what works best for you.

If you’ve never tried it before, you might find this technique simple and effective as a starter. It can also be practiced long-term. Either way,  it’s easy and will get you engaged and on your way.

Instructions for So-Hum Meditation

Pick a quiet place where you can sit without distractions.

Step #1

Sit upright with your back straight. It is important to keep your spine straight, but you also want to be comfortable. You can sit cross-legged if that works for you, but it’s fine to sit on the edge of a bed or couch with a pillow folded just under your hips or against them so that it’s easy to keep your back straight, while resting your feet flat on the floor. You can also sit in a straight backed chair. The idea is to be comfortable so that your attention isn’t drawn to bodily aches, or a focus on your posture. You want to sit easily without strain.

Step #2

Start by taking in a deep breath and gently push your belly out. Then move the air up into your chest and hold. You can aid this by raising your shoulders up a bit. Now exhale through your mouth. The incoming, holding and outgoing breaths should all be done to a count of 4 each. So count to 4 as you inhale, hold for 4, and exhale to a count of 4. Do this entire routine 4 times. It just cleans you out and relaxes your body. If it is uncomfortable to hold your breath for a count of 4, then just begin the exhale as soon as you have inhaled all the way.

Step #3

Now breathe naturally without any attempt to guide your breath. Let it have a life of it’s own. Close your eyes and listen to your breath going in and out for a few minutes.

Step #4

Next, when you inhale, mentally say the syllable “So” and when you exhale mentally say the syllable “Hum”. So-Hum, So-Hum . . . . Continue this for as long as comfortable. A good start would be 10 minutes although 5 is fine. With regular practice, you can eventually increase to 20 or 30 minutes.

Distractions and Thoughts

When you are meditating, thoughts will rush in constantly. When you notice that you’ve gone off on a thought train, just gently bring yourself back to So-Hum and watching the in and out of your breath. This will happen numerous times at first.

It’s important not to get stressed about that. Happens to everyone this way. Some people report that they never were able to return to So-Hum after the first time, but that’s all right. The idea is to stay seated for the full duration of the time you’ve allotted. Don’t get wrapped up in trying to do it perfectly, or even well. This is not an achievement, but a practice. Just do it.

When you’re ready to stop, just open your eyes and sit for a minute or two before getting up. That’s all there is to it.

Best Practice

It is best to meditate on a regular daily schedule. Meditation has compound effects, meaning the more regular you are and the longer you meditate over time, the more effects you will feel. Don’t look for immediate results, even though you may have some.

Pick a regular time of day, and do it everyday.

Are you addicted to your cellphone?

Here’s a question for you:

Can you go a whole day without looking at your cell phone? Better yet, can you go a whole hour?

Obviously, if you have a job where you have to put your cellphone to sleep for periods of time, then you probably do go hours without looking.
But if you don’t have any outside constraints, I bet you check it many times in any given hour. I know I do, and I have recently become aware of just how addictive the whole thing is.

It came to me the other day while driving to work, and as usual my cell phone was sitting in the driver’s seat with me, face up, while I zoomed down the highway. I picked it up at every stop light, and . . . I have to admit I picked it up sometimes while driving. Just a quick check. Any new emails? Texts? Notifications from Facebook? I don’t text while driving, but it’s tempting. I certainly rush through a text at a stoplight.

It dawned on me, while going through this usual routine, that the whole thing is rather compulsive. It’s not so much a calculated choice of activity, but an automatic, repetitive, compulsive activity. Now we’re entering the world of addiction. Not addiction like heroin, but still an addiction.

Yep, Research Confirms It

After a little research, my conclusion was affirmed. Every time you glance at your phone and see signs of new activity, you get a little boost of dopamine in your brain. If you don’t know exactly what dopamine is, here’s a brief definition from Psychology Today.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.

You might as well be the rat in the maze that is getting little treats every time he picks the correct path. Looking at your cell phone is quickly followed by an emotional boost. Of course it’s addictive!

There Are Costs

The question is, what are the costs? There are quite a few.

  • It eats up time. It may not seem that glancing at your phone quickly many times a day eats up time, but it does.
  • It’s a chronic distraction. It fragments your attention and focus. Every time you shift your attention away from what you’re doing to look at your cellphone, you have changed your focus. Your brain requires more energy and time to refocus when you go back to your task.
  • It’s a waste of mental and emotional energy. Do you need to look at every email as it comes in? No. You can check email several times a day and that would be enough. Even if you have a job where email is important and you have to communicate more than several times a day, you can still set up specific times to go through it. Since a large majority of email is just promotions and ads, it isn’t necessary. And Facebook? Not necessary!
  • It replaces other activity that is much more productive or rewarding. For example, face to face contact with people, reading, working on something, even just thinking and contemplating. All of these are more worthy forms of activity that provide real benefits. Constant phone checking is more of a manic activity with no real benefit other than that little dose of dopamine. A walk or exercise will give you a lot more dopamine if that’s the goal.

Try This

Out of Sight

Try putting your phone out of site for periods of the day, and especially during times when you don’t really need to see it. My first change was to put my phone in my purse while driving so that it is not available for viewing. I also stopped looking at it in restaurants, when engaging with other people or during social situations, and while working.

Schedule Email Responses

Decide how often you really need to check your email, and then set a regular schedule for checking and responding to it only at designated times. 

Social Media

Assess your use of social media including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and any other venues you use. How much time do you actually spend on these sites? If you spend a good deal of time, then clock it for a couple of days and see exactly how much. Based on what you find out, decide what changes you need to make.

Texting, Texting and more Texting!

If you are a big texting fan, I suggest you replace texting time with face-to-face interactions with real people. Important discussions, real communication and interchange, and authentic interaction take place face to face, not by text. The largest portion of communication is provided by body language, and that is missed in emails and texts.

Ditch the Phone for a Day

Just for fun, try taking a break from your phone for a day. I bet you just reacted to that idea with an “Ugh!” That definitely means you should give it a try. Tell your friends and family you will be unavailable by cell phone for a day so no one will panic, and then do it. You might find out things about yourself you wouldn’t know otherwise.

Your thoughts? I’d love to hear! If you’ve ever gone without using your phone or technology for a day, how did it go and what new insights did you gain?

Creating “Padspace”

When I leave for my office, it usually takes me about 20 minutes to drive there. If I have an appointment scheduled, I like to be on time, so I allow the 20 minutes.

The real truth, however, is that 20 minutes is cutting it close and only works if there are no traffic glitches on my driving route. In fact, if there is heavy traffic, a lot of red lights, an active school zone, slow drivers, rain, or anything out of the ordinary, I will be late if I only allow myself 20 minutes.

If I leave 30 minutes ahead of time, I am always on time. Not only on time, but I have a moment to get into my office and settle in before an appointment begins.

Adding the extra 10 minutes makes everything work smoothly, and best of all, it makes the trip calm and devoid of stress. If there is heavy traffic or a slow driver, I’m not worried. I don’t feel tense. I can relax and just go with the flow.

That extra 10 minutes is my “padspace.”

How Much Padspace is Necessary?

The word “padspace” comes from a design element called “padding.” It’s space that you place around an image to separate it from content in a document so that it’s easy to see. Designers can designate how much padding to use in any document or for images on a website.

For life purposes, “padspace” is the extra time, extra money, extra supplies, extra anything that you allow in any given situation to deal with the unexpected.

It’s that extra room to breathe.

It allows you to avoid feeling stressed or anxious. And in the case above, my padspace was exactly 50% more than what I thought I needed.

This is a good rule of thumb. I used to think 20% extra was good padspace and sometimes it is, but I have since changed that to 50% after reading this suggestion in Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

The truth is, I often need much more than 20%. In most cases 50% more will do the trick.

The Underlying Belief

There is an underlying premise and belief that you can do things faster than you actually can. The tendency is to estimate low.

The other premise that can get you in trouble is the idea that nothing will go wrong.

A better approach, and one that is more accurate, is that more often than not, there will be events that you did not foresee. You need to be prepared in case.

This idea shows up often in business when a company operates under the assumption that there are no possible environmental changes that will impact their income such as a recession or a temporary shortage of supply or a storm system that halts delivery or a new business that competes and takes away customers.

A smart business executive always plans for lean times and unexpected obstacles. He holds back a good deal of profits for those situations. It’s the ole “save for a rainy day” adage that has a great deal of truth to it.

On a more personal note, Dave Ramsey suggests that you should have at the very least $1000 in your savings account for the unexpected. He highly advises having enough money in savings to live on for a minimum of six months, which is 50% of a year. This allows for an unexpected drop in income, or a job layoff, or large repairs.

The lesson here is to set up padspace that is about 50% greater than what you expect.

Apply this to small daily actions as well as bigger long term plans. You will avoid a lot of unnecessary stress, and you will be more successful at the same time in all that you do.

Suggested Reading:

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Greg McKeown. Crown Publishing, 2014. (See Chapter 15: “Buffer: The Unfair Advantage.”)

The Total Money Makover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness. Dave Ramsey. Thomas Nelson, Publisher. 2009.

Keystone Habits

One of the most useful ideas I’ve come across in regard to making changes is the notion of “keystone habits.” This idea is outlined par excellence in the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. A keystone habit is one that sets change in motion an initiates the creation of other habits. It’s a starter habit that creates a shift in energy both emotionally and mentally, and sets in motion a domino effect that results in much greater change than was initially intended.

Very often, keystone habits are not those that tackle a goal head on. Rather they focus on some specific activity that will ultimately lead to other changes and actions to meet the goal.

Carla’s Story

Carla had a problem with spending, and as a result had high credit card debt. She was able to keep up with her payments, but she was making no headway on reducing her debt, and in fact was creating more. She had tried “spending less,” but found it difficult to say no when the whim hit her to buy clothes or dine out. It was too easy to flip out the credit card.

Nothing changed until she decided to develop a single habit, which was to write down everything she spent for a month. She would carry around a little notebook in her purse, and whenever she spent anything, even a few dollars for coffee, she would write it down. There was no requirement to curb her spending or stop using her credit cards. All that was required was to just write down every expenditure.

It was hard at first, and she missed days at a time, but still she was able to amass a good deal of information. She finally made it through an entire month’s cycle.

She found that as she wrote her expenditures down, she became much more conscious of what she was spending. By the second month in the process, she was automatically curbing some of her spending without trying.

She hadn’t realized how much she spent on buying coffee in a month or eating lunches out, or buying stuff at the drugstore. She found all sorts of expenditures that she decided weren’t all that necessary.

It became sort of a game to find other ways of enjoying herself without spending. She began to really like being more frugal and took pleasure in not using her credit cards. She enjoyed the sense of self-control. She eventually worked out a program for reducing her credit card debt, which included no longer using her credit cards at all.

Avoiding Resistance

The point in this story is that Carla did not begin by tackling her credit card habit head on. She did not set up a budget and try to stick with it. She didn’t deprive herself of what she was used to doing or having.

Her keystone habit in this case was to simply write down what she spent. This habit automatically led to the evolution of a number of new habits as well as the dislodging of some old habits, without any real resistance to the process. Eventually she was able to meet the real goal, which was to change her spending habits and reduce her debt.

This is the way keystone habits work. They come in under the radar of our resistance, and they are connected to a string of other practices and habits that ultimately will change in the process of our focusing on our keystone habit.

 Suggested Reading: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business. Charles Duhigg. Random House, 2012. (See Chapter 4: “Keystone Habits, or the Ballad of Paul O’Neill.”)

Daily Gratitude

If you’ve ever read any success literature or listened to CD programs about how to be successful or how to reach your goals, then you are very likely familiar with the current focus on “practicing gratitude.” There are many ways to accomplish this including such things as keeping a gratitude journal, writing little notes of gratitude directly to people you want to thank for something, putting up reminders on the wall where you work or in your home that say something about gratitude, posting words of thanks on social media, and so on. There is no one correct method. The idea is to pick something that works for you and do it. There are, however, some qualifications that can make the practice more effective which I’ll list here.

  • Create a system of giving gratitude on a regular basis. It will have more punch than doing it sporadically.
  • Write it down. This deepens the experience and encourages more thoughts about gratitude.
  • Review what you’ve written down. This cements the feelings so to speak in your brain and over time can alter the way you perceive your own personal reality and circumstances.
  • Make a specific time for focusing on gratitude instead of weaving it into other experiences. This will increase the potency of the feelings and pave the way for more, while at the same time creating a daily positive habit.

Here is a suggested practice you can try, and it goes without saying that you can adjust it to fit your schedule. The practice consists of writing 10 things you are grateful for every day. You can write out the list in a journal or type it on a computer. You could get creative and write it on sticky notes and place them around the house or office to remind yourself of them if you like. I like to type rather than write by hand, so I type my list on an iPad every morning. The items on the list may be elaborate such as saying thanks for something that went really well the day before and describing what happened, or very simple such as being grateful for sunshine that day. The content varies and it really doesn’t matter how simple or elaborate the items are, just so you write 10 things.

My preference is morning before the day has started because it helps set the tone for the day and energizes me before I begin work. Some people prefer the time before bed or in the later evening because they like to end the day on a good note before sleeping. Any time is fine, but it is more effective if the time of day you pick is the same every day. Choosing a regular time builds the practice into your daily routine and creates a habit, which means you are more likely to continue the practice. Also, by creating a regular habit, you prime your mind to look for things to be grateful for, and you begin to notice things more often that are going well.

The benefits can be subtle or obvious, and over time here’s what you might notice:

Emotional Shift from Negative to Positive

The mind very often gravitates toward the negative. For many, it is the default position. We focus on what we don’t have, don’t like, feel anxious about, and sometimes feel helpless to change. I have found that by writing a list of what I’m grateful for everyday, I am reprogramming my mind to look toward things that go right. It doesn’t mean that I don’t notice things that go wrong, it just means I also notice things that go right that normally might have remained under my mental radar. There is a greater balance in perception between the positive and negative. Ultimately, this can change or expand my overall view of reality to something that is more accurate and reflective of what my experience actually is.

Mood Changer

Writing the list out and then reviewing it is almost always a mood changer. If I wake up uneasy, anxious, or just plain grumpy, by the time I’ve finished the list, my mood is much better and I approach the rest of the day with a better attitude and a willingness to engage rather than resisting what’s ahead. It’s like releasing the emergency brake in the car and you go forward much easier.

Relationship Booster

My level of appreciation for others is enhanced. I am noticing the many things people do for me, or the qualities I appreciate about them rather than focusing on what I’m unhappy about or don’t like. This change in reality creates a change in my level of emotional receptivity, especially to those with whom I am close, and ultimately improves the relationships. This doesn’t mean that I stop working on issues that concern me, but it does help to see others in a more balanced light and to notice what’s good. That appreciation translates to them, even if not consciously, to feelings of receptivity from me and they are more likely to respond positively.  It’s a win-win.

The Habitual Aspect of It Breeds More Good Habits

The discipline of making the list daily has morphed into other daily habits that I have piggybacked onto writing the gratitude list. For example, following writing the gratitude list, I spend time in meditation.

Stimulates Positive Action

When I go back and read the gratitude lists for the month I have just finished, it usually brings into focus both the good things that have happened to me over the month as well as the things I have accomplished in that time period. It may also stimulate me to create new goals for the current or upcoming month. Seeing what is positive and has been accomplished is encouraging and can boost continued action. There is a desire to add more things to the gratitude list as opposed to lamenting about what I don’t have.

These are just a few of the great effects that come from writing out a daily gratitude list. Try it out and adjust it fit your schedule. You may decide to write more or less than 10 items which is perfectly fine, just so you try it and stick to it.

Consistency is the Key!

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