Why I Learned to Meditate

In an earlier post, I mentioned beginning a keystone habit – meditation. I would like to take some time to describe the practice a bit more the way I’ve experienced it, and its benefits.First of all, I want to clarify a few things. I am a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ, and I am unapologetic about that. Some folks might voice some concern that I am being unfaithful to my devotion by practicing meditation. Although these folks are well intended, these claims are based on ignorance. What I practice on a regular basis does not invoke the name of any god or other religious devotion. Although some kinds of meditation have their origins in Buddhism and Hinduism, there are many meditational practices today that have no basis in these faiths. On that note, let me also say that I am in no way trying to discredit the meditating Buddhist or Hindu or any other devotee of another faith. Meditation has benefits for all who practice it, whether for religious or other purposes.

I have two intended purposes for my practice of meditation: Focus and Health.

When I meditate, I slow down. Way down. I don’t sit cross legged on the floor chanting a mantra. I sit in a chair. A very comfortable arm chair. I listen to a guided meditation by Andy Puddicombe called Get Some Headspace. I keep my eyes open for a few moments and softly keep my gaze ahead of me, being aware of my complete peripheral vision. I begin breathing deep breaths through my nose, and exhale through my mouth, for about 60 seconds. Then I close my eyes, becoming aware of the contact of the chair beneath me and my feet on the floor and my arms on my lap or on the armrests. I become aware of any sounds around me, any smells, and even any remaining tastes in my mouth. Then I begin to notice any physical feelings I might have, whether there is any discomfort in my body. Then I take mental note of my emotional state. Am I stressed, anxious, or sad? Then I take note of my motivations for doing this, especially today’s motivation. Why am I doing this, TODAY? Then I take note of who round me might benefit from my meditation. If I become less stressed because of my meditating, who around me benefits? Then I am reminded that this whole exercise is not one of intense effort, but gentle effortlessness.

At this point, I begin to count my breathing. Inhale, one, exhale, two…inhale, three, exhale four…and so on, until I get to ten, and then I start over at one. I focus on my breathing and my counting. I notice my chest expanding, I feel the rhythm. My mind begins to wander, thinking about some distraction. That’s okay. I gently draw my attention back to my breathing. A few moments later, my mind drifts again. I notice and gently reel my focus back to my breathing. Again and again this happens, but that’s okay. During this distraction/refocus sequence, I am actually strengthening my willpower “muscle”, (the subject of last weeks post). Being distracted and having a wandering mind have some creative benefits, but bringing the mind back to a focus, in this case, my breathing, strengthens my command center. Daniel Goleman, writer of Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence , wrote,

“Build up the mind’s muscle for focus through a daily session of meditating on your breath. This is the mental equivalent of working out in the gym. The battle tension between focus and distraction takes place in the brain’s circuits for resisting impulse. In the mental gym, the more often you catch your mind wandering off and return it to concentrating on your breath, the stronger your concentration grows – like bulking up your pecs on a Cybex.”

As I break this evening from writing this post, I open up the book I just began reading, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova. Within minutes, I read this passage –

“The idea of [meditation]/mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that ‘the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will….An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of [meditation]/mindfulness.”

After about 12-17 minutes of focused breathing, I then allow my mind to wander for about 60-90 seconds, without any focus at all. Strangely enough, giving myself the freedom to wander usually gives me the the highest moments of clarity and focus of the session. After this small interlude, I begin to focus once again on my physical surroundings, the touch of my body against the chair and floor, the sounds, the smells and lingering tastes. Then I open my eyes, gently, and it is as if I am on another planet. The state of focus is indescribable. I can usually stay in this mode for about five or ten minutes, and I usually use this time to try to plan my day (if in the morning), or the next day (if in the evening). I might write for a few moments. But I try to take advantage of, well, that natural high that comes after “awakening” from the meditative state.

When I began the practice of meditation, many other tasks became “easier” for me. I became more “self-disciplined” in other areas of my life. Actually, what I believe was happening was that I was learning how to focus and exert my will in areas in ways that I had never been able to before. Exercise, cleaning, diet, study, saving money…all the areas were affected. A little focus went a long way.

My blood pressure has always been a little high, but after practicing meditation for about a month, for the first time ever, my blood pressure lowered into the “great” zone. Added to my regular exercise and improved diet, my heath and fitness was at an all time high.

Meditation (or rather, mindfulness, as it is commonly referred to today) is not a bunch of new age mumbo jumbo, (although in some circles, it has been hijacked into such.) It is a skill that has practical outcomes. Even small amounts of restful sitting without activity and a stillness of mind has shown to reap quick results.

I leave you with my usual question of application…Can you find a way to carve 2-5 minutes to sit quietly with nothing but your thoughts focused on your breathing? Try it for one week, consistently. See if you don’t benefit immediately.

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Willpower Muscle Strategy

I begin this post with a question:

What drains you of your energy?

What tasks leave you feeling tired or unmotivated to move forward? What about your decision making? Do you feel that having so many different choices to choose from drains you mentally? 300 channels on satellite, 15 different brands of corn flakes, 50 different task manager apps to choose from…need I say more? Once you finally make an important decision, do you sometimes feel the need to drop everything and just veg out?

Decision making, problem solving, perception work, creative work, resisting temptation…all these skills require a certain amount of focus and willpower. And willpower requires energy. And willpower-energy is a limited but renewable resource. When it’s depleted, you can bet that some of the easier decisions/mental work become a lot tougher, and the tougher mental work, well, you can do that tomorrow. Walking Dead and a pizza awaits! Think of your willpower as a muscle: it tires after use, but grows stronger over consistent use.

Consider this study by Roy F. Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, (co-authored with John Tierney): A group of students who had been instructed to fast entered a laboratory that was thick with the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Before them on a table were a plate of the cookies, a bowl of candy, and a bowl of radishes. The students were divided into two groups: one group was instructed to eat the cookies and candy, the other group could only eat the radishes. Researchers observed the students from a one way mirror/window. The radish only group used every ounce of available of their willpower to resist the temptation of the cookies, which is shown in part 2 of this test. After a period of time, both groups were invited into a second room and instructed to work on geometric puzzles, which were actually known to be insoluble. The cookie/candy only grouped worked on the puzzles diligently on average about twenty minutes, while the radish only group gave up after about eight minutes. Their energy stores for problem solving were used up in the previous problem of having to resist.

Over time, your willpower “muscle” can be strengthened. The more it’s used, the stronger it becomes, and it seems to cross over to other categories. The willpower used in resisting sweets is also the same willpower used in creating the habit of consistently writing in a journal every night, or sticking with a tough problem at work, or making a risky business decision.

Your willpower muscle is refreshed after a good nights sleep, and is reinforced after quality meals and snacks throughout the day. Knowing this, it would make sense to strategically schedule your tougher willpower-required actions in the early part of the day, and after meals. Naps seem to give a boost to your reserve, so does a session of meditation.

Armed with this information, I leave you with this question: What tasks can you reschedule in your day to take advantage of your willpower energy fuel tanks?

How to Conquer a Weak Self Discipline

I already mentioned in a previous`post that I am not the most self disciplined person in the world. And I reckon that there are others who feel the same way. Despite what appears to be a weakness, there is good news for those of us who lack this virtue.

“There is this pervasive idea that the successful person is the ‘disciplined person’ who leads a ‘disciplined life.’ — It’s a lie.”

The above is from Gary Keller and Jay Papasan’s book, The ONE Thing, which I have also alluded to in a previous post. They counter the above falsehood with the idea that we need just enough discipline to develop an ongoing habit that will create the desired outcomes in our life. You work at something regularly until it regularly works for you. When you see a “disciplined” person, what you see is a person who has trained a handful of habits into their lives.

How do you create a habit? Charles Duhigg, in his book, The Power of Habits, breaks down a habit into three components: A cue, a routine, and a reward. A certain cue, let’s say finishing breakfast, prompts a certain routine or behavior, let’s say, sitting down to meditate for 20 minutes, which in turn brings about a reward or set of rewards. In this case, a focused mind, or a sense of peace, or a lowered blood pressure, or even the hint of a fulfillment of a future result, such as a consistent sense of well being that is currently eluding you.

Another important component – you must have a sense of “craving” for the reward that compels you to begin the routine. Otherwise, resistance usually wins. You must want the reward. It has to light a fire within.

It also usually takes 66 days to build a solid habit. Success literature speaks of a 21 day period to completely develop a habit, but solid research has discovered otherwise. The full range suggests 18 to 254 days, but 66 represented a “sweet spot”, with easier habits taking less time and more challenging habits taking longer time.

One other thing – habit building is an upper brain function. We’ll come back to this in a later post, but for now, think of your upper brain as your pilot, and your lower brain as autopilot. When you develop a habit, you are having to use faculties of your brain that require actual focus and willpower, a kind of command center. Once this habit begins to take hold, however, the control for the new “circuitry” is shifted to the lower brain, a kind of intuitive, instinctual, automatic response system. When you begin to do the routine without having to mentally engage the initiation of it, then you know that the lower brain has begun to assume control, and it won’t be long before the routine is indeed a habit.

I will now leave you with this question to ponder…What habit or handful of habits do you need to study and breakdown and begin to implement so that you can reach your desired outcomes?

A Question that Guarantees to Help You Focus

In early June of 2013, I bought that plane ticket to Orlando. I hate wasting money, so this meant there was no turning back now. The bridge was burned.

So, I had this goal. Actually, there were two goals. Go to Disney World. And weigh in at 225 lbs. (Translated to lose about 20 lbs.) I am a great procrastinator and money tends to burn a hole in my pocket, so these were challenging tasks to me. I had to save money on a regular basis, while still paying rent, bills, and buying food. I had to exercize regularly and eat healthy, or, said differently, move more, eat less. By the way, eating healthy costs a BIT more than eating unhealthy.

I was reading a book, The ONE Thing, by Jay Papasan and Gary W. Keller. The premise of the book is that we need to ask ourselves one question…

“What’s the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

I pondered the question for a few days.

I’ve never been a very self disciplined person. I would have the BAD habit of sleeping in to the last moment, and rush around to get ready, and go straight to work. After work, I would come home, fix and eat dinner, and watch DVDs, listen to music, or read. Tomorrow, repeat. I desperately needed some good habits in my life that would shape some desired outcomes.

I had recently purchased a book titled, “Get some Headspace”, by Andy Puddicombe. It’s essentially a beginners course in mindfulness, using meditation. (don’t worry, my Baptist brethren, there are NO Buddhist overtones to this program.) There is a supplementary iPhone app as well. After studying the content for a few days, I knew that I should put this into practice. I made this my ONE Thing.

I struck gold.

Every night, at around 11:30, I began the guided meditation. I began on Saturday, July 13, 2013, and continued through Sunday, September 22, 2013, a 72 day streak. There are 10 days of ten minute meditations, 15 days of fifteen minute meditations, then 20 days of twenty minute meditations, then it begins several blocks of 40 day/20 minute programs.

In a later post, I will write about what is called a Keystone Habit. Meditation is what I would call a Keystone Habit. For now, let’s just say that a Keystone Habit is any habit developed that influences the development of other habits. When I began meditating, over the next two months, I also began to exercise regularly, eat healthier, cleaned my apartment more regularly, had consistent morning devotions, organized my files, bills, and mountains of papers, cataloged my dad’s record collection, (with the help of others,) read with better recall, saved money for my trip, and many other consistent actions. My weight and blood pressure went down. And I felt 1000% better.

This is not meant to be an endorsement for mindfulness and meditation, (although I definitely recommend it.) I’m just stating that My ONE Thing for that season in my life was choosing to meditate on a regular basis, and as a result, everything else became easier or unnecessary.

By asking this focusing question, I was able to kickstart a series of habits that dominoed into desired outcomes. And I did it in a relatively short amount of time, (approximately 2 1/2 months).

So, I leave you with this obvious question: What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?