Meditation and the Art of Carving Habits
I committed myself to a ten-day residential course in the UK. Anyone was free to attend.
You wake up at 5 am. You get two meals a day. There is no communication between participants, and you meditate three times a day for no less than an hour each time.
The guidelines was simple: become aware of your breath, scan your body for sensations and then remain observant of, but not involved with, whatever passes through your mind’s eye.
At the end of the ten days, I was tired, frustrated and angry.
After a week of reconnecting with civilization, I came to the conclusion that my approach was unfair. I used to work as a corrective exercise coach and if someone wanted to test the validity of my practice with a ten-day intensive program it would be unfair. Rehabilitation takes dedicated effort over a sustained period.
So I decided to learn how to meditate my way.
I got a jar and put a pound coin in it every time I spent at least 20 minutes meditating. My definition of meditation was staying silent and keeping an open mind: I would observe the flow of my breath and remain as equanimous as possible.
The catch was that I had to practice every day. If I missed a day, I would have to start over. All the coins in the jar would go into a penny bag ( kept inside the jar), and I was only allowed spend the accumulated money once I meditated for 100 days consecutively.
It was a simple, but intense, exercise in self-discipline.
In the end, it took 331 days to finish.
Meditation didn’t have much to do with my sense of achievement. I was just proud that I set myself up to do something unrealistic and then followed through with it.
I proved to myself that I could do nothing, consistently, for 100 days. Now I just had to replace the little vacuum I created with something I wanted to learn.
A lack of sustained commitment to anything was one of my biggest personal barriers. My second biggest barrier was a fear of dancing. I have always loved dancing, but I’m used to dancing by myself. The idea of dancing with another person and learning the grammar of a particular style petrified me.
I found my jar and put a pound coin in it for every time that I went to a dance class. The lessons didn’t have to be consecutive; I just had to work up to the point where I could ask a girl to dance without freezing up.
I tried the tango, salsa, break dancing, contemporary, Ceroc and eventually I found swing. About 15 swing dancing classes in I had my first dance with a girl. It was a painful experience, and it must have been hideous to watch. I had the same two moves that I kept repeating in an overly apologetic manner. I didn’t care; I was dancing.
By the time I got to the 100th class, a year later, my girlfriend was a professional choreographer. We taught a swing class together every Tuesday. We traveled to swing festivals around the world. Every few months, I would dance with some of the world’s best professional swing dancers. It was exhilarating.
I did not meditate much during my experiences learning to dance. I did not see the point of doing nothing when I could do anything.
My advice would be to stop wasting your time trying to ‘meditate’ and go out and do whatever it is you want to do.
If you do it completely, then it will turn into a type of meditation.
I hate the word mediation.
It has dangerous religious connotations and evokes an unhelpful stereotype of a cross-legged Buddha deep in Zen. When you’re 22 years old, there is nothing zen about meditation. If you’re honest with yourself, then it is going to be confusing, frustrating and boring. While we’re being honest, what isn’t when you’re 22 years old?
Meditation took me down a path that helped me address subjective barriers. Addressing these limitations allowed me to reframe the way I think about myself and what I consider myself capable of doing. I sincerely doubt meditation will teach you how to dance, but it will probably help you address whatever subject barrier is stopping you from being more you.
If I had to put my thumb on it, I would say meditation enhances lucidity. The more lucid you are the harder it is to fool yourself. Whether or not, and how you deal with your nonsense is an entirely different matter.
ACTION POINTS FOR CARVING OUT A NEW HABIT:
1. Challenge yourself to do something unrealistic. Don’t say “I want to learn how to dance”. That’s not something you might be able to dive straight into. Instead, say, “I want to go out and ask a girl to dance for a whole song”. That’s something you can go out and do (or work towards doing).”
2. Decide on a way of measuring your progress and stick to it. More than one metric and it all gets too confusing. Days, hours, kilograms, miles, whatever makes sense for you specific challenge.
3. Try and define the metric in a way that 100 units equates to becoming proficient at your new skill. I broke both of my challenges down into 100 steps, and it worked because on day 28 I knew that I was 28% complete. This kind of simple feedback helped motivate me. Work out what one counts as one step and then get a clear jar and put a pound coin in it every time you take a step towards forming your habit. Don’t touch the money until you have 100 coins in the jar. If you don’t complete the habit forming exercise, then you have to give the money away. You can always give it to charity, but I find it is more motivating to give it to something you don’t approve of (i.e. someone you dislike or a cause you don’t approve of).