Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit

‘ To meditate does not mean to fight with a problem.
To meditate means to observe.’
~Thich Nhat Hanh

By Leo Babauta

It’s no secret that I advocate meditation as a great way to start your day, deal with stress, live in the present and more.

But what many people don’t realize is that meditation is perhaps the most important habit if you want to change other habits.

Recently I wrote about the Four Habits That Form Other Habits — and you might recall Habit 2:

Be Mindful of Negative Thoughts

How do you learn to be mindful of your negative thoughts? Simple: you practice. And how do you practice mindfulness of your thoughts? By far the best method I’ve found is meditation.

Let’s look at why meditation is so good for helping to change your habits, and how to form the meditation habit.

How Meditation Helps Habits

When we are unaware of our thoughts and urges, which arise in the back of our mind mostly unnoticed, they have a power over us. We are unable to change if these unbidden thoughts control us. But when we learn to observe them, we can then release their power over us.

Meditation is practice for observing those thoughts, for being more mindful of them throughout the day.

I will give you several examples in my own life, though actually there are dozens:

  1. When I quit smoking, I would get an urge to take just one drag on a cigarette, and it would get so strong I had a hard time beating it. At the same time, I had these rationalizing thoughts: “It’s OK to smoke just one — one cigarette doesn’t hurt you”, or “Why are you making yourself suffer like this? It’s not worth it!” And those thoughts and urges would have beat me if I let them, but I watched them. I didn’t act, I just watched. And the would rise and crest and then fade, and I would be OK.
  2. When I started running, I wanted to stop when things got uncomfortable. But I learned that it was just a scared part of my mind that wanted to stop, a part of me that shied away from discomfort. I would watch that scared part of me, that makes me quit anything hard, and not let it control me.
  3. When I write, I often get the urge to go do something else. When this urge goes unnoticed, I just act on it, and procrastinate. When I am mindful of this urge (and the accompanying rationalizations that come if I don’t act on the urge), then I can pause and watch the urge and let it go, and return to the writing.

This same process helped me change my eating habits, run a marathon, change my clutter habits, and much more.

But none of that would have been possible if I didn’t learn to watch, to be mindful of my urges and rationalizations and negative thoughts that told me I couldn’t do it.

How did I learn to watch and be mindful? Meditation. It is the one habit where all you’re doing is practicing this mindful observing, where everything else is stripped away in a beautiful simplicity that leaves just you and your thoughts and the present moment.

How to Form the Meditation Habit

It’s pretty simple, but the doing is everything:

  1. Commit to just 2 minutes a day. Start simply if you want the habit to stick. You can do it for 5 minutes if you feel good about it, but all you’re committing to is 2 minutes each day.
  2. Pick a time and trigger. Not an exact time of day, but a general time, like morning when you wake up, or during your lunch hour. The trigger should be something you already do regularly, like drink your first cup of coffee, brush your teeth, have lunch, or arrive home from work.
  3. Find a quiet spot. Sometimes early morning is best, before others in your house might be awake and making lots of noise. Others might find a spot in a park or on the beach or some other soothing setting. It really doesn’t matter where – as long as you can sit without being bothered for a few minutes. A few people walking by your park bench is fine.
  4. Sit comfortably. Don’t fuss too much about how you sit, what you wear, what you sit on, etc. I personally like to sit on a pillow on the floor, with my back leaning against a wall, because I’m very inflexible. Others who can sit cross-legged comfortably might do that instead. Still others can sit on a chair or couch if sitting on the floor is uncomfortable. Zen practitioners often use a zafu, a round cushion filled with kapok or buckwheat. Don’t go out and buy one if you don’t already have one. Any cushion or pillow will do, and some people can sit on a bare floor comfortably.
  5. Focus on your breath. As you breathe in, follow your breath in through your nostrils, then into your throat, then into your lungs and belly. Sit straight, keep your eyes open but looking at the ground and with a soft focus. If you want to close your eyes, that’s fine. As you breathe out, follow your breath out back into the world. If it helps, count … one breath in, two breath out, three breath in, four breath out … when you get to 10, start over. If you lose track, start over. If you find your mind wandering (and you will), just pay attention to your mind wandering, then bring it gently back to your breath. Repeat this process for the few minutes you meditate. You won’t be very good at it at first, most likely, but you’ll get better with practice.

And that’s it. It’s a very simple practice, but you want to do it for 2 minutes, every day, after the same trigger each day. Do this for a month and you’ll have a daily meditation habit.