How to Add a Vital Habit to Your Life

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The streak began on Thursday, January 31st, 2013, in the Vinoy Hotel of St. Petersburg, Florida. It continues today, almost 1000 days later, this time from the Westin Hotel in Denver, Colorado. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning of my journey.

The Vinoy Hotel is an institution. A grand old dame built in 1926, it overlooks the picturesque waterfront of St. Petersburg. It was recently reborn after years of neglect, and served as a fitting location for me to begin a new, lifelong habit.

This was where I would finally overcome a major obstacle and begin a daily habit used by billions to reduce stress, eliminate anxiety, boost health, and change the world. It was in my room on that calm morning, with a beautiful sunrise peaking in, I finally started my practice of daily meditation.

I had tried and failed before. The first attempt was made in January 2006, the year of my anxiety struggles. It seemed like the perfect solution, and it surely would have helped, had I been able to stick with it. However, my inexperience, lack of a mentor, and the overwhelming stress of my panic attacks cut short my attempts. I didn’t have the willpower to persevere.

Fast forward three years later to 2009. I had overcome my anxiety attacks and was living the most stress-free life anyone older than a four-year old could enjoy. Single, no kids, working my dream job in the comfort of my own home, financially secure, and in the best of health, I had everything going my way.

At the suggestion of my chiropractor, Dr. Michael Sommers, I began experimenting with yoga and thought meditation would be the perfect compliment. I even created my own version, lying on the floor. Of course, I would fall asleep half the time. Clearly, I wasn’t committed to the practice, and so once again, I set it aside.

The third time was the charm.

Why was this time a winner?

To be completely honest with you, I felt like a hypocrite for not meditating. If you look back in the ETR archives, you’ll see we published two essays on the value of meditation in January of 2013. But there I was, a complete failure at an activity I knew was helpful, and I was recommending it to you, my dear reader.

That’s why it clicked, because it finally mattered to me. It meant so much for me to conquer this habit, I made it part of my entry into our 2013 Transformation Contest.

Here’s what I did to make this attempt work.

First, I was committed. I wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. There were built-in escape hatches in my first two attempts, but not this time. It was as though I had it tattooed on my body. I was going to make meditation a habit, come heck or high water.

Second, I set out a path of sure victories. I didn’t demand a 20-minute session on day one. Instead, I started with something I knew I could handle, just three minutes. And yes, just three minutes is enough to make a big difference. Once that was easy I increased the duration.

I even allowed myself to cheat a little bit. Instead of forcing myself to try not to think about anything – something that is still tough – I allowed myself to count my breaths. Each day I tried to take three to ten extra breaths per session compared to the last. This ensured my sessions were getting longer and longer. Within two weeks I was up to regular sessions of fifteen minutes. Today, an average session is twenty-one minutes, and it’s a rare day when I don’t meditate for at least a quarter of an hour.

These days I’ll do a second session on every flight I take. During takeoff, gravity forces you back into a relaxed position, perfect for a deep breathing session. (And also most helpful for encouraging a little nap.)

Third, I added mentors to my side. I am fortunate enough to have Matt Smith, my business partner, as my meditation coach. Matt’s been meditating for years, and was able to answer my questions, help me focus my efforts, and encourage me each time I reported a struggle or success. My chiropractor, Dr. Sommers, has also been meditating since his teenage years, and was helpful in showing me the proper way to sit in what can otherwise be an uncomfortable position. He even told me where to find a custom-made meditation pillow in Toronto.

Implementing those three factors covered my Five Pillars of Transformation required for any change in life. I had my Social Support, Accountability, Planning and Preparation, an Incentive, and a Deadline.

You may, if you desire enlightenment, choose to meditate 49 days straight like Siddhārtha Gautama, or if you prefer the trained killer’s approach to meditation, you might be satisfied with twelve minutes of meditation, as the United States Marine Corps is now teaching their recruits.

Jennifer Heil, Olympic Gold Medalist, recommends we take just “seven minutes each day to focus on your breath. Slowing down to six breaths per minute for seven minutes is enough to calm the nerves and allow our bodies to physically recover.”

Here’s how I do it.

Each morning I time my meditation with sunrise. I sit cross-legged on two pillows on the floor. My elbows are flexed at my sides, with fingers and thumbs touching to form a circle. From this position, I breathe deeply – taking approximately 5 seconds to inhale and 10 seconds to exhale. That’s it.

It’s not always easy to shut off the racing thoughts in my mind, but when random thoughts come, I try and push them out by focusing on my breathing. Fight the urge to plan your day as you breathe, and try to relax into bliss. Start with a few minutes each day, make it a routine, and add a few breaths to each session until you are up to three, seven, twelve, or twenty-one minutes. (I don’t recommend the 49 days in a row approach.)

What has it done for me?

It’s helped with one of my biggest weaknesses, impatience. I feel calmer in stressful situations. I’ve learned to ‘go with the flow’ when I’m late, when I’m in a line, or when experiencing technical difficulties with dropped phone calls or WiFi connections. Meditation has also improved my previously shallow breathing habits. Better breathing brings less anxiety.

When getting started, it was tough to sit there. Some days it still is. When your mind is racing it can be difficult to slip into serenity. But stick with it, you will get there.

Early on I focused on having one ‘memorable moment’ in each session. It could have been what felt like a perfect breath, or a second when I realized I was not thinking about work. Each of these little victories was a reward and encouraged me to continue with the habit.

But my big breakthrough came after a few months of practice. It was then I “Internalized” the benefits. That is to say, I simply realized I actually enjoyed it, and was no longer doing it for the external health benefits listed above.

This is something you need to do for all changes in your life. You must enjoy the habit, not just aiming for benefits of a habit. It will, along with having the 5 Pillars of Transformation in place, help you turn a behavior into a habit.

I’m so glad to have given meditation a third attempt. It’s made me a healthier and better person, and most important, given me a valuable experience I can pass onto you. Start today. Just three minutes is all you need.

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  • Daniel Razowsky

    I told my friend the other day that I’ve been working out 3 times a week and been wanting to get into Yoga. He said if you work our 3 times a week and do yoga, you’ll feel that much better.

    I’m excited to meditate and work on my breathing.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Brian Hennessey

      Craig-
      I’ve been meditating for over 30 years both morning and evening. It’s a beautiful way to start and end your day, by stilling the mind and body, and tapping into the source of all peace, joy and happiness. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to not meditate. The book I would recommend for anyone wishing to learn more about meditation is the spiritual classic “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda. It is a life changing book that explains the ancient science of yoga and the universality of religion. I’ve turned many people on to the book over the years and have seen the positive effect it has on others. I can say with hesitation it has had the biggest impact in my life and that’s why I highly recommend it to others.
      But don’t take my word for it, check it out and prove it to yourself. Once you start the habit of meditation your whole life takes on a new meaning and direction that you will always want to continue with and wonder how you ever got along without it.
      – Brian Hennessey

      • Jitin

        thank you for suggesting the book

      • ttcert

        Just bought it, thanks!

      • Ania

        It’s a cool book. You will enjoy it 🙂

  • Vivian B

    Before my husband died we met with a group for meditation once a week & did personal meditations daily. We started by listening to a tape by Joel Goldsmith, then meditated for about 15 minutes & ended by saying in unison the Lord’s Prayer. I have since drifted from this routine & I appreciate Craig’s detail description of his method.

    • ttcert

      I hope you can return to it, Vivian.

  • Jitin

    Thanks for sharing Craig.

  • charleen

    Yes,I do meditate,
    but only when I feel anxiety,I enjoyed reading about your experience and I can see where I need to improve my own experience ,so thanks for inspiring me.I really enjoy your writing and I look forward to your blogs. Charleen

    • ttcert

      Thanks Charleen!

  • kenwork

    Thanks Craig!

    I have fallen off the wagon so many times (when it comes to meditation).

    Counting breaths is great during a brief meditation. Letting your mind wander for a moment (or realize it is wandering), acknowledge it and softly bring your attention back to your breath, stay in that moment of counting your breaths… Your mind will wander again, simply bring it back to the breath again.

    That simple and soft repetition, for even a few minutes a day, will calm your nerves and provide true health benefits with consistent practice.

    • ttcert

      Thanks Ken, great feedback on counting breaths. Appreciated!

  • kamal

    yes. I know where you are coming from. As a matter of fact, right now I am trying to make meditation a daily habit. I suffer from anxiety disorders, and am hoping this will help. Have researched Dr. Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Really good stuff. Thanks for the words of wisdom!!!

  • Ann

    I learned and began practicing Transcendental Meditation 20 years ago and then switched to a form of mental prayer (Lectio Divina) that suits me better. Allows me space for breath, for love, for gratitude and forgiveness and transformation.

    Thanks for posting your experience and encouragement in quieting the heart and mind in order to listen more closely to the divine where healing and transformation can happen.

  • dennis

    This was very helpful. I am so guilty of shallow breathing, and I know it’s not healthy. Your suggestion is very simple and do-able.

  • Ken Roetman

    This is awesome! I’ve always wanted to start meditation. Also buying the book.

  • Shankar

    I too had many false starts before perceiving the benefits of meditation. My humble suggestion to those who wish to learn meditation: Please do NOT follow any book of instructions. – which ask you to (1) sit cross-legged, (2) face only “this” direction, (3) meditate only at a fixed time/period (4) concentrate on a particular object and so on. Remember Sir Richard Branson : “just do it”. After a few weeks, you’ll start getting positive thoughts (during meditation) about how to improvise. Implement those ideas. Thereafter, it is good to select a permanent place to sit and meditate because that spot gets a powerful vibration. i learnt this the hard way. When my mother was visiting us, she would sit at my favourite place of meditation. Later, she told me she felt as if she was sitting at an Ashram ( a Sanskrit word).

  • Chip Franks

    Well, I already do my Gratefulness/Accomplishment Journal daily, work out often, carve out, “Big Thinking,” time, and read the Kekich Credos. Once I have this meditation thingy down, my metamorphosis into Craig Ballantyne should be complete! MUWHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA!

  • Joe Robert Weaver

    Way to go, Craig. Glad to see you involved in this most basic activity that nourishes everything else in your life.
    My own meditation journey started 39 years ago when I learned TM. From my very first experience, everything was so simple, effortless and enjoyable. I never had to fight thoughts, tediously count breaths or struggle to sit still for 20 minutes morning and evening. Instead, I just followed directions and before I knew it 20 minutes was up, and I was feeling great. And that continues to be my experience 39 year later.
    So Craig, while I think it’s laudable that you have had such persistence at sticking to a practice that obviously was challenging at the start, I just want to say that meditation doesn’t have to be a struggle. It can be pure bliss from the get-go.

  • Jill Fisher

    Thank you for recounting your experience with meditation. I too have been struggling with making meditation a habit. This article has been more helpful than any other description I have heard thus far.
    I actually don’t know if I personally know anyone that meditates, but I guess I should be seeking someone out as a mentor.
    Thanks for the inspiration (and explanation)!

    • ttcert

      Keep on pushing, Jill!

  • HI Craig,

    I’ve been meditating for almost 3 years and really wonder what I did before it. Wait, I DO know: constantly racing thoughts, fits and starts on anything I attempted and chasing shiny objects galore.

    Now, I’m not serene. I am however, more equipped to deal with the roller coaster ride life and the entrepreneurial landscape can throw at me. I still struggle at times even getting through some sessions. This is usually because my mind is trying to get on with its own nonsense and wants me to go along. These are the times when I slow the breath down just a bit more and continue on. It’s also really important, as you’ve pointed out, to celebrate what you WERE able to do and not shame yourself for what you could not do.

    Jeff

    • ttcert

      Thank you for your feedback Jeff, well said!

      • Hey Craig,

        I would also add to those who are struggling making meditation a habit that guided meditations like you can find from the Chopra Center and Tara Brach websites are an excellent way to get started and even continue your practice. I still do a guided meditation every morning because I struggled too.

        Jeff

      • ttcert

        Appreciated!

  • jenks

    Interesting article. Like it. Refreshing to see a small, small step to meditation. Kudos. I’ve been meditating for since 2009, and it does make a difference, and it is significant. Awareness. That’s the key. One thing I often jostle about in my mind is, the relative gain of age and life experience vs. meditation in terms of functional awareness. Obviously both are interlinked and yet, I’d say that having meditation in one’s life is like being able to slow-down time to focus on the key details, and fast-forward wisdom and experience.

    2 great tips that really helped me were to count from 1 to 10 on each breath and when you realise your mind has wandered re-start at one, and then the second, I modified the 1 to 10 to Ayam, which created a much deeper sensation when meditating, as it resonates throughout the body. Super-charged.

    • ttcert

      Gratitude, thank you Jenks!