Most people have no clue how much chatter and distraction really goes on in their minds…
I’d started studying meditation around the year 2001 or 2002. It was when I first discovered the fields of human potential and transpersonal psychology. When I studied mysticism and spirituality, and its surprising universality above and beyond the religious traditions out of which it grew.
I’d had some experience with peak states before that, and thought I had some clue about higher states of consciousness.
But that’s when I got really serious about studying meditation and contemplative prayer (and the buzz word today, “mindfulness,” being treated like a new thing on the front cover of the most recent Time magazine).
But I never really practiced it with any regularity.
I did what Jay Abraham often trashes when it comes to business teachings. I treated it like intellectual entertainment. I learned all I could about sitting quietly. But I never really did it.
I probably became more mindful in my everyday life. I tried to bring present and mindful awareness to everything I did.
But the meditation cushion I bought — thinking I was cool and hip and with it — sat gathering dust in the corner.
Then, on September 1st of last year, I started a habit. I started the habit of going to the scale, first thing in the morning, and weighing myself. That first day, I weighted 207.2 pounds. And that habit started to pay off. A month later, I’d dropped four pounds — I weighed in at 203.2. And the longer I kept that habit, the more it paid off. Weighing myself at 5:00 AM on November 5th, a little over 2 months after starting, I weighed 196.8 pounds — I’d dropped over 10 pounds since starting.
And apparently I had an ah-ha moment about habit.
Because I proceeded to go to my home office, and pull out the meditation cushion. I downloaded a meditation app called QuietMind, and I set a timer for 10 minutes.
I figured I could sit through 10 minutes. And I did.
I closed my eyes, and focused on my breath. Time went so slowly. My back ached. I was uncomfortable. But I sat, until the chime went off.
And the next day, I did it again. After weighing in for the day, I went and sat through 10 minutes.
I did it again and again, and it became habit. A week turned into two. A month turned into two. And the streak grew and grew.
Pretty soon, I simply kept doing it because I didn’t want to break the streak.
Now, it feels like the most natural thing in the world to do.
And I increased the time as I went. A week in, I’d bumped 10 minutes up to 11. Then, at 100 days, I thought I could do a little more. So I spent about a week doing 12 minutes per day. Then, I figured why not bump it up more. And for the last 50-plus days, I’ve been doing 15 minutes every morning.
When I crossed that 100-day threshold, I put this into my idea file. I decided I wanted to write an article about meditation, and productivity in particular. But apparently it’s taken me two more months since then to really feel like it was time to write this.
That said, this is a well-marinated article! I think you’ll find the following ideas quite appetizing. And perhaps, just perhaps, this will encourage you to develop the habit yourself…
Breakthrough #1: Habit is EVERYTHING…
I started small. I figured regularly giving up 10 minutes of my morning, before my kids woke up, would be nothing huge. And it wasn’t.
Every time I increase my time spent (my app has a timer memory), it feels like a bigger incursion into my quiet time in the morning. But I don’t want to go back. Even though I’m giving up minutes by spending it quietly sitting on the meditation cushion, I feel like I get those back and then some in daily productivity.
And the best thing is that the habits all feed into each other. Like I got started with meditation after stepping on the scale every morning, the month after I started doing meditation more regularly, I also got back on my exercise goals. Now, since December, I’ve hit every monthly goal I set for kettlebell, and feel as fit as I’ve ever felt.
Plus, all these habits have led to me consistently eating more nutritious food, and making healthier food choices. There’s even more that’s come from it, but that will come out in the next breakthroughs…
Breakthrough #2: The “quiet house” phenomenon…
I mentioned above that few people realize how much chatter and distraction is consistently running through their minds.
Buddhists have a name for all of that — they call it your “monkey mind.” That is, the constant stream of noise and chatter and strange thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere, but constantly pervade your conscious awareness.
I thought my monkey mind was pretty quiet. But then, I started regularly meditating.
Now, I do meditation on “hard mode.” I understand it’s much easier to stay focused if you do a mantra meditation, where you’re constantly humming or chanting or praying. Saying a Rosary would be the Catholic form of this. Alternately, you can do eyes-open mediation, where you’re focused on something like a candle flame, a significant image or religious icon, or another meditative object.
I don’t do that. I try to focus on my breath. And every time I notice myself focused on something other than my breath, I try to bring my awareness back to my breath.
This is really, really hard. Because if you sit for a long time in meditation, you’re going to have some really good ideas. You’re going to have ideas you don’t want to lose. You’re also going to have a lot of noise and strange mental meanderings.
And the longer you sit, the more you realize you can’t stop it.
I’ve decided after 161 days that it feels like wandering around a house in the middle of the night. When all is quiet, that squeaky floorboard or stair that you never notice during the day seems piercingly-loud. Similarly, if you try to sit and hold a quiet mind, every thought draws all your focus and attention, and feels like 10-times the interruption.
I’m told that it’s possible for this to subside. That the more you train your awareness to come back to its focus on the breath, the quicker you’ll do it automatically. Until eventually you’re able to sit in quiet focus on the meditative object — the breath.
Someday maybe. But in the meantime, simply being aware of focus and distraction has been huge for me.
Breakthrough #3: Focus, focus, focus…
The longer I’ve meditated, the better my focus has become. Not just in the moment, but across my entire life.
It’s like a cloud is lifting.
You’ve heard of the books Essentialism, The ONE Thing, and others in the category of “do more by doing less,” right? Also, a very popular documentary on Netflix right now is titled Minimalism — it’s about de-cluttering your physical and mental space.
It’s a total fad in culture and business writing right now to talk about finding happiness in less, not more, and finding success by focusing on fewer things.
Why? Because it’s absolutely necessary.
I remember being on the internet in the late 1990s, and having a realization. It was that the coming “Information Revolution” — a term I thought of independently, but have seen repeated by many, though not because of me — would be as powerful as the Industrial Revolution.
The next big revolution will be the Intelligence Revolution. Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply information. Those who do it best start first by filtering and curating the best information, and then apply only that for the best results.
This is about finding the signal in the noise. It’s about turning down the volume on everything else, and finding what to focus on.
Regular meditation practice — for me and for so many others I’ve heard from — is an incredibly powerful tool for doing this.
Breakthrough #4: Clarity only comes when you get clear…
When you get better at focus, you develop a compulsion to get things out of your head.
Have you ever heard the saying that “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear?”
This absolutely happened to me with David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
If I hadn’t realized how much I lacked focus, and how crucial it was, I wouldn’t have been ready for it. This is proven by the fact that I’ve been subscribed to a podcast for a very long time that regularly talked about it — but still hadn’t “discovered” it!
But then a couple months ago, I just knew I needed something.
The stars aligned, my mind was ready, and I heard about this system for clearing out your head, getting everything into an external brain, and being able to re-engage with work in a productive way that helps you get a lot more done with a lot less stress.
It was the perfect tool, in that moment.
But the clarity I sought was only able to show up on my radar because I had cleared other things out of the way through my regular meditation practice and habit.
(Today, after I meditate, I proceed to plan my day, and outline the 3 inviolable tasks I’m going to get done, as well as any additional tasks that deserve my priority attention.)
Breakthrough #5: You will become a more grounded human being…
If you go through life not thinking about what you’re thinking about, not aware of all the mental chatter, you will invariably be spending way more time in your head than actually interacting with the world.
In other words, your head is in the clouds!
Bringing awareness back to what you’re thinking about has an interesting effect. It detaches you from the thoughts themselves, so you can let go of them when you need to engage with the world.
Which leads to all sorts of changes in how you approach life.
I spend less time lost in my digital devices, especially when I’m with human beings in person. I spend way less time on Facebook, unless I’m actually interacting with someone and that’s the best place to do it.
I pay more attention to all aspects of life — physical and mental health, relationships, and my work. I appreciate beauty more, I’m even more motivated to uncover truths about the world, and I have rededicated myself to being a good human being.
I’m not saying all this to brag. Rather, a lot of people don’t know how to actually go after these things, even though they say they want them.
It starts with the simple habit of sitting quietly, focusing on your breath, and coming back to that focus any time you get distracted.
Breakthrough #6: I’m able to be more present…
With all of this, it’s become even easier to be present, in the moment, with whatever is happening.
And this has profound impacts.
Being present with your work will lead to better performance. You’ll do more, faster, and at a higher quality.
Being present with people leads to better interactions and relationships. I’ve realized that love is more about being present with someone than anything else. Through good and bad, to be totally present, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, is showing a deep and profound love.
And in the moments, being present can lead to much more enjoyment of even the tiniest things…
Breakthrough #7: Joy…
You’ve heard of “glass half full” and “glass half empty” as ways to describe optimism and pessimism?
I recently saw a really interesting video, and if I’d have realized that I would have wanted to share it later, I would have remembered enough detail or saved it so I could share the link. However, I didn’t — so you’ll have to go with my description…
Being happy isn’t about seeing the glass as half full, or half empty.
It’s about looking at the water in the glass, and being grateful for it. And looking at the empty space, and asking if you can do anything about it, and making a decision about what you’re going to do. And then accepting the glass and the moment and the opportunity for what it is, and being grateful to have even known the glass at all.
I recently came up with a tool that I’ve since named the “Serenity Restorer.” It’s a series of four questions, based on the popular Serenity Prayer, that gets to this exact same idea.
Being able to return to this open awareness, presence, and acceptance of the world for what it is as well as being fully present to make the changes you can make brings a deep sense of satisfaction, equanimity, and joy.
Breakthrough #8: The 10 stages of meditation…
Mediation is a very old practice. Modern science is beginning to catch up to it, and realize that it’s not just some holdover of what much of modern science considers antiquated religion. In fact, the practice has a ton of measurable benefits, that have been measured by its practitioners in a rigorous scientific way for millennia.
Buddhism has one of the most developed meditative traditions, and in the Buddhist tradition, there are 10 stages of meditation that are taught.
These are beyond the scope of this article, but if you’re interested, I’d strongly recommend reading this article.
My point in including this breakthrough is that it’s worth noting that you’re making progress, from the moment you start sitting. Developing the regular habit and practice of sitting in silence, focused on your breath and aware of your mind, you are making progress. And all the other benefits and breakthroughs will come, and will continue to come, as long as you stay on the path.
Breakthrough #9: The speed of progress…
Progress comes both quicker than you could hope for, and far slower than you wish.
If you use the 10 stages of meditation as a way to measure your progress, you’ll feel like you’re stuck in stages 1 and 2 for a very, very long time. Despite over a decade of knowing the fundamentals and almost half a year of consistent, diligent practice, I feel like I’m just getting started.
Every morning, my monkey mind has far more control over my meditation time than my intentional conscious awareness.
If I didn’t accept that, I could get very frustrated with my lack of progress, and move even further away from my pursuit of clarity and focus.
Rather, I focus on the habit of just sitting. And when I look back at the changes that simple habit has created in the last 161 days, I’m totally blown away.
I’m creating bigger winners with my marketing and am making money more rapidly than ever. I have more clarity in my life. I wake up excited to face the day. I’m far healthier than I was at the beginning. I’m entering new chapters in my work. I have so much more focus on the important things. And, I have so much less stress.
It’s a dynamic feedback cycle. The more I do all of that, the more I want to do it.
But it all started early one November morning, when I set a timer for 10 minutes, and started sitting.
Make it a great weekend, and Happy Easter to those who celebrate it!
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,