Why Meditation is More Than Just Another ‘Atomic’ Habit.

June 10, 2023

This post is all about habits, specifically about the one habit that turned things around for me — meditation. I started building this practice in 2019, and I gotta tell you, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

— Blaise Pascal
Ontario Vipassana Centre
Ontario Vipassana Centre — the Centre where I’ve undertaken most of my courses.

Why is Meditation so hard?

If you’re here, you probably get it — the culprit is our distracted mind. You might’ve heard about this thing called ‘the monkey mind’ that Buddhist monks often talk about. This chatterbox constantly spews out ‘thoughts,’ and you find yourself bouncing from one to another, aimlessly floating through life.

The constant barrage of thoughts, like a pesky fly at a picnic, keeps pulling you away from the ‘now’, bringing you deep unhappiness. That’s it — that’s the bare truth! I’m sharing this from not just the wisdom of books but from my personal, hard-earned insights.

And all of this is taking place at the sub-conscious level of the mind. Now, I’m not a numbers guy, but here’s a statistic from the book ‘The Talent Code’ that’ll demonstrate the scale of the challenge: “the unconscious mind is able to process 11 million pieces of information per second, while the conscious mind can manage a mere 40” And that’s precisely why this stuff is so hard — you’re wrestling with this 11-million-bits-per-second beast inside you!

Mindfulness requires effort and discipline for the simple reason that the forces that work against our being mindful, namely our habitual unawareness and automaticity, are exceedingly tenacious.

— Jon Kabat-Zinn

What kind of Meditation?

This could be like opening Pandora’s box. I don’t talk much about my practice because, with so many types of meditation and gurus out there, having a meaningful discussion becomes challenging. But let’s approach it with an open mind and make it as objective as possible. As a natural skeptic, I sampled a few spiritual practices, and my checklist was very clear:

  1. The practice should work at the subconscious level of the mind.
  2. The practice should be free from commercialism and any guru dominance.
  3. The practice must be secular and open to everyone.

From my personal experience, only Vipassana Meditation checks those boxes. So, after trying a few practices, I knew after just one Vipassana course that this was it. And in July 2019, following my 2nd 10-day Vipassana course, I made a commitment to building a meditation habit.

By the way, ‘Vipassana’ literally means ‘seeing things as they really are.’ It’s a technique that was rediscovered by the Buddha, but it’s important to note that there’s no religious or sectarian affiliation involved. At the Centres where these courses are held, you won’t find any images or statues of the Buddha or any other teacher.

Furthermore, the Centres are open to everyone, and there are no fees charged for the course, food, or lodging. Let that sink in for a moment. N O — F E E S — C H A R G E D in this day and age of rampant commercialism.

My Vipassana meditation practice and benefits:

As I’ve noted above, this journey is a massive undertaking but truly worthwhile. This practice has single-handedly transformed my life.

I do my best to sit for two one-hour sessions every day (morning and evening).The one hour morning sit wasn’t so hard to incorporate — I can’t even remember the last time I missed it. But the evening sit? Now, that’s a challenge. Regardless, I’ve been holding up pretty well this summer, managing both my morning and evening sits consistently.

I wouldn’t keep at it if I weren’t reaping the benefits. Some of the apparent benefits include:

  1. Improved mindfulness: The practice has brought me into living in the present moment. It may sound insignificant, but trust me, it’s huge — leading to a heightened state of awareness and mental clarity.
  2. Enhanced concentration: In a world full of distractions and endless context-switching at work, Vipassana has helped me develop concentration. It’s truly a godsend when you need to focus.
  3. Increased self-awareness: The practice has undoubtedly improved my self-awareness.

And then there are life-changing benefits:

  1. Becoming a morning personFor most of my life, I was a night owl. I’d stay up late and consequently wake up late. The whole routine felt like a downward spiral. But once you ‘experience’ the vitality of early mornings, there’s just no turning back.
  2. Saying goodbye to alcohol: Alcohol was a significant part of my life, but Vipassana helped me kick it. And I’ve met several others who’ve overcome many habits through this practice.
  3. Getting more done: With improved focus and heightened awareness, my productivity has skyrocketed. For someone who has been a ‘lazy’ soul for most of life, this is nothing short of a phenomenal change.

Developing the Vipassana meditation habit:

Taking the first step is quite intimidating for most people. To learn Vipassana meditation, you have to enroll in a ten-day course. Yes, you read that right — there’s no app or cozy retreat — it’s akin to a bootcamp where you wake up at 4am and meditate most of the day, in silence.

After going through 4–5 of these courses, I can say with confidence:

  1. With time and practice, you get better at dealing with the challenges in these courses. They remain difficult because you never know what you will encounter during the course.
  2. It is the greatest gift you can give yourself. We lead such extroverted lives that we barely know who we are. These 10 days act as a brief pause in our relentless, often directionless pursuits.
  3. There is no preparation required. In fact, people who read extensively before attending, or come with specific goals in mind, often find the course more challenging.
  4. For most people, it takes a couple of courses before they really grasp the teachings. Ten days is very little time to get your head around it.
  5. Sitting is a challenge, but we get better with practice. During my first ten-day course, I couldn’t sit still for more than 11 minutes, but now I can comfortably do one-hour sits (mostly).

After the course ends, you return to your life and are suggested to do two one-hour daily sits — one in the morning and one in the evening. This is the practice and, believe me, building this habit can be daunting. It is extremely hard to commit and it took me a long time to make a strong determination to do my two daily sits.

Sitting meditation is not a matter of taking on a special body posture, however powerful that may be. It is adopting a particular posture toward the mind. It is mind sitting.

— Jon Kabat-Zinn

Vipassana meditation is about changing the habit patterns of your mind. And, let me tell you, it is a massive undertaking. That’s the reason so many meditators are able to quit smoking and alcohol (or other habits) after developing the practice.

With all the context above, I hope I’ve hammered home two things very clearly:

  1. Developing this practice is hard work.
  2. Developing this practice is the most worthwhile endeavour you can undertake in this lifetime.

Yes, it is this one habit that changed everything for me. And there’s really no shortcut to it. And since we’re talking about habits how can we not bring up James Clear’s Atomic Habits?

Why Meditation habit can’t be ‘Atomic’?

I remember the book Atomic Habits getting popular around the time I was trying to build my meditation habit. My friends were raving about it on social media, and a client of mine even gifted me a copy, proclaiming it to be “life-altering.” I was skeptical. After reading it, I thought, “What’s the big deal?” I mean, yes, it’s on the bestseller list, but I wonder how can it help with building monumental habits like waking up at 4am or practicing Vipassana meditation. Those were my use-cases at that time anyway.

Flash forward to 2023, and I stumble upon James Clear on a podcast with none other than Tim Ferriss. They’re diving deep into the subject of positive habits and, lo and behold, meditation crops up.

James Clear talks about his four laws for creating habits: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying. I was curious how will James apply ‘make it easy’ principle to meditation practice.

“Make it easy. So rather than doing 15 or 20 minutes or 30 minutes of meditation, which hey, that sounds great because your favorite guru does it. But listen, why not just do 60 seconds?” — James Clear (Courtesy: The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss)

60 seconds of meditation? Wait, hold up, what? From my experience, I can say you might get 60 seconds of meditation if you sit for 60 minutes! That’s how much effort is required.

And why the effort? Why it can’t be made easy? We touched on this earlier. We’re dealing with years, even decades, of a mind that has been running amok, unchecked and largely unknown to us. This mind has been set in its ways for so long, and the only way to truly see and alter these patterns is through patience and unwavering determination. Or in other words by spending a lot of time on the cushion.

So here’s where I see James Clear’s angle. He’s breaking down habits into smaller, digestible pieces for the general masses. But meditation, especially Vipassana, is like scaling Mount Everest barefoot. There are no shortcuts, no cheat codes, and you can’t ‘make it easy’. Because when you do, you won’t experience the benefits.

Sorry Tim Ferriss, but there’s no life hack for this one. And to James Clear, sorry, but when it comes to meditation, we’re talking nuclear, not atomic. It’s not about making it easy; it’s about embracing the hard and diving into the depths of your being.

Only that day dawns to which we are awake.

— Henry David Thoreau

So, to my friends who might be reading this, think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. I shared my journey and insights to make it crystal clear that for monumental, high-leverage habits like Vipassana meditation, effort is the currency. It’s not about seeking shortcuts or watering down the practice for convenience. The immense transformation that comes from such habits is directly proportional to the dedication and work you put in.

I hope you take the first step, or the next step (whatever the case may be).

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