Everything, absolutely everything, starts with consciousness and awareness.
In January 2020 a paper I wrote – The Resilience Bank Account (RBA) – will be published in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery. It is a practical and scientific review of 6 critical habits or skills (sleep, exercise, meditation, self-compassion, gratitude, connection) that have been scientifically shown to make a real difference in our mental and physical health.
The regular practice of these habits help us stay Above The Line, in the zone of being our Best Selves.
The other day someone asked me which habit I thought was the most critical? They were just starting out and trying to tackle them all at once would be overwhelming and defeating. My first impulse was sleep. But as I thought about it I changed my mind.
If I had to pick just one to start with it would be meditation. Right now you may be shouting – “but what about sleep, nutrition, exercise?? They are foundational elements to our mental and physical health”. I agree, totally. But even if you already have those three habits under your belt, we all still face a huge problem, every day.
The environment. The environment of our lives – home, work, the streets, the world at large – and the environment of our mind – thoughts, emotions, impulses. The outside world and our inside world are always conspiring to drag us Below The Line, into the zone of being our Worst Selves.
We don’t always get to get 7-9 hours of perfect sleep, despite our best efforts. We don’t always get to eat the right foods, despite our best efforts. And we don’t always get to exercise, despite our best efforts. The environment and life can get in the way and drag you Below The Line. So sometimes we end up tired and irritable. Sometimes we end up stressed because we didn’t get to work out.
It is during these inevitable times when we are struggling, when we are dipping Below The Line, that we must have a backup generator so to speak, for when our power and resources are low, to keep the mental lights on. Meditation is that back up generator.
In his excellent book Triggers, Marshall Goldsmith talks about habits and the classic habit loop described by Charles Duhigg and James Clear – there is a stimulus, then a response, and then a reward, all driven by a craving that develops over time. Think feeling stressed, glass of wine, then calm. Or driving by Dairy Queen, pulling in, licking ice cream cone.
Goldsmith adds a new layer to the sequence. He wants us to broaden the response into 3 separate moments: Impulse – Awareness – Choice. So the response, for example driving into Dairy Queen is now broken down into
Stimulus – driving by Dairy Queen.
Impulse – “man Dairy Queen – that would taste great now, I am hungry, I deserve a treat anyway, it is hot out….”
Awareness – the space to wake up from the trance of the impulse.
Choice – once awake, and in a different mental space, one can actually realize that they have a choice. Pull in or keep going.
Reward – pull in = ice cream. Keep going = healthy choice, feel good about self, no further weight gain.
We are not rats in an experiment, but we often blindly and unconsciously following our impulses, all day long, out to their natural ending. Unlike rats, we have the capacity for intelligence and engagement. When we are tired or stressed our cortex goes off line, our reserves are low, and we are most susceptible to dipping Below The Line, into the zone of being our Worst Selves.
Goldsmith makes the point that our unthinking and often rat like responses in our interpersonal interactions is particularly perilous territory, even when we are rested and not stressed. It is easy to be triggered by people, especially by those close to us. Throw in fatigue, stress, etc and the risk goes up exponentially. Get triggered by someone and say something reactive that you didn’t mean and….well we have all been there, either on the giving or receiving end of it.
The result? Hurt feelings, anger, misunderstanding, resentment, separation, disconnection. Damaged relationships.
Meditation is the only practice I know of that specifically enhances and strengthens our awareness of what the hell is going on with our emotions, thoughts, and impulses. It doesn’t stop them. It does keep us from being shackled to them as if we are in an impulse chain gang. It opens the door to a moment of awareness, just enough to pause, reflect, and to choose.