Being mindful and meditating are not just ways to reduce stress and improve wellbeing; they’re techniques to strengthen self-awareness, lower reactivity, and improve self-discipline. When you meditate, you activate the parts of your brain responsible for self-control, strengthening those neural connections. Meditation is not just a discrete activity but a way of life. Find ways to become aware throughout the day and use these feelings of calm control and mindfulness to reconnect to your self-discipline. Pause, become aware of what’s going on inside you and outside you in your environment, and notice your thoughts and feelings without judgment or interpretation.
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No book on self-discipline and productivity would be complete without a mention of mindfulness. By now, almost everyone knows that meditation is a powerful way to combat stress, cultivate greater wellbeing and develop greater self-awareness. There’s no doubt that regular meditation connects us to our spirituality, helps us tune into our values, gives us time and space to experience gratitude, and improves body awareness. Something you may not be aware of, though, is meditation’s capacity to help you strengthen your self-control.
The reason is that meditation and mindfulness practices have been shown via neuroimaging studies to increase neural activation and boost connectivity in those parts of the brain we know are related to self-regulation. A 2014 study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences strongly suggests that meditation is not just great for stress and mental wellbeing, but for self-discipline. If you’ve ever meditated for any length of time, you can probably guess why. The task of the meditator is essentially one of quiet self-regulation and control. So far in this book we’ve spoken about becoming aware of patterns and the source of behaviors, and of pausing to take the time to consciously choose differently. This awareness and consciousness are exactly what is being developed when we meditate.
Meditation trains us to be more aware and less emotionally reactive. Thus, we are aware of our emotions as emotions, and are conscious and awake enough to choose how we react, rather than getting carried away with distraction, addiction, fear, and laziness.
Meditation requires discipline, but discipline is also fostered with the ongoing practice of meditation. When we sit down to meditate, day after day, no matter what, we strengthen our resolve and learn habits that translate into every area of life. We gain perspective, practice being consistent, and notice the rising and falling of challenges, excitement, distractions. We watch them arise and watch them pass. Our commitment is like a rock in the stream—they flow around and past us.
How to Use This in Your Life Immediately
People can be intimidated by meditation or view it as a boring, complicated slog. It isn’t. It’s very, very simple:
Step 1: Have a little faith that learning anything new takes patience and a little motivation.
Step 2: Set your intention. Remember that small steps maintained consistently are more valuable than quantum leaps. For example, decide that you will meditate for a minimum of five minutes every single day, rain or shine.
Step 3: Follow through. When you encounter an obstacle, smile and make friends with it. Watch yourself pushing past it. Practice self-compassion—you don’t need to be perfect, just pitch up, be kind to yourself, and be aware. Notice that over time, you are improving. Even if all you do one day is sit down and fight with yourself in your head for ten minutes, fine. Just become aware of that. And the next day, sit down again and become aware again. Sometimes, the biggest strides made in your practice are not during your time spent mediating, but the time between sessions.
That said, it’s worth making sure that you’re not undermining your meditation efforts during the rest of your day. Do your best to stay mindful always, not just when you’re meditating. Pay attention to what’s going on in your body, in your mind, and in your environment. Pause, take a deep breath and become aware of your options. This alone will build up grey matter in your brain’s self-regulation centers. Notice how your diet, sleep habits, and consumption of mind-altering substances (yes, that includes caffeine, alcohol, and over-the-counter medications!) affects your state of mind, and commit to reducing them. Finally, any type of meditation can be beneficial, but simple breathing meditations or guided forms may be best for beginners.
Keep Calm, Keep Mindful
Meditation is a more formalized way to practice being mindful, aware and conscious in each moment. A daily meditation practice will definitely bring more peace and relaxation into your life, but you don’t need to do formal meditation practices to bring more mindfulness and calm into your life. It’s a mistake to think that a hectic, reactive, and negative lifestyle can be cancelled out with just twenty minutes sitting on a cushion! In other words, it’s better to practice stillness and awareness as a way of life rather than a discrete event you do now and then.
When you are calm, quiet and centered, you are incredibly powerful. If you can pause and open a space of awareness for yourself in the moment, then you give yourself access to possibilities. You become aware of your choices and can make those choices consciously. You are les emotionally reactive, less stressed, less rushed, and far more likely to tune into your values and principles, as well as your long-term goals and commitments.
Being calm and quiet is not just something that feels nice, or something we do to counteract stress. Learning to regularly quieten down our nervous system actually sets the stage for discipline, mindfulness and intelligent choices. We are able to be mentally, emotion ally and physically resilient. Self-discipline and being cool, calm and collected go hand in hand.
How to Use This in Your Life Immediately
What does this actually look like, day to day?
If you practice meditation regularly, you’ll strengthen that muscle that allows you to stop in the middle of an emotionally charged moment and say, “Wait a second. What am I feeling right now? What’s going on?” If you’re aware of yourself becoming stressed, unhappy, over-tired, or angry, then you can push the pause button. Create a little bit of space for yourself. Imagine it as opening a small window in your awareness for some fresh air.
Now, take some deep belly breaths, focusing on making the exhale longer. This will regulate your central nervous system and signal to your body that it’s time to relax. From this state, you can let your higher, conscious mind take action according to what actually matters to you.
Try to notice what you’re feeling, body and mind. Try to put a word to your emotion and notice what your body is doing. No judgment—just awareness. Tell yourself that these feelings are transient and will pass.
If you’re really stressed or alarmed, sometimes the best thing you can do is engage in physical activity. Go for a run or long walk or do something like deep clean your kitchen. This releases tension and channels emotions into energy and action. Alternatively, you could ask your body what it needs and find you feel better after listening to some music, taking a break, or doing something that makes you feel good. A little bit of fresh air, a deep stretch to release tension from slouching, or a brief mindfulness exercise can center and ground you.
If you notice yourself getting carried away with thoughts, it may help to write them down. This slows anxious rumination (try the Stoic activity from above) and helps you narrow down what’s bothering you. You’ll find that simply dumping thoughts somewhere “out there” in the world brings clarity and a sense of calm.
It can be hard to remain calm if you have a high-pressure job or are dealing with life challenges. But remember, you can always pause to take a breath, become aware of where you are, and consciously take action in the direction you choose. Don’t rush. If necessary, ask people for more time or tell them you’ll get back to them. Set boundaries. A calmer life for many people means more delegation and dropping clutter, literal or metaphorical, from their lives.