THE BLOG
09/23/2014 03:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Meditation: The Anti-Habit That Is the Ultimate Healthy Habit

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You've probably heard: meditation will improve your life. Research shows that it can shorten migraines, improve athletic performance, increase one's ability to focus and can be effective for reducing stress and managing anxiety. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

With the benefits so clear, why aren't we all practicing? It's not because the habit itself is complicated. On the contrary, practicing meditation involves setting aside time - from seconds to hours - to do nothing else. That's it. Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier, says, "It's nothing mystical. It's not magical. You are not floating off into cosmic ooze. You are just being where you are." However, like many healthy habits, meditation validates that just because it's simple, doesn't mean it's easy.

So what makes meditation so hard? Many say it's because we assume our wandering mind means we're bad at it, rather than accepting the practice is about noticing not clearing the mind. Tony Stubblebine, founder of Lift app and author of forthcoming book The Strongest Mind in the Room says it's a good thing our minds wander. "The skill you're developing is bringing it back to the present moment." And in his refreshing bluntness, Harris says, "News flash: Welcome to the human condition. Everybody's mind is out of control."

Our assessment that we're bad at it or unrealistic expectations that meditation is the "cure of all life's ills" can set us up for swift disappointment and abandonment. However, I believe that what makes this ultimate healthy habit so challenging is that it is the anti-habit. Practicing meditation encourages us to get up close and personal with the habitual tendencies of our mind, and in many cases, actually dismantle habitual behavior. For most of us afflicted with "the human condition," this tuning in requires more effort, and likely more discomfort, at least temporarily.

I experienced this in my own practice recently. Last week, about halfway through my 30-minute meditation, a strand of hair blew across my face. Under any other circumstance, my instinctive reaction would have been to scratch the itch. Like most habits -- healthy or otherwise -- my behavior would require no consciousness or purposeful movement. Habits are, after all, useful in that they allow us to put a behavior on automatic, so we don't have to think about them or make decisions related to them. Our energy and brain can be used elsewhere.

But because this itch was triggered while meditating, I simply paused at the sensation. Mindfulness is about interrupting the domino effect of thoughts triggered by an experience: assigning it an associated feeling, placing judgment on that feeling and then translating that into a desire. Pausing after the physical feeling and dispassionately noticing my discomfort allowed me to register the itch as neither positive nor negative and assess whether I wanted to act on my desire to make go away. While breathing and resisting my urge, the itch took care of itself without my intervention. As Peter Bregman says, "Your urges won't disappear, but you will be better equipped to manage them. And you will have experience that proves to you that the urge is only a suggestion. You are in control."

Don't get me wrong: there is nothing inherently wrong with scratching an itch or taking the quickest route to ameliorating discomfort, most of the time. But like you've probably experienced with a mosquito bite, perpetual scratching can not only elongate the feeling, it may even turn a few hour topical skin irritation into a scab requiring days to heal.

Mindfulness is just a tool that does not fix our problems but rather shifts our relationship with problems. Without mindfulness highlighting the discomfort and interrupting the habitual response, we're not even conscious of the itches we may be exacerbating and certainly are unable to evaluate how we want to be with or deal with feelings and problems. The exercise of concentrating on the breath and body and observing and letting go of thoughts is a habit that will make us more aware and less habitual in our daily interactions, beyond the set aside time.

If we can acknowledge that the anti-habitual effects and effort of consciousness are partly what make meditation hard, we can begin to truly just be where we are. It is in this practice that we will see where we habitually scratch, simply notice sensations and be more deliberate about how we follow through on our urges. And perhaps, without attachment, we can begin to experience the long list of benefits.