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October 7th, 2020
Many of the habits that we wish to incorporate are in fact a small network of habits, and our chances of success rise as we break off pieces of this network and build a habit in parts. A meditation practice works as a very simple example.
Anyone with no experience in meditation has the sense that this is a practice of the mind, it has something to do with stillness and some sort of control over the frenetic hodgepodge of thoughts that inundate our waking lives. But before anyone starts a formal session of meditation, something else has to occur: sitting still.
What coasts right over the heads of everyone talking about meditation as a habit is that we first do something with the body. While meditation can become an integrated part of a person’s life, regardless of sitting, position or movement, when starting and when in formal practice, there’s an enormous benefit to keeping the body still. In simplest form, the explanation is that there’s just less to keep track of.
It runs to reason that individuals who attempt to begin a meditation practice are actually trying to pull off two tricks at once: there is the habit we hope to create for the mind, and then there is the habit of sitting still, which is so obvious, few if any seem to comment on it.
It stands further to reason that these two habits can be cleaved to leave one for a later date while the first gets properly installed. The natural order here is to create a habit of the body before tackling the habit that has to do with the mind.
How does this look in practice? Say, for instance, the first target habit is to sit for 10 minutes, everyday, with good posture, and perhaps to help aid this, a podcast is thrown on, or some music, or maybe even a video. Then, after a few weeks, once the body has found it’s groove and the sitting posture is actually enjoyable as opposed to being just another thing to think about, then the exercise of meditation is introduced.
What’s the point of breaking up a habit into smaller bits like this? Why not just dive in head and toe at the same time?
Breaking up a habit into consistent parts decreases the barrier to entry, it reduces the friction and makes it more likely that we can succeed in the longterm. Instead of: this is so hard, I have so many thoughts, and my back hurts, and I’m just uncomfortable, it becomes, well, I sit in this posture every morning anyway, might as well start figuring out what it means to meditate since I’ve already got this nailed.
This might seem inefficient, but over the long run it can be far more efficient than a dozen failed starts. It can also relieve some pressure about what it means to practice: it can be good enough to just sit, because just sitting can peacefully lead to a practice without the large foreboding that always accompanies a bigger task. Much procrastination and motivation simply boils down to being unable to start because the task is too big, too complex. Being unable to start is simply a euphemism for not knowing where to start. Once we’ve found the thin edge of the wedge, it’s always much easier to move forward to the next piece. Breaking up habits, as with sitting and mental practice for a full-fledged meditation practice can make the process of forming that habit a bit simpler.