A 7 minute read. This is part 1 of a 5 part series on great morning habits. Adopt these to improve your whole life. Subscribe to get the rest of the series to your inbox.
In 2008 I visited a good friend in Spain. Josh had moved there on a whim a few months earlier. He didn’t know anyone, had no job lined up, and didn’t speak the language, so I had to admire his fearlessness.
You can understand then that I was surprised to witness his panic attack.
We started with a string of days in Alicante drinking until sunrise, then drove eight hours to catch a ferry to Morocco. We had planned this trip for months, a 3-week odyssey through North Africa.
The ferry cut the cold Mediterranean in the silent night as we slept off hangovers. At the far shore we were barred from leaving the ship: we didn’t have the right papers, or enough French to fix the simple situation.
Eventually they let us in. Tangier was not the exotic, 1920s-classy port of call we expected. In these small hours the port was bristling with scar-faced gunrunner stereotypes and hash-fueled 14-year-old urchins. It felt like a distant planet.
The hotel was accessible only by foot through the labyrinth of the old city. The walls choked in on us as we heaved our backpacks past men drinking in alleyways, to find the hotel dark, its heavy wooden gate shut.
Our knocking roused the ancient desk clerk in his hooded robe who led us to a small room overlooking the sea and we slept.
At 5am the mosque loudspeaker began the call to prayer. It’s a sound I’ve heard many times before, and normally a beautiful, joyful celebration to God.
But in this place it felt angry, like a tyrant threatening reprisal for misbehavior in some dystopian novel.
I was on edge, but Josh was unraveling. He panicked.
“I can’t handle this place, I’m getting back on the ferry,” he said.
“Why don’t you try meditating?” I said. It always worked to clear my anxiety.
I sat him in a chair and asked him to follow his breath.
“In your mind say ‘so’ on the in-breath, and ‘ham’ on the out-breath. ‘Ham-so-ham-so-ham-so…”
Back to this story in a minute, but first...
I started meditating after reading this book by American meditation teacher Lama Surya Das. I liked the idea of more peace in my life so I tried it. After a few sessions I saw the appeal. Only 5 minutes of quiet breathing gave me mild bliss. By month’s end, friends and family commented on my new, grounded energy. I felt stronger.
I was amazed that meditation was simple, and didn’t feel exotic. It involved only attention to my breath, counting 1 to 10 on each in- and out-breath, which helps bring your attention back when it wanders. What’s more natural than breathing?
Since then I’ve learned other meditations – body scans, mindfulness of body & sounds, choiceless awareness, chakra clearing, yoga – but they share a root: they’re simple ways to practice paying attention.
You can picture meditation in this simple way: it’s like sitting on the bank of a river – from time to time you will get pulled into the (thought) stream, then pull yourself out, over and over, sit again and watch the river (your thoughts) go by without getting caught up in it.
Don’t feel bad if you get pulled in. So do Zen masters. Repeatedly pulling yourself out is the heart of the practice.
Here’s the biggest benefit of meditation: after your 10 or 20 minutes of practice, that ability to pay attention continues into your day. You approach everything with a more care.
When I meditate regularly I have:
My anecdotal experience aside, the scientific case for meditation is strong.
Do you think you might find 10 minutes a day to create your new morning habit?
Too many people reject meditation because they think it’s something it’s not. It’s too blasphemous, too foreign, too fluffy, takes too much time.
You might have said, “Who has 10 minutes a day to sit still? I’m on a deadline. In my off-time I’d rather play video games, or hang out with my family.”
You don’t have 10 minutes a day to completely change your life?
I was raised with the same misconceptions. I thought meditation meant disconnecting from the world, renouncing my interest in politics and current events, in my job, in gaming, in sex and all those “worldly things.” I thought it meant emptying my head and self-lobotomizing so I can “bliss out” and live on a beach somewhere in my saffron robes.
It’s none of this. In fact, meditation helps us build deeper connections with humans, get better at work, and make more money. Meditation frees us to be extremely connected to our wants and desires but helps strip away all the stress and panic that comes with ambition.
Want a Ferrari? Step 1: meditate.
Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.
— Benjamin Franklin
My mornings start like this: feet hit the floor, I put on comfortable clothes, and I meditate for 10 minutes. Normally I do a super-easy yoga meditation, something I learned from Jon Kabat-Zinn:
That’s all you need to do, but here’s a bonus, if you want:
It takes only 10 minutes before the “noise” starts to plant the seeds for an incredible day. Normally I do another 10-minute breathing meditation on my commute.
Hell, you can even do a mini meditation if you have even one minute to close your eyes.
Why not make this habit part of your morning routine?
Josh did sit in that chair in the Moroccan hotel room and say to himself ham-so-ham-so-ham-so for about five minutes and guess what?
He was still freaking out at the end of it. I suppose you expected me to say he was cured?
No. Josh got back onto the ferry and went home. Ask him and he will say that, “your little ‘ham-so’ trick didn’t help.”
Do not expect instant results with meditation. 5 minutes is a good start but you will notice results only after a few weeks of consistent practice.
Meditation is like exercising: you don’t do it once and expect to lose ten pounds.
Meditation is like showering: you don’t do it once and say, “I smell like roses.”
I will make you a deal: try it for ten minutes a day for 2 weeks and if you don’t find more peace, focus, and energy, I’ll let you write a guest post about your experience.
Do you meditate? How has it changed your life? Let me know in the comments, I reply to every one.