The biggest lie you tell yourself

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by Penelope Trunk

The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that meditating is not a high priority.

First of all, if you don’t realize how much science there is behind meditation, you must be living under a rock. And the book I’m currently kvelling over, The Happiness Advantage, says that meditation, just five minutes a day, is one of the most reliable ways to increase our natural tendency toward happiness.

But I don’t want to sound too girly when I tell you to meditate. So I’m telling you instead that the Marine Corp is using meditation to help troops cope with the stress of warfare. Imagine fifty guys sitting cross-legged, eyes shut, with a rifle in every lap. The marines were totally skeptical at first, of course, but in Men’s Journal (one of my favorite magazines) there’s a great article by Vanessa Gregory about how the soldiers became believers. (This article is not online. Annoying. So here’s a link to Science Daily article about Marines meditating.)

Also, I don’t want to sound like an overly spiritualized hippie cliché, so I’m also telling you that I learned to meditate when I was playing professional beach volleyball. Many professional athletes meditate because at that level, everyone has the skills to be the best, but only a few have the mental strength to use those skills in the toughest moments.

And, in case you think this doesn’t apply to you, a marriage therapist once told me (and my boyfriend, when we were deciding to skip out on counseling so we could save money for new computers) that you judge a person, and a couple, and an athlete, not by how good they are when there is no pressure, but on how well they handle themselves when everything is going wrong. So people should learn to mediate when things don’t feel terrible. It’s like networking when you have a job: make a big change from a strong position.

Another thing, though. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite when I tell you to meditate. Because, I know all this stuff and I’m not doing it.

Well, that’s not true. I have done it before. As I said, I did it for volleyball. I sat, quietly, for twenty minutes a night, visualizing serve receive. I was playing against the Olympic team nearly every tournament (yes, because I was ranked so low on the tour) and I had to really, really focus in order to make good passes from their serves.

When I was meditating, and playing on the beach five hours a day and lifting weights an hour a day, my favorite part of the day was meditating. But when I gave up volleyball, I gave up meditating.

Then I did yoga (which is about breathing, so it counts as meditation). I was doing such hard-core yoga that I was waking up at 5am, doing ninety minutes of yoga, going home to sleep from complete exhaustion, and going into work late. Five days a week. And I loved it. But when I got fired from the job (for being late, among other things) and I had all the time in the world as an unemployed person, I stopped doing yoga.

It’s insane not to meditate because it helps all aspects of your life—intellectual, emotional, physical. And it only takes five minutes. You just need to sit for five minutes, and even if you are terrible at meditating and your mind races and you struggle to sit still, those five minutes are still beneficial.

Beneficial because first of all, you get better and better at calming yourself with each five-minute stint you do. But also, some of the most influential (on me) research I‘ve ever featured on this blog is from Roy Baumeister who shows (repeatedly) that self-discipline snowballs; if you add one, small thing that requires self-discipline, and do it day after day, exerting self-discipline in other areas because easier.

In the example I first read from Baumeister was when he had students walk with a book on their head each day. They had to have good posture and think about what they were doing to do it—which is basic mindfulness about the book on the head. They did it only for a very short time each day, but without anyone in the study mentioning anything about eating, studying or sleep, the majority of the people walking with books on their head each day inadvertently improved in all three of those areas. Self-discipline begets self-discipline.

Also, I am stuck on Shawn Achor’s report that we have a limited degree of willpower. But we can improve it by adding small, soon-to-be-routine acts of self-discipline. And what could be easier than sitting still for five minutes? I mean, you don’t have to do anything. Just sit there. How can we not be able to do this?

I rack my brain every day for the reason I do not do it. I was thinking, if someone paid me $10 each time I sat for five minutes, I’d do it. I’d tell myself I would have $3650 to spend at the end of the year, and then every day, for a year, I’d look through catalogues figuring out how to spend my money.

So I definitely can do this.

What is stopping me? I’ve been thinking for a week, and I think it’s a fear of change. I think I know that sitting for five minutes a day will change me. First, I’ll like it, and I’ll sit a bit longer. Then I’ll be curious about what tips people give newbie meditators. And then I’ll get a little better.

And then, I worry that maybe I’ll be a nutcase. I mostly think people who meditate are nutcases. They are the ones who are always talking about how in touch with themselves they are. And how being where you are now is so important. It annoys me.

But I’m always talking about that stuff, too. So I think meditation maybe will push me over the top. Like, how can I be cool and meditate?

When I tell the farmer I worry about this, he points out that I am not cool anyway. He used to think I was cool, but then I took him to NYC to hang out with my friends there, and then he saw that I’m the dork of my NYC friends.

So, the truth is that I guess I am all those things I don’t want to be: I’m a little too girly for a blog that has a majority-male readership. And I’m a little too spiritual for a blog that tells people, ostensibly, how to make more money, and I’m a little too hypocritical. Because your biggest problem is that you are not meditating and it’s so easy to do. My biggest problem is that I am telling you to do it instead of doing it myself.

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