What can meditation teach us about creating habits?

By Parisa Hashempour

Published 20 July 2020

Building strong habits help us achieve our daily goals. Getting changed, taking a shower or commuting are all examples of useful and outcome-driven activities anchored so deeply in our behavioral patterns that they often feel automatic and effortless to us. Some habits become so automated that our conscious thought is no longer involved in the process.

Habits aren’t always that easy to build. But it’s certainly much easier to acquire new habits when you’re settled into a routine. The problem is that many mindless habits (like routinely buying a morning snack from the vending machine at the same time every day) are often not the healthiest.

And as they become incorporated into our daily routines, we lose the ability to control them and understand how they’re affecting us.

How to make mindfulness a habit

The Brahma Kumaris movement teaches a form of Raja Yoga meditation that aims to hold meditative states while engaged in the daily tasks of everyday life.

It looks at how we can perform various daily tasks mindfully and helps us to understand what habits are, how they are created, how they operate and, most importantly, how they affect us.

It identifies three main forces responsible for habits: the intellect (which assesses and judges information in order to make decisions and reach conclusions) the conscious mind (a blank screen receiving information from the senses and the external world) and sanskars (an impression or record of an experience that is often unconscious but gets deeper whenever the experience is repeated and can be used to influence your choice of actions).

The interaction between them gives insight into the process of habit-formation.

So, what is a habit?

According to Raja Yoga meditation, the process of habit creation looks something like this: let’s imagine that you work in an office space with a nearby vending-machine.

  • Step 1

On your way back from lunch, you often see people buying snacks from it, most of which aren’t healthy options. It triggers a thought in your conscious mind about the possibility of following suit.

  • Step 2

Your intellect assesses this, decides it’s unhealthy and you decide not to buy a snack.

  • Step 3

But everyday you are exposed to the same routine and the stimulus is present every time. One day, your intellect decides that it’s OK for you to buy a snack once, so you do.

  • Step 4

You now have an impression of the snack, a sanskar. If you don’t enjoy the snack, you won’t do it again.

However, if it’s a positive experience (if you enjoy the taste, the moment, the ensuing sugar-fuelled energy-boost), then you have a rational reason to continue.

  • Step 5

Your intellect now decides to repeat this experience.

  • Step 6

The impression of the experience (the sanskar ) gets deeper every time until you are operating only on the interaction between conscious mind and sanskar.

  • Step 7

Your intellect is no longer engaged in the process. You have created a habit.

What is meditation doing to your health
Designed by katemangostar / Freepik

How can meditation help me build habits?

Meditation helps us to channel our thoughts and increase our awareness of how they are generated and relate to each other.  It also trains the intellect to assess these thoughts and gain critical distance between our “gut instincts” and rational thought-process.

Kalen Pino, US Sales Manager at Virtuagym notices that “When I meditate regularly, I feel that I am able to approach any situation in two minds: one presents the stimulus to my mind and the other assesses my response and course of action. It helps me to avoid responding impulsively to a stimulus without assessing the situation first”.

Understanding this process can help us change our habits by becoming more aware of when our intellect ceases to assess and judge a certain course of action.

Without the intellect, it is difficult to spot when a habit stops being a positive experience and starts to impact us negatively, for instance when I accumulate “sugar-crashes” after my snack and become increasingly unproductive.

The intellect is like a muscle, the more we use it, the more we increase its power. Meditating regularly teaches us how to engage our intellect consciously. 

By gaining awareness of the separation between our intellect and our behaviour, we can increase the discerning power of our intellect and its influence on our chosen course of action, increasing the control that we have over our daily habits.

Useful tip for meditation

If you don’t have 20 minutes to spare, find meditating too challenging or struggle to channel your thoughts, you can use this time to focus on the flow of your breath, mentally count from 1 to 5 and 5 to 1 repeatedly or simply think of meditation as a moment of “quiet time” that you allow yourself and that can last as little as 1 minute.

You can access meditation practices and mindfulness challenges on Virtuagym’s PRO Stronger Together membership feature.

Parisa Hashempour

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