ThIs is part 4 in the Willpower Workout Series. If you missed it, you can catch up here:
Part 1: Scone: 1, willpower: zip. Is there a way to give your willpower a workout?
Part 2: 2 proven ways to give your willpower a workout
Part 3: 5 minute willpower workout #1: Exercise, the closest thing to a willpower magic bullet
Part 4: 5 minute anti-anxiety paint and willpower workout: How to meditate in 5 simple steps
When I was a kid, one of the favorite books for my sisters and me was called Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint. When Danny used that paint, all the rules of gravity as we know them didn’t apply. Imagine the possibilities.
A meditation practice has much the same impact on anxiety that Danny’s anti-gravity paint has on gravity. Anxiety is a good catch-all term for mounting stress, uncertainty and the wild array of uncontrollables that we call life. I don’t need to tell you how easy it is to get caught up in the messiness.
Mounting stress chips away at your willpower and leads to cravings. It’s not your fault – it’s part of the brain’s rescue mechanism. Your brain not only wants to protect your life, it wants to protect your mood. Your brain kicks in the craving for whatever it associates with “reward”, whether it’s an activity or a substance. See Stress eating: No wonder we crave chocolate and not broccoli. The promise of that reward can initiate all kinds of behaviors that are the least logical. You find yourself doing the exact opposite of what you know is compatible with your weight loss, health, and body – shaping goals. Don’t worry, there is a way out.
The brain, it turns out, is especially susceptible to temptation when we’re feeling bad. Scientists have come up with clever ways to stress out their laboratory subjects, and the results are always the same. When smokers imagine a trip to the dentist, they experience off-the-chart cravings for a cigarette. When binge-eaters are told they will have to give a speech in public, they crave high-fat, sugary foods. Stressing out lab rats with unpredictable electric shocks (to the body, not the brain’s reward center!) will make them run for sugar, alcohol, heroin, or whatever reward researchers have made available in their cage. Outside the laboratory, real-world stress increases the risk of relapse among smokers, recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, and dieters.
When you’re feeling down, what do you do to feel better? If you’re like most people, you turn to the promise of reward. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the most commonly used strategies for dealing with stress are those that activate the brain’s reward system: eating, drinking, shopping, watching TV, surfing the web, and playing video games.~ Kelly McGonigal, PhD., The Willpower Instinct.
Meditation practice disentangles us from this mess. It restores calm and perspective, which is a neurological response to the meditation process. You don’t have to “believe in” anything for it to work. Meditation is not a religion, so you don’t have to “sign up” for anything to start. Perhaps you already have a meditation practice and are doing it. Or maybe you practice has gotten rusty.
The process that makes meditation your easy-access anti-anxiety paint is the same one that makes meditation your willpower workout. There are several simple techniques you can utilize for meditation. You can practice one right now. Let’s get started.
How to meditate for 5 minutes in 5 simple steps
1) Sit comfortably in a chair or on a floor cushion. If you are just getting started, I don’t even care if you lie down, just so you don’t fall asleep. If you find that you get drowsy reclining, then sit. I just don’t want you to find one more excuse not to get started. You can start tomorrow morning in bed before you get up.
2) Close your eyes.
3) Let your bones drop into the chair or cushion. You want to be alert yet relaxed.
4) Bring your attention to your breath. At the nose, belly, or throat. Every time you notice that your mind has wandered (and it will) to planning, reflecting, or desire, simply bring your attention back to the point of focus. No judgement, just bring it back, like an observer. The more your mind wanders, the more you get to practice coming back. And it is this very process of concentration with the return of focus that is building that pre-frontal cortex willpower muscle. Yay! You’re doing it right!
5) Sit still. That means don’t move. When hit with the urge to shift or scratch, don’t. This trains you to find the pause between stimulus and habituated response, which is the exact point of making choices. By flexing this muscle during meditation, you strengthen it just like any muscle. Practicing not scratching that itch translated directly to not eating that cookie.
There you have it. Start with 5 minutes every day for a week. Just commit to that much. If your mind keeps wandering during your meditation, it doesn’t matter. It is the practice of returning to the point of concentration that this meditation is all about. If you miss a day, it doesn’t matter. No one’s perfect. Just pick up your practice the next day. Let go of that perfectionist anxiety just as you let go of wandering thoughts, and come back to the breath. It’s the mindfulness that loads your willpower reserves.
After a week, try 2 chunks of 5 minute meditation. Back-to-back or at 2 points during the day.
The 5 simple steps meditation has a bigger reach than you might think
Make no mistake. The simple 5 step focus-on-your-breath of this 5 minute meditation is a proven willpower-training agent. Its effects will sneak up on you in surprising and delightful ways. A meditation practice was the single biggest factor in my dramatic change to a 50-lb weight loss. Yes, the exercise and diet are critical – they are the physical tools and I absolutely couldn’t have done it without them. Yet my whole point here is to show you how mindset activities (Boot Camp Mind) and meditation practice are actually physical tools as well that make the difference and may well be your missing link. “It’s all in your head” is no longer nebulous, it’s concrete. The pre-frontal cortex of your brain is a goldmine. Go for the gold.
Have you a favorite simple meditation technique that you like to use? Please share in comments.
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