This morning, like every morning, I sat cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, rested my hands on my knees, closed my eyes, and did nothing but breathe for 20 minutes.
People say the hardest part about meditating is finding the time to meditate. This makes sense: who these days has time to do nothing? It’s hard to justify.
Meditation brings many benefits: It refreshes us, helps us settle into what’s happening now, makes us wiser and gentler, helps us cope in a world that overloads us with information and communication, and more. But if you’re still looking for a business case to justify spending time meditating, try this one: Meditation makes you more productive.
How? By increasing your capacity to resist distracting urges.
Research shows that an ability to resist urges will improve your relationships, increase your dependability, and raise your performance. If you can resist your urges, you can make better, more thoughtful decisions. You can be more intentional about what you say and how you say it. You can think about the outcome of your actions before following through on them.
Our ability to resist an impulse determines our success in learning a new behavior or changing an old habit. It’s probably the single most important skill for our growth and development.
As it turns out, that’s one of the things meditation teaches us. It’s also one of the hardest to learn.
When I sat down to meditate this morning, relaxing a little more with each out-breath, I was successful in letting all my concerns drift away. My mind was truly empty of everything that had concerned it before I sat. Everything except the flow of my breath. My body felt blissful and I was at peace.
For about four seconds.
Within a breath or two of emptying my mind, thoughts came flooding in — nature abhors a vacuum. I felt an itch on my face and wanted to scratch it. A great title for my next book popped into my head and I wanted to write it down before I forgot it. I thought of at least four phone calls I wanted to make and one difficult conversation I was going to have later that day. I became anxious, knowing I only had a few hours of writing time. What was I doing just sitting here? I wanted to open my eyes and look at how much time was left on my countdown timer. I heard my kids fighting in the other room and wanted to intervene.
Here’s the key though: I wanted to do all those things, but I didn’t do them. Instead, every time I had one of those thoughts, I brought my attention back to my breath.
Sometimes, not following through on something you want to do is a problem, like not writing that proposal you’ve been procrastinating on or not having that difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding.
But other times, the problem is that you do follow through on something you don’t want to do. Like speaking instead of listening or playing politics instead of rising above them.
Meditation teaches us to resist the urge of that counterproductive follow through.