21 Day Meditation Experience: The Ultimate Keystone Habit

I Can’t Stand Sitting

I’d rather do about anything other than meditate. A mid-afternoon, late July, three-hour, outdoor Crossfit class in Las Vegas sounds more pleasant than twenty minutes on my cushion alone with my thoughts. I’m prone to anxiety, perpetually attempting to cram ten pounds of crap into a five pound bag, and always itching to do something physically active. Intentionally sitting still with nothing but the noise in my head is a guaranteed way for me to create instant discomfort.

So why the hell would I do this to myself?

If you search the keywords “meditation" and “science”, you can dive into the hundreds of articles that report the undeniable scientific benefits of a practice. To make a long story short, it literally rewires your brain. To bring this down to its simplest explanation, meditation can form new neural pathways that change the way you perceive your reality, which then have a further effect on other parts of your physiology. That’s right: the mind affecting the physical brain, affecting the mind, affecting the body. As expressed in my daily life, it could mean the way I respond to stress, personal relationships, my experience of pain, my relationship to anxiety, blood pressure, cortisol levels - how happy I am.

This list goes on and on, yet isn’t enough for me to consistently stick with a practice. For me to really commit to a new habit, my “why” has to be big enough. Even though the evidence is very compelling, I had to find reasons that were personal, and based on real experiences I had from dipping in and out of a practice. At the time of this writing, I have gone through several 21 Day meditation challenges and am again in the middle of another.

Dropping the Pebble

A keystone habit is like the stone dropped into a pool of still water - the ripples reaching boundaries far from its origin of entry. These are the habits that either hold other habits in place, or that lead to the automatic and effortless formation of new ones. Exercise is a classic example of a keystone habit. Say that I decide to start a workout program and end up sticking to it. I find that early morning is the only time that works, and I like the energy it gives me in the beginning of the day. Without really intending it, I just created the habit of getting up earlier. Many studies have shown that people who consistently exercise also eat better as a result. Soon enough, the habit of healthier eating decisions has also been instilled. I then discover that my Saturday morning cycling group gives me more enjoyment than my Friday night drinking one. Now I've stopped drinking on Friday nights. I start looking and feeling better, which gives me more confidence, and that leads to proactively forming new relationships. So what if there was a keystone habit that went a layer deeper? One that gave you a kind of x-ray vision into how all your other habits get formed? 

Showing Up for my Life

The Zombie Apocalypse is already here. 

The Zombie Apocalypse is already here. 

My biggest “why” for keeping a mindfulness practice is the same that prompted me to start these 21 Day experiments: a massive chunk of my life is on autopilot. The reason why so many of my habits get formed unintentionally is that I am usually not very present for much of the experience leading into them. In other words, I am doing one thing, but my mind is somewhere else. I am unaware of the cue, the routine, and the reward of the habit that gets created because I am perpetually distracted, and have no idea what’s going on inside of me. Visit any busy area you’ll witness a sea of little, illuminated screens. People routinely taking phones in and out of their pockets, tapping at displays, and walking around while staring into their palms. Yet, that’s not the crazy part. The really wild part is that this is all happening unconsciously. There’s a slight feeling of unrecognized boredom, so I reach into my pocket and take out my phone. I open up Instagram or email and poke around at it for a few minutes. I feel momentarily better about the newness of this content. Ten minutes later, I repeat the process, still not remotely aware of the impetus for the action - not a clue as to what I’m actually experiencing inside. The average person does this with their phone 85 times per day. 1

This is just one of hundreds of possible examples that might occur in my day where I am acting unconsciously. Showing up is about connecting with emotions that come up in me, and then making conscious decisions about how to address them. It’s about something happening in my life, and having the space to respond, not impulsively react. It’s about playing with my son, during this fleeting window of him being a toddler, and really being there for it. Really seeing him, listening, engaging, and not drifting off into circular thoughts about the work I need to do, what I might snack on later, or unconsciously checking my phone. This is about showing up for my life, because it goes by so quickly. How do I become more present for my life and the habits that make it up? I practice.

The Practice

My daughter, before junior high, long before her iPhone

My daughter, before junior high, long before her iPhone

There are even more types of meditation than there are articles explaining its scientific validity. Like any wellness program, this abundance of choice can make the entire thing very intimidating. To make matters worse, there are many misconceptions about meditation. For a long time, I thought it was only for hippies, religious zealots or kung-fu masters. However, the biggest misconception, and the one that I bought into and found the most discouraging, is that there is some goal or achievement to be reached. That if I can just get good enough at it, I’ll eventually be able to stop my thoughts and become “enlightened". This changed when I reframed meditation from a destination, to a journey and a practice. Professional athletes practice. They do this so that they can work on becoming proficient at a skill during a time without the pressures that unfold during a competitive match. My game-day is everyday life. It’s the place I need the skills of focus, equanimity and self-awareness. My practice field is on a cushion, before the day actually starts.

The millions of styles aside, the simplest of meditations is just putting some time aside to focus on something, notice when thoughts and feeling surface, and then come back to the area of focus again. Just a little time to practice focus and observation, in a safe and quiet environment so that I can then bring those skills into my every day life. An example of an area of focus might be my breath. It’s pretty convenient being that it’s always with me, and I rarely, if ever notice it while doing anything else. So I sit here and focus on my breath. Maybe just on the physical sensations of air drifting in and out of my lungs. Then thoughts come up. Often, I don’t actually notice the thought coming up and I become lost in it. As I continue along with the story in my head, I remember “Oh yeah! My breath! I’m not feeling that anymore.” Then I just gently turn my attention back to my breath. Over, and over and over. Like practicing a return on that tennis serve, preforming that chess move, or playing that instrument. Each time, getting just a little more comfortable and feeling a bit more natural with process.

There's a lot more to come on this topic. In the meantime, if trying this for 21 Days interests you, the Headspace meditation app has been very helpful in giving me a little structure and guidance. It's free for the first 10 days, so you can see if it works for you. You can also check out this article and guided meditation to help curtail anxiety, which is one of my biggest motivators to stay with a sitting practice. As always, I love hearing about everyone's experiences with these challenges! 

-Elijah Szasz


1 Dr Sally Andrews, a psychologist in Nottingham Trent University's School of Social Sciences: The work, published in the journal Plos One, found people were accessing their phones twice as often as they thought. Researchers also found smartphone use was typically confined to short bursts, with more than half of uses lasting less than 30 seconds. The researchers argue 'rapid mobile phone interactions' are becoming habitual for smartphone users.