All of humanity’s problems stem from
man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
If Pascal said that in the 17th century, what he would say today, when most people can’t spend one minute alone without unlocking their phone? A study from the University of Virginia found that many people would rather be electrically shocked than left alone with their thoughts. No wonder, then, that some people avoid meditation!
Meditation is a purposeful way to “sit quietly in a room alone”. I’m not sure it will solve all of humanity’s problems, but more than 6,000 scientific studies show its benefits for physical health, mental performance, relationships, and emotional wellbeing. (See summary here.)
What I will cover now is how meditation boosts your self-discipline. It improves memory, moods, baseline happiness, and wellbeing. It gives you the ability to pause, resisting distraction, and “zooming out” to get clarity. It creates more space inside of you—for your goals and aspirations. It allows you to change your self-talk, and it optimizes your brain, so you can master your mind and master your life. Let’s unpack these benefits.
Meditation Improves Memory and More
Meditation improves memory. In modern life, our brain’s “working memory” is usually full, overloaded with input coming from all sources, crowding out our goals and aspirations, our commitments and resolutions. We forget them, and then thus we don’t make consistent progress. Meditation allows us to keep our goals in mind when making decisions throughout the day.
Meditation improves moods, decreases stress, and increases baseline happiness. It actually decreases the part of the brain responsible for stress, anxiety, fear, and anger. Fear of mental or emotional pain is the main reason why we procrastinate and why we don’t persevere in our goals. If we know how to embrace and process mental and emotional pain, we don’t need to procrastinate.
Meditation enhances wellbeing, making you more content and happier with yourself—and that increases your tolerance for discomfort. This buffers us against life’s challenges, making us more resilient and capable of going through difficulties.
Meditation Gives You the Pause Superpower
Meditation creates space in your mind and life in multiple ways. Because meditation helps you to slow down, you have fewer thoughts, and more space inside yourself. If your mind is constantly busy with needless thoughts, they crowd out awareness of your goals, and you are less likely to make self-disciplined decisions in harmony with them.
As we saw above, meditation improves your memory. Scott H. Young, in The Complete Guide to Self-Control, explains:
“For a self-control conflict to happen, you need to be acutely aware of your long-term goals at the same moment as you decide whether to indulge or not. In other words, you need to actively think about your goal to be healthy when you’re faced with a dessert. If you can’t do that, then you’ll indulge by default, without even knowing that there was a conflict in the first place (unless you’ve formed a different habit). (…) To be able to keep your goals in your mind, you must have sufficient available working memory capacity. Working memory is your mental bandwidth—it holds together information about the present so that you can weigh different options and make decisions. The problem with working memory is that its capacity is limited. It fills up very quickly—it can hold only 4-7 items (letters, words, numbers, etc.) at the same time.”
Meditation helps you to improve this situation by broadening your working memory.
Similarly, meditation also creates emotional space. When you are overwhelmed with stress or other difficult emotions, it is hard to remain disciplined. Meditation helps you process difficult emotions, thus boosting your mood and enhancing the willpower at your disposal.
Meditation Helps You Change Your Story
Self-discipline is about making better decisions in our lives—more in line with our long-term goals and aspirations. For that we need to look into the stories we tell ourselves.
These stories—our mindsets, beliefs, and feelings—form our identity. We learn them mostly from people around us, and they become unquestioned thought patterns about who we are, what the world is like, and how things work. The most important thing here is that they are not truths; they are opinions, and habits. Since they are habits, they can be changed. And this is good news!
The stories you tell yourself can be empowering or disempowering. They can be positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant, helpful or unhelpful. Thoughts like “I can’t do this”, “I’m not good enough”, “If I fail it will be a disaster” can hold you back from your goals.
If you can change the stories you tell yourself, you can change anything in your life. Master your mind, master your life.
How do you break a bad habit of thought? By noticing the old thoughts, letting them go, and repeatedly replacing them with healthier and more useful ways of thinking.
Meditation helps with all of this. As you practice meditation, the reality that thoughts are just thoughts, not truth, becomes clear—not as a concept, but as an experience. Meditation also teaches you how to let go, and how to focus on a new thought, by teaching you how to control your attention. The thoughts that you stop paying attention to will weaken and eventually disappear; the thoughts that you pay attention to will strengthen and come to life. I call this The Law of Attention. Attention gives life to whatever it touches.
When the voice of fear comes up, saying, “Don’t do that… you will fail, and it will be horrible”, you have a choice. You can listen to that thought, believe it, and follow it—avoiding action. Or you can let it be there and take action anyway. You can even deliberately bring up the voice of courage in you and feed it with your attention (so it grows stronger).
You may not be able to control the thoughts and stories that come up—but you can choose what you do with them. Meditation helps you to recognize these voices, their origins, and the effects they have on your life. It gives you the power to decide which voice will get the mic, and for how long.
With this power, you become the boss of your mind, or at least a caring friend that it will sincerely try to help. With this empowerment, living a life of purpose and wellbeing becomes easier.
Meditation Optimizes Your Brain
Self-discipline, willpower, and self-awareness are expressions of the most evolved part of our brain—the prefrontal cortex. This part is the seat of rational thought and conscious decisions; it is responsible for working memory, impulse control, ignoring distractions, and cognitive flexibility.
Then there is the less-evolved part of the brain: the amygdala, or reptilian brain. It is home for the impulses and emotions that often prevent us from acting in harmony with our better knowledge. When we are stressed, angry, or anxious, our prefrontal cortex can temporarily go offline, and we then operate from the reptilian brain. Self-discipline is not possible from this point.
Studies show that meditation practice increases grey matter in the prefrontal cortex and diminishes amygdala activation. Some researchers found that a total of just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self-control. After eleven hours, researchers could see changes in the subjects’ brain structures.
Thus, meditation supports self-discipline by working on both sides of the equation. It enhances self-awareness and willpower (stronger prefrontal cortex) and downregulates the stress response (smaller amygdala). That is why meditation and awareness are the central themes of my approach to self-discipline. Meditation is the gym of self-discipline.