If you can brush your teeth, you can meditate.
If I had a nickel for every time someone has told me, “I’d like to meditate, but I could never do it,” I would be writing this on a tropical beach somewhere, sipping a refreshing drink garnished with a tiny paper umbrella. Through meditation we can train the brain to adopt a new habit of being aware of what is happening in any given moment instead of walking – or running – through our lives mostly on autopilot. Forming this new habit can be life-changing, as it empowers us to live our lives with more choices and greater happiness.
All of us have formed new habits over our lifetimes – some useful, others not-so-much. In fact, human beings are in the habit of forming habits. Starting early on with things like brushing our teeth, we have successfully learned and practiced countless once-new behaviors until eventually they have become habitual. We’ve learned to get ourselves dressed, check our phones, ride a bike, drive to work, binge on Netflix – whatever. All of our habits are simply learned behavior. The process of habit-forming can be explained by simple brain science (three words you don’t often see in the same sentence).
Goats Teach Neuroscience 101
Once upon a time, I lived on a goat farm. Watching the goats throughout the day taught me a thing or two about how the human brain works. Stay with me here.
The goats lived on a steep hillside. Over time they had worn down a series of paths they routinely followed to get where they wanted to go. Zig-zagging up and down the hillside, the goats used their network of paths to travel from the barn up the hill to their favorite patch of clover, then to whatever tree they were currently eating, then back down to the barn, etc. The adult goats never veered from these well-trodden trails; it was as if they were kept firmly on the road by guardrails visible only by goats. Barn-clover-tree-repeat.
But every spring, the new baby goats defied these bourgeois rules of the road with frisky abandon. As the grown-ups plodded methodically up the paths, turning only at the designated switchbacks, the kids raced each other straight up to the top of the hill, prancing with cocky delight when the slow-moving nannies finally arrived. Then the little goats would leap head-long back down the hill, merrily somersaulting head-over-heels back to the barn.
As the kids got bigger and grew horns, their somersaulting often ended with a heavy slam into the side of the barn and horns full of shish-kabobbed leaves and twigs. Occasionally they would join their elders on the Path of Least Resistance. And by autumn, all of the goats – no matter their ages – traveled single-file on the established pathways, rendering the trails deeper and harder-packed with every hoof-step.
Now then, back to the brain. Like the goats’ hillside, the brain can be thought of (in kindergarten, at least) as a collection of points (barn, clover, tree) that are not linked until a goat travels between them, carving the connection. The points are nerve cells, or neurons. When activities are repeated over and over, neural pathways are formed between the neurons. The neural circuitry “wires” the brain so that the brain can control body functions and thinking processes.
As we repeat certain behaviors, these neural pathways become so well-established that the behavior becomes automatic. You were not born knowing how to brush your teeth, but chances are good that this morning you did so without consciously thinking about it.
Practice Makes Pathways
Learning to meditate, ironically, can begin by noticing automatic processes like tooth-brushing or breathing. The first step in learning to meditate is training the brain to pay deliberate attention to whatever might be happening in the present moment. You might try paying attention to the actual process of brushing your teeth – how does the toothpaste taste? Can you detect each individual tooth? A simple intentional investigation like this can help strengthen the brain’s ability to focus.
· Read this sentence.
· Now take a deep breath.
· Pay attention to the fact that you are breathing. Do you feel it in your chest? Your nose?
· Notice the full inhalation and exhalation of a single breath.
· Repeat two times.
Congratulations! With this simple act of noticing a few every-day breaths, you just strengthened your neural pathway for “focused attention”.
Meditating leads to all kinds of health benefits. Look no farther than your supermarket check-out line where you will likely encounter a magazine extolling the benefits of meditation and mindfulness: less stress, improved sleep, reduced anxiety, improved focus, less negative self-judgment, better sex, whiter-teeth-and-fresh-breath…(Oh wait. The last two are benefits of tooth-brushing.) As you develop mindfulness by practicing meditation, the brain naturally begins to “wire” itself toward better health and well-being.
If meditating is so great, why are so many people convinced that they can’t do it? See Neuroscience 101 above. Repetitive thoughts and self-talk can form neural pathways that lead to the belief that, “I could never meditate” – and predictably, the old goats fall in line with this habitual thinking. The trick is to be a kid again, channeling your Inner Baaad-ass to challenge the status quo. Tell yourself, “I CAN meditate.” Take the road less traveled, baby, and see where it leads!
What does brushing teeth have to do with meditation?
If you can brush your teeth, you can meditate. Clearly you have the brain capacity to learn a new behavior – one that, with practice, can become automatic. Exhibit A: Shortly after you wake up each morning, you brush your teeth, probably without having to think much about it. But that was not always the case. Somewhere along the line, you learned this useful behavior, and it became habit.
Like learning to brush your teeth when you were little, learning to meditate now does not always have an immediate, intrinsic reward. Why brush my teeth when I can play with my firetruck instead? Why pay attention to my breath when I can pay attention to Instagram instead? Savvy meditators understand that the brain responds to positive reinforcement. Have you ever noticed how some mediation apps reward you with little stars when you accomplish the day’s meditation challenge? (Back in the day, I got a gold star on a chart every time I brushed my teeth for two minutes. Effective system, proven results.)
How to Get Started
When I first tried to meditate, the charms of meditation were not enough to keep me in the game. I had to link the formation of the desired new habit to one that was already established – basically giving my inexperienced “meditation goat” a ride up the hillside.
Here’s how I did it:
I always start my day with a cup of coffee, a habit that has formed partly because caffeine triggers the reward system in my brain. Instead of drinking my coffee at the kitchen table as usual, today I enjoyed my coffee sitting on the chair on which I aspired to sit meditating sometime in the future. By sitting on the chair, I linked the familiar pleasant association of coffee with the unfamiliar Aspirational Meditation Chair.
That was it for Day One. Gold stars all around!
Same routine, only this time, I deliberately drew my attention to the pleasant smell of the coffee, the warmth of the mug on my hands, and the steam as it caressed my nose, thereby linking more pleasant physical sensations with the act of sitting on my Aspirational Meditation Chair.
Coffee-and-Chair again, but this time when I finished my coffee, I took one intentional breath, noticing the in-breath, and then noticing the out-breath, just as we did earlier in this article.
Coffee-Chair-and-Breath. I added one more breath and was done for the day.
And so on, adding a breath a day, and not worrying about it when I woke up late and forgot to practice. I just picked back up when I could.
As I repeated this daily exercise, thoughts inevitably interrupted my concentration. Whenever that happened, I ushered my wandering attention back, as best I could, to focus again on the breath. Every time I did so, I strengthened my ability to be aware of whatever was happening in the present moment. With each repetition, the new neural pathway gradually became the Path of Least Resistance, and a Meditator was born.
So yes, if you can brush your teeth, you can meditate. Find your own personal reward system and start small, piggy-backing on existing habits, and building up over time. Trust the process, and remind yourself that your cranial roads are currently under construction, so drive slowly and be patient. As the neurons begin to fire and wire together, the health benefits will have an easier path to travel. With time, like brushing your teeth, meditation will become part of your routine.
Dental hygiene? Check.
Mental hygiene? Check.
Why not try it for a week and let me know how it’s going. I’d love to compare notes, as I am trying to form a New Habit myself: blog-writing. Feel free to share your thoughts on meditating, forming new habits, whatever floats your goat. Leave a comment, and I will do my best to find it. I am confident that since I can brush my teeth, I can also learn to blog.