How To Break Bad Habits With Meditation

The little-known secret to habit change

There was once a man who was a heavy drinker and alcoholic. Most of his friends knew that he couldn’t give up the habit even if he wanted to.

Let alone his friends, he knew he couldn’t give up the habit if he wanted to.

Then one day, he decided to take up meditation. And not just meditation, but pursue a serious spiritual path. He took initiation into Kriya Yoga from Paramahansa Yogananda and started practicing it.

His friends mocked him and said, “Why are you even doing this? You know you can’t give up the habit so why try all these spiritual practices?”

He said, “I know I can’t give up the habit. But at least I can make an effort in the right direction.”

Despite his resolve, he couldn’t give up his addiction. As a result, here’s what his practice looked like — he sat to meditate with a glass of whiskey in one hand and his meditation beads in the other. Just imagine!

Yet, gradually and over time, he started realizing that the joy he was getting from meditation was far more than what the whiskey gave him. Then, one day, he left drinking altogether and never went back to it.

Drinking, smoking, addictions, etc are all extreme forms of bad habits that humans form.

But you may have inconsequential bad habits that you still want to remove — hitting the snooze button, spending way too much time on social media, binge-watching, etc.

We all know these habits are bad. And we all know that we should break them.

But somehow, we turn to less-effective solutions. For instance, an alcoholic may go for therapy, binge-watchers may cancel their Netflix subscription, and heavy social media users may delete the apps from their phone.

Don’t get me wrong. These all are great ways that have been tested to help people with their struggles.

But what they often don’t do is remove the roots from where the bad habits come from.

If you sell all your wine to avoid drinking any, you still have the desire to drink it. Canceling your Netflix subscription or deleting the apps may reduce your usage but do not remove the desire to indulge in those behaviors regardless.

Thus, these are good, albeit incomplete solutions. For if the right opportunity presents itself, we all can slip off and give in to our temptations. But the sad part is, often, these little slip-offs have the potential to bring the bad habit back into our lives.

So what’s the solution? Given the title of this article, I’m sure you’ve guessed it.

It’s meditation, of course.

The natural question that comes to mind is how?

Meditation Breaks Bad Habits With Heightened Awareness

How are habits formed and why are they so tough to break?

According to researchers at MIT, the brain’s prefrontal cortex is responsible for the moment-by-moment control of habits that are switched on at any given time. This is where most of our thoughts and planning take place.

The actions you do repeatedly are automated by the brain. And once it becomes automatic, the decision-making parts o your brain can go into a sleep-like state which makes you less aware that you’re doing it. This is why we say man is a creature of habits. Because after a while, your habits control you — which can be good and bad.

An example of a good habit from my life is drinking a glass of water after waking up. I don’t consciously think about it. The bottle is placed on my desk and I inevitably take a sip as soon as I wake up.

On the contrary, an example of a bad habit is to never keep my shoes on the shoe rack. I remove them without undoing the laces and leave them near the door.

The more you repeat an action, the more automatic it becomes. The brain is trying to conserve its energy for important things.

Once these links are formed in your brain, they are never completely lost. This is why a drinker who quits for a while can still come back to it easily.

All bad habits usually come from stress and boredom. Whenever we’re emotionally taxed, tired, bored, etc, we turn to our vices.

Even though we know that drinking, smoking is bad for us, our intellect and logic go south when we’re caught by the emotions. That is why logically thinking through bad habits doesn’t work. Once it’s automated, the links are too tight to break.

Where does meditation come into the picture?

First things first. Meditation has been proven to activate the prefrontal cortex (intellect, planning, decision-making, etc) and reduces the activity in your amygdala (fear, emotions, temptations, etc).

By strengthening your intellect and downregulating your emotions, you can sure be more aware of what’s going around to make sane decisions.

In his famous TED talk, Judson Brewer narrates the story of how mindfulness helped heavy smokers finally quit.

Every habit, he says, follows a pattern — trigger, behavior, reward. That’s how your brain knows what to do the next time you’re in a similar situation. If you came out of a bad meeting and found refuge in a cigarette, then the stress was your trigger, smoking was your behavior and the reward was the joy of smoking.

The next time this happens, the brain will tell you — “Hey, remember last time you had a bad meeting? What did you do? It was dope! Let’s do that again.”

So how did these smokers break their habit? They got aware and curious.

With the help of meditation, they started becoming more aware of their emotions, triggers, and actions. They started noticing the moments they were motivated to smoke — was it after an argument? Was it a mid-day pick-me-up situation?

By getting curious about their own self and behaviors, they detached themselves from their limited identity. They no longer thought of smoking as something that was a part of their personality. Instead, they found a distance between them and the bad habit.

As a result, they were able to quickly give up the habit. Brewer calls this the natural reward-based learning process. He points out that the practice of curiosity and awareness is rewarding for the brain. By tricking the brain this way, if you will, we can stop indulging in harmful habits and get a chance to form new ones instead.

To talk about results, Brewer specifically found mindfulness training twice as successful for smokers to quit as the American Lung Association’s “freedom from smoking” treatment!

Meditation Breaks Bad Habits With Increased Joy

In my research for this article, I came across a lot of informative studies and posts. But most of them stopped at scientific explanations.

But from my experience, meditation is just more than the heightened awareness that science talks about. Yes, awareness is good but that’s not all.

More than anything, meditation is a way to reach Satchitananda — truth, consciousness, and bliss — that is ever-new and ever-expanding.

This Ultimate Reality that we speak of is the same that all enlightened saints and sages of all religions have experienced.

And while we dismiss the possibility of such states, a huge percentage of meditators feel some aspect of Satchitananda.

If you’ve been meditating for some time, you know there are days when you feel peace, calmness, stillness, and joy which is beyond words. If you haven’t you will.

The Bhagavad Gita says that meditation is the highest form of activity one can perform. Because what you get from meditation far surpasses what you get from the material pleasures of this world.

I know this is hard for you to digest. But that’s because you haven’t had the chance to feel a little sliver of that joy.

It’s like you’ve developed a taste for stale cheese and no one has told you that there’s good cheese in this world as well. And so you continue running after stale cheese thinking that it’s the best you can get.

But there’s a whole new type of cheese waiting for you. Only when you’ve eaten both types of cheese, will you have an objective point of comparison. Without that, you’re just wandering in delusion.

And once you get to the good cheese — even a tiny sliver of it — you realize just how great it is. From then on, everything else starts to seem useless. You may even develop extreme dispassion for certain things.

Many people, for instance, get a lot of joy (temporarily, of course) from shopping. I, on the other hand, detest new clothes altogether. I don’t like buying anything more than the essentials.

Now, am I a saint of sorts? Of course, not. Neither am I trying to preach. But what I do know is this — clothes cannot give me the happiness that I’m looking for, meditation can.

That’s how I have been able to break a lot of bad habits — from sugar addiction to anger to sleeping late.

This is the less-told truth about meditation that everyone forgets about.

Perhaps, the reason why researchers don’t find this out is they can’t measure joy, peace, calmness, happiness, and bliss.

They can measure forms of awareness, brain waves, etc. But they can’t measure the qualities of the heart. Your heart is where all your desires lie. Your brain has the habits, but their root is in the heart.

Pluck these habits from the root and you’ll not be bothered by them again.

The Takeaway

To conclude, there are two major ways mediation can help you break bad habits:

  • By heightening your awareness and thereby strengthening your mind

  • By letting you experience the joy of meditation and thereby removing the seeds of these temptations from your heart.

In either case, the answer is pretty clear — no matter what bad habit you’re trying to break, meditation is the answer.

Without it, life is too mechanical, too dry. But with it, there’s no problem that you can’t overcome

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Written on November 19, 2020