There are things we get done each day without even trying, and a lot of times, we hardly think about them. Of course, we call these things habits.
Each moment, without habits, we would have to decide what to do next, and then the next moment and so on. In that case, every morning would be exhausting just trying to get up and out of the house successfully. Without being aware of it, you are able to accomplish this because your basal ganglia is doing its thing.
It is an almond-shaped brain structure located at the base of your forebrain and the top of your midbrain; it is an ancient structure that is similar to what you find in a fish, reptile, or almost all mammals.
Studies show that when an experimental animal works its way through a maze, it has travelled through before, their basal ganglia work furiously, directing them to their food while the rest of their brain takes it easy.
The same is true for us, our basal ganglia store specific activities that make up our habits so we can reproduce them over and over again each day with a minimum of effort.
In fact, almost all of our habits are stored and directed by our basal ganglia, relieving the rest of our brains of having to do unnecessary work. This heavy lifting by the basal ganglia allows the rest of our brains to think about more important things.
The Anatomy of Meditation
The most important thing to know is that our basal ganglia require a regular routine to keep it well activated. If you keep up a consistent schedule, the basal ganglia will store the relevant information, take the responsibility to oversee it and make sure the desired series of activities are implemented daily. Now here is the big rub, if you do not maintain a daily habit, the basal ganglia will become deactivated and will not respond vigorously enough to keep up your habit!
We all think that if we miss our scheduled time to do our meditative practice, we will just do it tomorrow or later in the day or at nighttime. If not, then, for sure tomorrow. This predictably irregular scheduling process forces us to rely on willpower. This is a big mistake because willpower is like a muscle that gets tired out easily. Some people have more willpower than others, but regardless of the circumstances, it still acts like a muscle.
So, if you rely on willpower to be the foundation for your practice as opposed to a habit, you are almost destined to be unsuccessful. There is a big difference between the staying power of the basal ganglia vs. willpower. The tiring muscle of willpower will fail you while the basal ganglia, which is like the Energizer Bunny, will be more than happy to keep your practice going for your whole life if you so desire.
That brings us to the question, “what does our meditative practice look like in the long term? What is our commitment? Are we conducting our practice to do this for a while and then tire of it and move on to something else?” To be honest, meditation is the most important regular practice you can choose to do on a daily basis if you want to have a full and happy life.
I am quite sure that if you thought about your meditative practice, you would say, “I want to do this for the long term.” Maybe if you meditated about it enough, you would realize that it is probably a good idea to make it a lifelong practice. Clearly, if meditation is like calisthenics for the mind, and physical exercise is surely a lifelong practice, then it makes sense that meditation should also be a lifelong commitment.
A few key additional factors that are important to understand is that your meditative practice is supported by the quality of your meditation plus the time you commit to it. Combined, they are equivalent to the dosage level of your meditative experience that contributes to how centered and spiritually connected you will become. That is why a near-daily practice is essential to achieving the quality of life you want to achieve.
A practice that is spotty with a meditation session today and then one a few days later is not going to cut it. Again, the amount of time you commit to your practice for each session is critical.
Research has shown that at least a twenty-minute practice is recommended if you want to have a consistent effect on the quality of your life over the long term. This effect is referred to as an altered trait as opposed to an altered state. An altered state is where the effects of a particular practice session may be great but quickly dissipates. If you are committed to creating an altered trait to become transformed, then a daily practice of at least a twenty-minute, quality meditative session is ideal.
Here is a nice quote from Chade-Meng Tan, author of Joy On Demand, on the power of joy and meditation to refresh your mind on how sweet a meditative practice can be:
The more you incline your mind toward joy in real life, the more joyful and productive your meditations will tend to be. The more you practice mindfulness, the more likely you will be able to down-regulate habituation on the strength of your mindfulness and enjoy the pleasures of the day anew.