This article is an expansion of the ideas developed in my previous article “On Self-Discipline and the Power of Routines.”
If I had to name only one habit that completely changed my life for the better, that would be meditation.
Back in 2012, I made an intriguing encounter. I was living in Lyon in France, and someone from the local market started telling me about meditation. He took the time to sit on a bench with me, and taught me very simple steps:
Put your hands on your lap, in the shape of a shell (Shiva Mudrá):
Keep your back straight, and breathe through your nose only.
Place your attention on the area of your nostrils, feeling the air come in and out.
When you notice your mind wandering, let the thoughts go like clouds pass in the sky.
Bring your attention back to your breath and your nostrils.
When I started meditating, it was challenging for me to meditate for a long time. After a couple minutes only, I would become impatient and want to go through the rest of my day. I started small. That is the secret to any behavioural change.
I committed to practicing meditation, twice a week for 2 minutes with a timer on. Then I was done. I would get up on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, drink a glass of water, and then meditate. After two weeks, I increased the time to three or four minutes. Then, I increased the number of times I meditated to three days a week. I enjoyed it more and more. It was not long before I was meditating twenty minutes per day, 5 days a week. There was even a point where I was meditating for 45 minutes per day, and it was too much, so I reduced back to twenty minutes.
I noticed something had shifted when one day, I was in Paris and just got on the suburban train platform. The train I wanted to catch just left, and the next one was 20 minutes later. I caught myself not being angry nor impatient about the situation, but simply being totally OK with what was present. I noticed the joy I felt thinking: “Great, I have 20 minutes to read my book!”
I also felt that I had changed, since I knew that a few months before, I would have gotten angry and frustrated at the situation.
There are dozens of forms of meditation, and today, there are great apps to help you too. Although I prefer meditation that doesn’t need any external technology (it is an inner tech already), you can choose whatever works for you.
Reading has been a major component in my life for years now. But it has not always been the case.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family of university professors. We always had a lot of books at home, and bookshelves were part of the decorum. I was so influenced by this university world that as a child, I told my mom one day:
“Mom, when I grow up, I will write a PhD dissertation about cooking recipes from all over the world.”
My mom would encourage my sister and I to read, and she told us that she would buy us as many books as we wanted (as long as they were proper reading books, and not comic books). In my teens, I wasn’t reading much, but I remember feeling envious of one of my friends, Martin. I admired him because he borrowed so many books from the library, and was reading them before the classes started.
Fast forward a couple years, I am immersing myself completely into personal development and self-help books. I am reading book after book: from Tony Robbins, to business books, to psychology among others. I also loved to read fiction. I recall on some mornings, I would wake up, do my meditation routine, and then boil a kettle of water, and read Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the French classic Pléiade edition, sipping on Russian Earl Grey.
The way I increased my reading was by:
- Making the time for it in my routine. That is done by committing to reading a little bit every day (10 minutes is a good start – or commit to reading 1 chapter. If that is too much, start with 1 page. If that is still too much, start with 1 sentence a day. Then increase the following week).
- Tracking by books read and setting goals.
I did this by stating that I would read more books per year. Each month, I would check how much I read, and how many books I still had to read if I wanted to make my numbers.
In 2010, I read 10 books.
In 2011, 15.
In 2012, 30.
In 2013, 36.
In 2014, 44 (Goal: 44 !).
In 2015, 64 (Goal: 70. Shoot for the stars and land in the moon).
In 2016, 37 (Goal: 80. That is when quality beats quantity).
2020: Ongoing… No goal on numbers anymore.
That means that over the last decade I read more than 297 books cover to cover (not counting those which I didn’t finish).
The gift of reading is that it develops one’s taste (knowing what a good book is). One learns to read fast. One can skim through a book. One can know if a book will bring one value just by reading the back cover, the index, and having a brief look inside (yes, I judge books by the cover). It gives one have an overall taxonomy of books (knowing authors, dates, general movements). One also knows what kind of editions one loves, and which ones one doesn’t. And yes, obviously, I am still learning and getting started.
And, I don’t feel that I need to read that much anymore. I feel that I can write and that I too have interesting things to say (you don’t need to be called Plato or Dostoyevsky to write).
3) Karate and Martial Arts
Starting at a young age, I was initiated into martial arts. Starting around 8 years old, I started judo. Judo is what I call “the kindergarten of martial arts”. This is a common place to start for many. Some continue and perform at a really high level in judo, and a lot stop and move on to another Martial Art or sport. I moved on to Karate. That was a real school of life and for life. I learned self-discipline (which I later cultivated further), self-awareness, and body coordination. I also developed self-confidence. As I was younger, I was very clumsy at regular sports such as soccer and other team sports. I played handball, and I got hit right in the face by a ball which gave me a bloody nose. This trauma increased my fear balls and disgusted me from team sports. That only amplified a feeling of rejection, which started in elementary school where I grew tired of being chosen last on teams.
Martial arts were where I felt that I could really improve. It was really my thing. When I moved from my hometown and travelled extensively and lived in several countries all over the world, I trained in other martial arts, to widen my repertoire. I enrolled in Taekwondo during my time in Cergy and in Arkansas, Silat in Singapore, Krav Maga and French Boxing in Paris, Wing-Chun, Street Boxing, … I even tried Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Rio De Janeiro.
The shift allowed me to feel more confident in conflictual situations. I never got in a fight, and even in situations which could have escalated into a physical fight, I always find a pacific solution. That was thanks to martial arts: I knew the cost of receiving damage, but more importantly how deadly the techniques I learned could be. It is so easy to inflict damage to the other. You enter martial arts to learn to overpower the other, and you come out overpowering yourself.
That is when you can move on to internal arts such as Yoga, Qi-Gong, Tai-Chi and others.
If you’d like to learn more, check out part 2 !