Tag Archives: Meditation

Meditation, a way to deal with stress

On a Tuesday morning in December, I sat on my couch. I put my feet firmly on the ground, straightened my back, and opened the Insight Timer app on my phone. It greeted me with an insightful quote and asked me: how are you doing today? I answered ‘good’, the second-best in the range from ‘awful’ to ‘fantastic’. Among the adjectives to add detail on my mood, I picked ‘satisfied’ and ‘grateful’. Then, I started ten minutes of unguided meditation, as my teacher had asked me to do every day during the five week programme on resilience and stress management.

The exercise I did was an ‘SBR’ meditation. In this exercise, the S stands for ‘Sit’, the B for ‘Breath’ and the ‘R’ for ‘relax’ or ‘return to breath’. The point of this meditation is not to have no thoughts at all. That is impossible. Instead, you pay attention to your breath. Once thoughts emerge, you observe them, relax, and return focus to your breath.

The brain is a muscle that you can train; this concept is called ‘neuroplasticity’. Because of the ‘monkey’ in your brain that constantly distracts you, your thoughts go in all directions. You observe your thoughts going in all directions. Then you steer them back to your breath to teach your brain focus. That skill, my trainer said, is helping you to focus during your workday. In turn, that will help you to be resilient in face of stress.

There’s a ‘monkey’ in your brain, that distracts you from what you want to use your brain power for and sends you on a path of random associations.
Image is not mine and found on AB Tasty.

As I did the exercise, I found my thoughts were more restless: thinking about ‘to do’s’ during the workday, chores at home, smaller and bigger worries, and so on. I felt that those thoughts represented some tension in my head. At the end of the exercise, the app again asked me how I felt. I went for ‘okay’ now, one step below ‘good’ and two above ‘awful’. For the adjectives, I added ‘stressed’ to the ‘satisfied’ one I picked before.

This unexpected effect was one of the benefits I experienced in my five weeks of daily meditation. Some days, I thought I felt good. But when introspecting more deeply, I became aware of stressors I hadn’t noticed before. I got off auto-pilot. Realising how I felt, I could pay attention to what I needed – take a break, go for a walk – and then re-focus on what I wanted to do. This helped me to manage stress and strengthen resilience.

The benefits of meditation

Meditation is listed high as a method people can use to work on their happiness. Why is that? I think because it helps people realise how they are really doing and take care of themselves, instead of going about mindlessly. Meditation can help to train the restless brain to focus.

It can be a part of your emotional hygiene, a psychological counterpart to the two times a day that you brush your teeth. Take ten minutes to check in and experience how you feel, identify your need, and go on with your day. Especially when you feel tense, it can help you. In face of stress, it has a similar effect as counting to ten before erupting in anger. Meditation is not easy, but it can be useful. Try it for a few weeks for ten minutes per day. And if unguided meditation is tough, go for a guided one, like the one below.

Read of the month: the miracle morning

What does your morning look like? Do you wake up rested, have enough time for a shower, enjoy eating your breakfast, and do some things around the house before starting work? Or do you wake up late, rush to wash, dress and eat, and get to work feeling you’re already behind with everything?

How you start your day matters. My latest read of the month had some ideas to make the best of it. “The Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod is very much a self-help book. It also is very, very American and full of repetitive sales language (pity there is no ad-blocker for a book…). Every page transmits messages like “this book is going to change your life”, “success is a choice”, and “become like me and your life will be great”. In short, it is intolerable and awful as a book. Don’t read it for the book.

Still, in between the “you can be 100% successful in everything claims”, the book shows you how it matters how you start your day. Elrod recommends a six-step routine, and while I don’t agree with his claims (and even think it is dangerous to say that everybody can “reach a 10 in happiness”), I think it’s worth giving it a try. Especially before writing a book review on it.

Ready to go? Let’s start our morning walk along SAVERS: Silence, Affirmation, Visualisation, Exercise, Reading, and Scribing (or simply put, Journalling). In practice, they are all about starting the day with focus on what you want to get out of it, and paying attention to your head start.

So here’s the morning routine I took for a few weeks:

The S of Silence

Elrod recommends to start the day with focused silence. Not just sitting still, but in focus, for instance through meditation, a breathing exercise (as I do), yoga, or prayer if you are religious. The silence then brings you in the right flow to do the routine.

Usually I am quite sleepy when I wake up, so if I just sit in silence, I tend to yawn a lot and risk falling asleep. Therefore I tend to do a few things in the house – feeding the cat, putting the clean dishes away, cutting off some dry leaves from a plant – before I start the breathing part. To get some help, I play the five minute guided meditation video below. It gives focus by trying to instill positive thoughts about what you already did that day and what you can plan for the rest of the day. Some days I manage to focus on breathing; other times I am carried away. It doesn’t matter, it is always a few careless minutes to start.

The A of Affirmations

Affirmations are a trick you can use to instill a certain attitude with yourself. If you tell yourself something, and start to believe it, it will become true. Or more simply: fake it till you make it! If you make yourself believe that you are confident, it is more likely that you will become confident then. An example in the book is about Muhammad Ali yelling “I am the greatest”.

I however propose more modest affirmations. You can write your own if you like, or use ready-used made. I simply picked a few I liked from the list here.

Rather than telling me I am the greatest (which I don’t think will lead to happiness…), the first two relate to shaping your own life and balance, which are important to me. The third one is about creativity. I don’t consider myself creative, but maybe if I tell myself it for some time… it shouldn’t do harm! And the final affirmation again is about this focus in the morning:

  • I am the architect of my life; I build its foundation and choose its contents.
  • My body is healthy; my mind is brilliant; my soul is serene.
  • Creative energy surges through me and leads me to new and brilliant ideas.
  • I wake up today with strength in my heart and clarity in my mind.

The V of Visualisations

Visualisation, it appears, is a technique used by many well-known people (if a self-help book doesn’t quote a bunch of famous people doing whatever they tell you will change your life, does it really exist)? Imagine, the more detail the better, achieving a result in part of your life. For instance, if you are a runner, can you imagine yourself passing fastest in front of all the competitors and then winning a 10k?

I try to visualise my own dream: writing a book about happiness. But to be honest, the V is the trickiest part of the routine for me. Maybe the dream is too big, so that I struggle to imagine the details of what this book would actually look like…

The E of Exercise

A bit of movement to get the heart rate a bit up! Although there is no fun in time, I opted for push-ups. It shouldn’t hurt to get a bit of power in my arms. Doing the and slowly improving condition matters more than the number. On a warm day, I do very few; on a better day, I do a bit more. But my heart rate goes up and I start panting, so Elrod – the writer of the morning miracle – should be happy!

The R of Reading

After exercise, Elrod thinks it’s time for reading (a fast way to learn new skills), but I think I deserve a coffee. My ‘old’ morning routine was simply sitting with a cup of coffee, often in silence, at the balcony, trying to prevent the cat from going to the neighbours and listening what happens around – children playing in the garden, or mostly, listening to birds. Now, I get my coffee, and start reading a few pages. At the moment I picked a book on writing, as I hope to improve my writing skills – On Writing Well by William Zinser. And of course, it matches my visualisation of a happiness book…

The old morning routine, coffee without a read.

The J of Journalling (or the S of Scribing)

The final part is journalling. Writing down your ideas can help shape your thoughts and actions, so this also matches the idea of having a focused start of the day.

I usually write down

  • three things I’d like to achieve during the day (usually two private and one work related; and they can be as simple as doing groceries). Sometimes I go through the list during the day and it acts as reminder what I wanted to do. Sometimes I don’t get it done, and list it again the next day.
  • three things I look forward to (usually related to time spent with my wife or cat – or to food!)
  • and three things I am grateful for or appreciate about the day before. This is probably my favourite part, as it really makes me reflect about the day I had and the positive things that happened. Happiness, to me, is simply aware that you have experienced pleasures great and small during your day.


It’s quite a feat Elrod has accomplished: he has written an absolutely cringe-worthy book (resulting in some hilarious bad reviews at Goodreads), but offers some nice ideas on how to structure your morning to achieve focus. Spend some time:

  • in Silence
  • doing Affirmations, and
  • Visualisations,
  • Exercising,
  • Reading to learn, and
  • Scribing (or Journalling)…

… and see if it works for you!

Matthieu Ricard’s plea for altruism

bonheurs coverOn my way to the shopping street for my Saturday groceries, I stop by in the press corner with the aim to buy stamps. I scan the shelf of magazines and see the familiar face of Matthieu Ricard stare at me from the cover of Bonheur(s) magazine.

Normally, I am wary of these kind of pseudo-psychological magazines produced for the happiness market. Every vague word that is not evidence-based triggers a critical counter-reaction. But, admittedly, this blog operates in the same market, so I figured I can always buy it for research purposes. In any case, it’s worthwhile to hear more of Ricard’s wisdom.

Matthieu Ricard is a former biochemist who become a Buddhist monk. He has been labelled the happiest man alive, and has a website featuring a ‘smile of the week’. In 2003, he wrote Happiness: A guide to developing life’s most important skill, which he presented at TED in 2004. To summarise his talk, Ricard argues that ‘mind training’ and meditation can help us transform our brains. He questions why human beings spend 15 years in education, and lots of hours to keep fit and beautiful, but don’t seem willing to invest time in their well-being. Through this training, we can rewire our brain and nurture our receptiveness for happiness (or better, well-being).


A plea for Altruism

His interviewed in Bonheur(s) magazine is dedicated to the hefty 928-page volume on altruism he just published. His new book Advocacy for altruism spots the traces of altruism in neuroscientific research and the spiritual traditions of Buddhism.

Ricard argues that we all have an interest to be altruistic with our neighbours and future generations: “Altruism will help passing from a merchant’s world based on the principle of efficiency to a world of mutual help, from competition to cooperation“. To achieve that world, says Ricard, human beings must transform themselves to become truly altruistic. Like well-being, this is something we can train ourselves for. To do so, we need  the support of good masters like the Dalai Lama for whom altruism is a first nature. Ricard himself has been guided by Buddhist spiritual masters since the 1970s.

He ends the interview with a plea for altruism as a radical change in attitude that can contribute to solve the problems of our times – materialism, consumerism, narcissism, and even climate change. Ricard here refers to a study by the American psychologist Tim Kasser, whose longitudinal research demonstrated that people with strong materialistic tendencies and higher levels of wealth developed weaker social ties, a worse health record and lower levels of happiness.

What is altruism anyway?

Does this make Ricard’s plea for altruism convincing? Though the general principle and a concept sound appealing, there is one problem: what is altruism? If I decide to be altruistic from tomorrow onwards, what do I do? Could I function as an altruist in a generally consumerist and egoistic society? Can I really fight consumerism and climate change by thinking about my neighbours?

This notwithstanding, I believe Ricard has a bunch of valid points. Le bonheur, c’est les autres (happiness is other people). Many studies have shown how other people matter. But that will be the topic for a later post. To give a little pointer: ask the internet about Michael Norton’s work on money, giving and happiness.