In the natural world of forest and ocean ecosystems, there is a well-documented phenomenon called keystone species. This term refers to specific animals whose existence and practices have an enormous and enriching effect upon the environments in which they live.
The beaver had previously been hunted for its furs and considered a nuisance due to the flooding it creates from the damns it builds. Both of these considerations primarily grow out of the selfish and less wholesome needs of human beings.
As far as the rest of nature and the earth goes, the beaver is an absolute godsend. Those dams that we complain about support numerous salmon and fish populations. They help to purify water by trapping sediment. and perhaps the biggest impact is that they create wetlands. Wetlands, in turn, can store carbon pollution for hundreds of years, provide buffer zones for storms and wind, facilitate flood control, furnish fertile farmland for rice and various crops, and mitigate sea level rise. Because of their unique locations bordering salt and freshwater ecosystems, they serve as a sanctuary for hundreds of different species, both endangered and otherwise.
I hope that you get the point. If you remove the beaver from this equation, you threaten the stability and longevity of vast stretches of coastal lands and ecosystems. That is a reality I cannot even imagine.
African elephants, wolves, and grizzly bears, among other animals, all share the noble distinction of being keystone species.
All of this has gotten me thinking about the concept of a keystone in my own life. What is a habit or action whose short and long term effects are far-reaching? What daily act is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts? What are the simple things I can do that basically improve everything else in my life?
There are five practices that I have established as keystone habits. I have determined that the pursuit of all of these disciplines every day vastly improves everything else.
Bullet points please . . .
- Drink water
Yes, water. I drink lots of it these days. Of course, you can drink any variety of fluids that could work just fine, but I always go back to water. Other than low-key being the universal solvent, it has that uncanny characteristic of having no calories, sugars, caffeine, or carbs. They say 8 glasses a day is a good start, but I just keep a cup of water nearby at all times while chugging away as much as possible.
This means my skin stays smooth and hydrated. I have more energy throughout the day. Water helps with digestion and regularity by keeping everything flowing. It can satiate hunger without adding fat and calories. It clears toxins from the body, thereby strengthening your immunity. Throughout the day, it regulates your body temperature. Improved breathing, better heart and kidney health, and physical performance boosts are among the other benefits of regularly drinking this simple fluid. (Getting up to pee often can be annoying, but the added physical activity this forces is a good thing.)
- Sleep often.
With an average lifespan of 15 years (numerous breeds can live well over twenty), they say that cats have nine lives. Sure, I can agree with that, but is it purely a coincidence that they sleep upwards of 16 hours per day? The benefits of sleep have been well documented.
For myself, a good night’s sleep, and various naps throughout the day, help me stay energetic and alert. Sleep affords a mental and physiological break for my brain against the onslaught of multi-sensory information coming in from all directions. Sleep gives my body a chance to rest so that it can do everything else better. I try to get at least seven hours of sleep at night, and I take brief naps during the day whenever I feel tired.
Incidentally, I have questioned the inclusion of sleep on this list because it is already a biological function of the body. I decided to keep it on this list by regarding it as a priority practice, as opposed to treating it nonchalantly as we do with “pooping” or “sneezing”. Being more intentional and aggressive about when and how one sleeps reaps dividends.
- Express gratitude.
There is so much about mental health that is intangible. Because it is experienced in fluctuating waves of feelings and emotions, it is often hard to quantify what is actually worth alleviating. For years now, I have engaged in a daily practice of expressing gratitude. This involves saying what I an thankful for out loud and saying the words “Thank You” as often as I possibly can to anyone everywhere.
I am still grasping the effects of this daily practice, but I have found that I am more resilient when faced with setbacks. I linger longer on the pros and the positives of most scenarios. I smile more often. I value and deeply appreciate what I have. Overall, I am a more pleasant person who other people like to be around (as opposed to a miserable lump of flesh that complains about everything and feels constantly victimized). Daily gratitude has vastly improved my mental health. Exponentially, it has upgraded how I feel about my life.
- Pursue Sacred Mindfulness
This is the newest keystone habit I have pursued. The concept came to me from this blog post by Leo Babauta. This means that EVERYTHING I do involves single-minded focus, reverence, and presence of mind. Imagine the most precious object in your life. You handle it with the greatest care. You are methodical with every movement because it holds immense value and is sacred to your entire existence.
Now, imagine applying that to EVERYTHING that you do all day long. Your brain will be firing on fewer cylinders. You will have a stronger awareness of how you feel. Your day will flow more calmly, and as I have continued to discover, you will actually get more done.
Sacred mindfulness is a form of meditation. You simply focus on the actual thing that you are doing right in front of you and nothing else. You give that act the respect and care it needs. I have been more calm and productive in all aspects of my life because of this daily meditative practice. Try it. You’ll see.
- I play piano. (AKA Engage in a creative flow.)
This keystone habit is specific to my life, but it can be adapted to other scenarios. I have been playing piano for years, and when I do so, this is the place where I can mentally block everything out and easily find my own creative flow. I literally just let go of everything, and my music sings, unencumbered and full. If you can create a space in your life in which there is some kind of creative flow, it will deepen any other work that you do. For some people, this takes the form of dance or drawing. Other people paint or knit. Some people garden while others sing songs or write.
The art that you happen to create is actually not the point entirely. The goal is the synergy that happens between what your brain is thinking, what your hands are doing, and the emotions that you are experiencing. Active creative expression will make you feel alive and joyful. I play piano as often as I can (as well as a couple of other instruments). The creative flow that my body feels and projects as a result is both mysterious and thrilling.
If you haven’t found a creative outlet yet, please know that the formative time of learning the craft will feel difficult and challenging at first, but keep at it every day. With patience and persistence, you will start to feel the flow in time.
Life without any of these keystone practices would be much more difficult than it needs to be. Life with them feels more rich, calm, and fulfilling.
Maybe your keystone practices are different from mine. That’s okay. The point is that you pursue them. One keystone is a master key that opens many doors.
Find that keystone and open up your life.