In the ever ongoing, pretty much never ceasing search for self-improvement, satisfaction and joy, I’ve noticed a concerted focus on habits: good habits to form and bad habits to break; 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; habits around diet, exercise, sleep and wake up routines; habits for simplicity, efficiency, productivity and happiness; the lists are endless. And overwhelming; where to start, and how? I suggest making a Mindfulness Meditation Practice – and therefore Awareness - a habit.
About 40% of our daily behaviors are “habitual” and automatic.1 And that’s not all bad. Imagine how exhausted you’d be if you really had to re-learn where to put your clothes after you’d washed them, or which drawer the silverware is in. Having a good deal of our day to day activities happen on auto-pilot serves us well, and is one of the many brilliant things about how the brain works.
But at some point, most of us realize that one or more aspects of our habitual daily was established and set in motion without our knowing consent. When things like how we respond to hunger, feeling tired or our spouse go on automatic pilot, we may find our actions out of synch with what we say we want, need or value. And we often only realize how powerful they are when we try to change them.
To some extent, habits form in response to a self reinforcing tendency to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. It’s a great system for keeping us from starving or eating poison berries, and fighting or fleeing would-be predators. But in today’s modern world, the things we find pleasurable (4 crème donuts, for example) may not be so good for us; and the things we find threatening (someone challenging our view point, for example) may require diplomacy rather than an adrenaline charged fist to the jaw. Unfortunately, our nervous system is just not very good at distinguishing the subtleties of modern life.
One Habit to Rule them All!
About 5 years ago, I re-engaged a regular mindfulness meditation practice with hopes of breaking some bad habits and making some better ones. And I started a Mindfulness Meditation Practice, doing my best to follow instructions such as “bring your attention to your left foot” and “when your mind wanders, simply return your focus to the coming and going of your breath”. After hundreds of hours of practice, and several 7-10 day silent retreats, I began to get some insight into why I was doing this thing that seemed, at first and for a long time, to be simply nothing.
It’s easy to think that sitting down to meditate (or adopting ANY mindfulness practice) is just another habit to develop; but it’s not. The difference is, cultivating the habit of sitting down to observe, focus and redirect the mind creates a feedback loop that reinforces the kind of mindset that allows you to develop (or break) all kinds of other habits. It literally trains your mind to chill out and listen to YOU instead of the siren’s call of the old habit. It is the MASTER habit.
So I did this training, bringing my attention gently back to my breath or my body or sometimes sound over and over. And after some time on the mat, I began to notice when my mind strayed from where, I’d just a brief moment ago, chosen for it to be in my Real Life. I also began to notice that when my mind strayed… my actions were not far behind. For example, I became painfully aware that I was wandering the kitchen looking for sweets when I’d just that morning declared I was going to eat more healthily.
And the more I practiced watching my mind and the body that seemed to follow it wherever it went, the more I began to be aware of the discomfort that comes with straying from what I know in my heart I want/need to do. And I started to notice the joy that accompanies taking actions that align with my deeper, higher values. While the impulses that drive my “bad habits” have not gone away, my ability to notice and resist them and ultimately to develop new, healthier ones has grown exponentially.
The one thing we really seem to need in order to be able to do in order to change, form or break pretty much ANY habit is the capacity to recognize when the mind is heading in a direction you don’t want it to (the couch for more TV) , and to cause it to head in the direction you DO want it to (the gym for some exercise). Mindfulness meditation is highly effective training for exactly that: The single habit of a highly effective mind.
Mindfulness IRL, LLC offers classes and coaching for building, maintaining a customized mindfulness practice that will support you in meeting both the challenges and aspirations of your real live.
Habits: A Repeat Performance by David T. Neal, Wendy Wood and Jeffery M. Quin