habits

Breaking bad habits: Interview with Dan Goleman and Tara Bennett-Goleman

Elisha Goldstein, PsychCentral: We all have habits that we want to break and that is why I’m thrilled to bring to today Daniel Goleman and Tara Bennett-Goleman who . Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures around the world and has many classic books including Emotional Intelligence which has over 5,000,000 copies in print. Tara is author of The New York Times bestseller Emotional Alchemy and her new book Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-Defeating Emotional Habits that can help us transform our emotions, improve our relationships and connect us to the inner wisdom that has always been there…

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The neuroscience of conditioning

On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins

Sometimes the best confirmations of the dhamma come from sources that have nothing to do with Buddhism. On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins is just such a source. Hawkins is an electrical engineer and entrepreneur whose interest in Artificial Intelligence has convinced him that the key to developing AI lies in understanding the brain. If that sounds a little obvious, it’s necessary to say that much of AI research – even on neural networks – has ignored the biology of the brain. As the name of the book suggests, this is not about consciousness or experience at an abstract level.

It’s about human intelligence and how that distinctly human (well, mammalian)  part of the brain – the neocortex – makes us as smart as we are. What I propose to do here is pick out some of the main points that Hawkins makes and show how they relate to the kind of things that we might notice in ourselves as we peer through the microscope of meditation. In particular, this book offers biological explanations for our ingrained habits – the conditioned responses that arise in us despite our best intellectual intentions and endeavours to behave otherwise. The closer we understand the nature of the mind, the better we can work with it.

The neocortex is structured in a uniform way in its entirety, regardless of function or location. That structure consists of 6 hierarchical layers, each as thick as a business card. Those 6 layers are further interconnected across sections of the neocortex to form hierarchies of hierarchies. Signals come in from the sensory neurons – like the nerves coming from your eyes or ears – in a rapidly changing fashion (both spatially and temporally) but as these chaotic signals filter up through the hierarchies, they stabilize and solidify. For example, input from the optic nerve (one million sensory neurons) is a firehose of light, colour and line shape changes due to the ever changing nature of the photons hitting the retina, and also the constant eye movements (saccades) we involuntarily make to scan our field of vision. By the time it filters through several layers of neocortex, this cacophony of electrical impulse has become something stable like, for example, a face.

It might even be your Aunt Susan’s face. If it is Aunt Susan, then effectively the memory of Aunt Susan’s face is encoded high up in the hierarchies of the cortex, and can be triggered by Aunt Susan no matter what the lighting conditions or angle of view are. The important thing to notice here is that the brain has an invariant representation for a vastly changeable (to all practical purposes infinitely changeable) set of input signals. But here’s where it starts to get really interesting. The flow of signal is not only upstream from the optic nerves to the memory of your aunt’s face. It’s also (perhaps even prevalently) back downstream. If higher layers are starting to see things that correspond to Aunt Susan, they feed this back down the line, and hone the incoming signal to check for Aunt Susan-ness. This is very efficient, as you can imagine, as it involves a narrowing of the search as early as possible. It’s a little like what happens when you type in a search term on Google and you are offered increasingly specific choice to select from. (For more details see the book’s wikipedia entry, or read the book!) This way of processing signals is elegant and much faster than a computational approach, but it comes at a price: At a very biological level, we decide what we perceive based on what we have already experienced. If that’s not an recipe for habitual reactive behaviour, I don’t know what is.

So if this is the way our brain works, how does it effect our everyday life, and how can we use this understanding to work better with our minds? On Intelligence has nothing to say about this, and what follows are my own – hopefully rational – extrapolations from Hawkins’ conclusions. His model of perception explains why changing habits through a conscious, intellectual application of will can be so frustratingly difficult. The processing described above takes place long before the filtered sensory signals reach our consciousness. The key interpretations of what we are experiencing are made long before they reach the ‘selfing’ processes of the brain, and so the the ego can really only dress things up as best it can – to claim ownership of that interpretation. But by that time, those interpretations have already begun to send signals to other centres of the cortex, including our motor neurons. In this way, habitually-wired reactive thoughts and actions are triggered. Our conscious ego, always behind the curve, tends to either justify the resulting behaviour in some way, or in general to tell some story about it. Brute force application of will is our favourite way to try to change those habitual thoughts and actions, but it can never reach into the depth of where those habits come from.

If this description invokes a certain hopelessness, and calls into question the notion of free will, then I think there’s no harm in that. I think it is probably hopeless and pointless to believe that we can impose our conscious will on activities that are upstream of the consciousness process. We can certainly modulate and moderate some of the grosser behaviours that we perceive to be in need of change. But we cannot by sheer intellectual will simply decide to be, say, more compassionate individuals from one day to the next. So what can be done?

Surrender. First and foremost to the nature of your own mind. You can’t work well with a system if you don’t have some understanding of how it operates, and the science is telling us in an ever-clearer way: we are not who we think we are. Our minds are not a centralized command-and-control system. Control is distributed across thousands of drivers (to borrow an image from Bodhipaksa), each struggling to grab the steering wheel. We are bags of competing habits, so let’s give up all hope and pretense of being in charge and let’s look instead to work with what we really have. Instead of trying to pull imagined levers and throw non-existent switches, we can plant seeds, in the form of new habits.

Incidentally, Buddhism has been saying the same thing for a very long time. The cognitive function of recognizing Aunt Susan’s face is called sañña in Pali, sometimes translated as perception. It is one of the Five Aggregates (khandhas) and is described by Bhikku Bodhi as follows:

The characteristic of perception is the perceiving of the qualities of the object. Its function is to make a sign as a condition for perceiving again that “this is the same,” or its function is recognizing what has been previously perceived. It becomes manifest as the interpreting of the object…by way of the features that had been apprehended.

The sign referred to by Bhikku Bodhi, corresponds to Hawkins’ invariant representation.

Once we surrender to this unintuitive and perhaps emotionally difficult way of understanding the brain, we can work with it instead of against it by gently initiating new regular habits – without any grand expectations – and see where it leads. This is where the blunt instrument of conscious intellectual will comes into play. The will is just another process struggling for control. It arises and falls away like everything else and we cannot expect it to change our habitual thinking and behaviour. But our will can help us to initiate new habits and support them in their infancy. In those moments when it is available, we can use its direction and energy to take the micro-actions that, in the long run, can rewire habits.

We can decide to ‘feed the wolf of love‘ day in, day out as Rick Hanson suggests, and then let that work its own way through deeper and mostly unseen habits. And we can introduce meditation as a life habit. One of the most important habits that I’ve built up recently is the habit of daily meditation. Thanks to the 100 day challenge in the Wildmind community, I can say that the habit of sitting has become strong and has very little trouble grabbing the steering wheel at least once a day. I have found over the years that meditation itself has the effect of rooting out old useless or harmful habits. A few of them have just fallen away. Others put up a fight and fade in and out over time.

So what might be learned here? I have come for now to this conclusion: A better understanding of how our minds work tells us that there is no self there in control, but there are features to human intelligence that can be harnessed in order to favour certain drivers over others. The way to bring about positive change is to plant seeds, water them regularly and be patient. If that sounds a lot like love, I don’t think  it’s a coincidence.

On Intelligence can be bought on Amazon.com

(I’m very grateful to Bodhipaksa for reviewing this article and bringing my attention to Bhikku Bodhi’s definition of sañña.)

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Day 100: Just do it

Just do it. Neon sign.

So, today is the 100th Day of Wildmind’s Meditation Challenge. Actually, for me this is my 185th straight day of meditating, as far as I can tell. That’s one of the longest stretches of daily meditation that I’ve done in my life, but my goal, frankly, is to keep meditating daily until I’m dust.

But since the first of January this year, a bunch of us have been encouraging each other to stick to meditating daily. We “hit the ground sitting” on January 1, and this is the 100th day of the year, and of the challenge.

Here are a few lessons learned:

  • My “mantra” really seems to work for many people. “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.” This affirmation helps to change your self-view so that you actually see yourself as a daily meditator. You lose your tendency to waver, and to let yourself off the hook. You just do it.
  • If you missed a day it wasn’t that you’d failed the challenge; the challenge was to build a habit of sitting daily, and in any habit-building there’s going to be learning about what does and what doesn’t work, and there’s going to be times when the habit falls to pieces. The important thing is to pick up those pieces again and to get back to the task of building the habit.
  • A day is organic, not a calendar day. This turned out to be very useful: a “day” in terms of “meditating every day” is the time from when you get up until the time you go to sleep. So it’s not necessarily a day ending at midnight. There was at least one day when I didn’t manage to sit until after midnight. If I’d been counting calendar days I’d have “missed a day.” But because I sat before I went to sleep (at 12:30 AM or whenever) I kept to my commitment to sit “daily.” It’s funny how these little things help.
  • It’s easier to build a habit if you do it in company and if you check in with others. Wildmind’s online community has been a tremendous source of inspiration and support for many people. We’ve had participants who are experiencing major emotional upheavals, depression, bereavement, separations, etc., and who have kept their practice going. I’ve experienced the benefit of this myself. There have, frankly, been several days when I was exhausted and overwhelmed and couldn’t meditate until late at night. Part of the reason I did sit was because of my mantra (“I meditate every day”) but part of it was most certainly that I didn’t want to let the team down. Thanks for being there, guys!
  • Five minutes is enough (at a pinch). A lot of people end up not meditating because they don’t have time to do a forty minute sit. This is kind of crazy, really. The idea is that it’s better not to meditate than to meditate for a short period. Of course the reality is the reverse of this; any amount of meditation is better than none, and it’s much better to do a five minute sit and maintain (or build) your habit of meditating daily than to break the habit and feel bad about it. Sure, aim to sit for 40 minutes a day, or whatever you can manage, but know that it’s OK to have a five minute sit as your emergency fallback position. It’s like emergency rations, eaten not because they’re haute cuisine, but because you’re hungry and it’s all you can have.
  • Short sits add up. We all need breaks during the day. They keep us sane and make us more effective. And if you do a couple of five or ten minute sits during those breaks, they really add up. Add in a walking meditation on the way to or from work, and a more formal sit, and it can be surprising how much meditation you can fit into a day. Some days I’d manage an hour and a half, or more, and half of that time, at least, would be shorter sits squeezed into gaps during the day.
  • There will be times that you just go through the motions. I’ve had some blissful meditations over the past 100 days. I’ve had some that were purely token sits, where I was on the cushion for only five minutes and ended up falling asleep. (Once I fell asleep for nine hours during a five minute meditation.) It doesn’t matter. Just do it. You’re not sitting to have good sits, you’re sitting to transform your life. And transforming your life isn’t always going to be easy.
  • There’s no such thing as a bad meditation. Really. Well, I’ll concede that a meditation you didn’t do is a bad meditation. But every sit you do is a good sit. It’s good in that you’re building that habit. You’re keeping faith with your practice and with yourself. You’re showing determination and tenacity. And down below the threshold of awareness you’re doing things like building new neural pathways in the brain. Your brain is building those pathways, strengthening your ability to regulate your emotions and to live compassionately and mindfully, whether or not you enjoy a particular sit. So your meditation wasn’t just monkey-mind? It was a cage full of ADHD monkeys on speed, throwing poop at each other? At least you did it. You rock!

I’m sure I’ve missed some points, but perhaps other people can chip in below and share their experience.

And what’s next? We have another 100 day challenge coming up! This one is 100 Days of Lovingkindness. Stay tuned, and keep sitting.

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What animal trainers can teach you about establishing a daily meditation practice

Animal trainer and sea lion

Yesterday someone posted a comment about their “failure” regarding a 100 Day Challenge:
I’ve stuck to my challenge only once — ONCE! — in the past 12 days. MASSIVE failure.

So for this person this wasn’t just a “failure.” It was a “MASSIVE failure.” Yikes!

My immediate thought was that this labeling is very, very counter-productive. If you aim to do something like meditate every day, and only manage to do it one day out of 12, why not regard that as a small success, rather than as a massive failure? After all, you made some progress toward your goal!

Here’s the thing: how does it make us feel when we look back and scream “failure!” at ourselves? It makes me feel bad. It probably makes most people feel bad.

And then how motivated do you feel by this kind of self-talk? Perhaps some people do feel motivated by making themselves feel bad, but frankly I find that I just want to put the entire activity behind me. If I was saying there had been a “massive failure” because I’d failed to get a 100% grade, I’d probably give up. Why try, when anything other than complete success is going to result in name calling and suffering?

What’s it like, on the other hand, to look at a track record like the one above and to call it a small success? I’d feel a small amount of happiness!

And what if I was trying to develop a meditation habit, after each meditation I did I gave myself a massive “yay!” What if I rewarded myself by evoking pleasant feelings after a sit? I’d probably feel inclined to do it again. I like doing things when there are rewards.

What if you have a goal of meditating daily, and on one particular day you only had time to sit for five minutes? A lot of people will give themselves a hard time. They’d compare the five minutes to the 40 minutes (or whatever) that they’d ideally like to do, and regard the short sit as being a failure. I saw someone doing this just the other day. But hold on a minute! You kept up a daily meditation practice! You had a tough day, either because of demanding external conditions or because you didn’t feel good that day, and you meditated anyway! That’s fantastic! That’s an excuse for giving yourself an inner party — “yay, you!”

Yeah, but what about the animal trainers? You promised me animal trainers!

You know who uses this technique all the time, very successfully? Animal trainers. Let’s leave aside the ethical considerations of, for example, capturing or breeding wild animals and keeping them in unnatural habitats for entertainment purposes.

All successful animal trainers use rewards, and avoid punishments. Punishments are demotivating, while rewards are encouraging.

And animal trainers don’t just reward huge advances in behavior — they reward small steps. A journalist who studied animal training (and how to apply the principles of animal training in her marriage!) said “The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging.” And you start off by rewarding the sea lion even for just touching the ball with its nose! You reward a step as small as that! A sea lion learning to balance a ball on its nose comes from hundreds of small steps, each one of which is rewarded. There are also, of course, even more “massive failures,” but those are ignored. Why demotivate your (inner) sea lion?

So every time you sit, reward yourself. I don’t suggest rewarding yourself with raw fish (although, À chacun son goût) but with positive self talk — rejoicing. “Yay, me!”

Now in some cultures, including my native Britain, self-rejoicing is culturally taboo. We might, when we’ve done something exceptional, grudgingly give ourselves a “not bad, I suppose” before going on to criticize something aspect of our performance that was less than perfect. But even British people cheer their football teams when they score a goal, so this isn’t a general aversion to celebrating! So when you’ve made any kind of progress in your meditation practice, dear British people (and anyone else who finds rejoicing in one’s own good to be “cheesy” or otherwise improper) just pretend that you’re cheering on your favorite team.

So how do you talk to yourself about progress? Is anything short of complete success a “failure”? Or are you able to recognize small successes and rejoice in them? Give it a go. You might end up experiencing the benefits of meditating every day — or even be able to balance a ball on our nose.

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Hit the ground sitting! Day 3 of our 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 Day Meditation Challenge

Welcome to Wildmind’s first 100 Day Meditation Challenge, which has been set up to encourage people to establish a habit of daily meditation. For background on the challenge, including the “rules,” check here.

A lot of people think that they have to sit in some exotic position to meditate, but you don’t have to sit in lotus position or even cross-legged. In fact you don’t have to sit on the floor at all.

I’ve never had the flexibility to meditate for more than a few minutes in a cross-legged position, and usually use a meditation bench. Some people I know use chairs to sit in. When I’m teaching classes on Skype I’m usually in an office chair.

I’d encourage you to check out our posture workshop to explore the variety of ways that you can sit to meditate, and for trouble-shooting common problems.


You can use the comment form below to let us know how the Meditation Challenge is going for you. Have you managed to sit every day so far? How long have you been meditating for? What’s your experience been like so far. Remember: if you miss a day, just pick yourself up and carry on!

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Sampajañña: unraveling lifelong habits with mindfulness

It’s discouraging, isn’t it, to watch ourselves fall repeatedly into our same old habitual traps. We try to practice mindfulness, but it can be frustrating. Do you ever have days where you’re so caught up that you realize only at night, despite your best intentions, that you weren’t mindful for even one moment?

And it’s especially hard when we’re face to face with lifelong tendencies that resist change in a big way.

But don’t lose heart. It doesn’t mean you’re no good at this. After all, you NOTICED that you weren’t being mindful. That noticing is a positive event. Even though it happened after the fact, you observed something you probably weren’t aware of before. This is a good thing! This is progress. And it’s this emerging awareness that’s going to pull you through.

There’s an aspect of mindfulness from the traditional scriptures that applies here. It’s sampajañña, which is Pali for something like mindfulness of purpose. Sampajañña means always keeping our sights on where we want to go, our intentions. It introduces the dimension of time to mindfulness.

Mindfulness isn’t only about seeing what’s happening now. It’s also about seeing cause and effect. Like seeing how something we did in the past created the situation we’re in now. We see the results of our mistakes, and make a resolve to start doing things differently. We also see our successes, and think of how we might build on them. It’s about seeing in a clear-headed way the results of our choices. And also seeing that we HAVE choices, and starting to take responsibility for ourselves.

See also:

We look at these things not as a way to beat ourselves up, but to keep our sights on where we want to go. We all have some image of how we’d like to be – whether it’s more confident, peaceful, kind, whatever. Maybe today, right now, we didn’t do things the way we would have liked. When we see how we don’t measure up, applying sampajañña means not giving up on ourselves. We may have fallen short today, but we still have our intentions. We still keep our eyes on the prize. We keep moving ahead.

And what if we feel stuck and clueless about what to do? For starters, we could stop taking our self-doubting thoughts so seriously. They are just thoughts, after all. They’re not doing anything to help us move forward, are they?

We could also try doing SOMETHING, and see what happens — as an experiment. It’s more fodder for cause-and-effect learning. Sometimes when we’re lost, it helps just to walk around the bend to get a different view – maybe it leads to a clearing that helps us to see further ahead.

Or we might simply stay still for while, not thrash about so much – mentally, emotionally, or actively. It’s analogous to when you’re in water over your head. Thrashing about can make you sink, but if you lie still you’ll float easily on the surface. It’s a similar idea here. Sometimes it’s our own overreacting that creates problems for ourselves. Can we let go of our anxiety and fears, and just be? And allow some clarity to settle in on its own?

So mindfulness isn’t something to achieve. It’s not about “getting it right” and reaching for some ideal state of mental clarity. I think for most of us, that’s a near impossible standard. I think mindfulness, especially in the context of sampajañña, simply means being there for ourselves over the long haul, and never giving up on ourselves. It’s an attitude or an approach to life, not an endpoint.

What ultimately help us unravel our lifelong habits is doing the best we can, wherever we are now. And accepting that the pace of change is often beyond our control. The time and circumstances might not be ripe yet. But we can trust that everything we’re doing now is laying the groundwork for the future. We can still be an active participant in our lives. We can still show up for ourselves. And isn’t that really what’s going to get us through?

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“Hand Wash Cold” by Karen Maezen Miller

This is my first time reviewing a book for Wildmind. I agreed to write this on Bodhipaksa’s recommendation that this book might be “up my alley” since one strong interest I have is in how the Dharma works for me in my life right here and right now. This is how Karen Maezen Miller’s book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, came into my hands.

Another thing I especially delight in is books written by women. Sexism is a meme that’s still alive and well in the world, and I love coming upon anything that tends to dispel that kind of malignant influence. Dharma books by women teachers have been especially dear to me.

Title: Hand Wash Cold
Author: Karen Maezen Miller
Publisher: New World
ISBN:
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle store, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

I haven’t done a book report (fancy name for a review) since junior high school, but I remember some of the key things our teacher wanted us to address. What is this book about? Who is the main character and why do you care about what’s happening to this person? What’s the main message of this book. Should we read this book too? Or don’t bother? Why and why not?

At first, I was charmed but her use of the “hand wash cold” metaphor; but then, I began to get annoyed and also a little confused — was this a clever dharma talk? a women’s magazine confessional à la “Can This Marriage Be Saved”? I found myself saying, “Come on, where are you taking me in this story, and are we there yet?” Which is a curious thing to need — to go somewhere (anywhere!) when the main event in Zen (and really most of Buddhist practice) is to stay right here, fully attentive, in the present moment-by-moment.

At the same time I was reading “Hand Wash Cold”, I was reading “The Great Failure” by Natalie Goldberg. I often have several books going at once, and often I get rewarded by unexpected concurrences and contrasts. Now, Goldberg is a writer by profession, and you could argue that her superior technique turned my head. You might be right, too, but I think I’m seeing something other than technique that is bothering me about Miller’s story. Both used a confessional format as a way of demonstrating things that are true for all of us. But where Goldberg’s story was no less painful or baffling to her as she was living it as Miller’s must have been, Goldberg let the drama of her story be something that carried the forward pulse of the book, if you will, but this was far from the point of her telling the story. Miller’s story was dramatic but in a way that seemed to be trying to capture the experience solely from the standpoint of where she was then, in that more self-centered, egoistic voice. This made it hard to cheer her on or see where she was going with this (except to relate this to her housework metaphor). Goldberg let the maturity of her practice — that is her present experience, the benefit of the wisdom she has accumulated — inform the story of the not-wise-yet past “her” and how she wised up. It is in this way that Miller’s effort shows the limitation of making the metaphor work so hard to organize the ideas and insights that it loses its ability to zing and reframe. Yeah, we do all these ordinary tasks, and they’re great occasions for mindfulness, but in and of themselves, they’re too flimsy to hold the Dharma.

I do a bit of gardening from time to time, and there are times I’ve been pulling weeds and think of how it’s such an apt metaphor for how we purify all our ratty, pernicious, negative habits — and how simply cutting them down leaves the roots intact and able to grow back — gotta dig right down into the dirt, get your hands dirty, and slowly but surely pull, pull, pull and then out they come, and that’s the end of it. I wrote a dharma talk one time using gardening metaphors for dharma practice and the spiritual life. By the time I was done, I was really tired of that metaphor. It ended up barely material enough for a 30 minute talk. For a whole book? No metaphor is sturdy enough to carry an entire book. I think Miller fell in love with this metaphor and then got stuck with it. It’s a danger we all face whether writing something, giving a talk or even in how we converse in everyday life. Just like the time I had made a decision to buy a vintage Volvo wagon and restore it and then saw Volvos everywhere. That was cool, for a while, but then it wasn’t, and that car needed to be sold some time later, and then I bought a Honda Fit and then I saw THEM everywhere. There are, in fact, all sorts of cars everywhere, but what we fall in love with we then see to the exclusion of other things and our world narrows.

So there’s a big long part (or it seemed long) where Miller is young and concerned with her hair and make-up and career and “having it all.” Then her marriage becomes unsatisfactory, and she tells us all about how it was unsatisfactory and she didn’t know what was what or how to make it better, and I kept thinking, “And where’s your practice?” It wasn’t clear to me when she actually began taking her spiritual life seriously — it seemed like one more thing she was doing so well — but there wasn’t a sense of increasing depth or how she saw her practice as integral to making sense of the rest of her life. The story of that would have been much more interesting. And then she’s a teacher at a Zen Center … how’d that happen? And so now everything is okay? Hmmmm… and is all her laundry fresh and sweet and all put away now?

So I think in the best, deepest sense, this book is about how we have to wash the ignorant and unskillful parts of ourselves with our own hands. That the accoutrements of modern life, which can, in our immaturity, include our Buddhist Center, teachers, sangha-members and even the Dharma and practices themselves, aren’t enough if we’re passive consumers of them. We change us, accompanied and influenced by everything and everyone that surrounds us, seen and unseen. And we accompany and influence them as well, whether we see how we do that or not. But better to see, and see more deeply and compassionately, and commit to doing so on purpose.

I wish Miller all success; I’d give this book a miss.

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Motivating myself to start a healthy new habit

I’ve been working on getting a daily yoga practice going. I thought it might improve my overall energy levels, and help with the chronic tension in my back and shoulders. But it’s been a “two steps forward, one step backward” sort of path. It’s especially on those days when I’m feeling pretty good that I tend to slack off. I think what the heck, I don’t really need it today. But then one day becomes two, then three… And I find myself feeling sluggish and tight again. Ugh.

So I’m re-experiencing firsthand what it’s like to try and get a healthy new habit going. It sure isn’t easy. How do we keep ourselves motivated?

We all take up these practices for a reason. We know they’ll be good for us. We think they’ll help deal with (fill in your pet problem here). And it’s perfectly natural and human to focus on results. After all, why else are we doing this?

But I’m seeing that it’s a trap. Sure, there’s plenty of research showing that yoga and meditation improve your health in all kinds of specific ways. But the thing is, it’s not a predictable mechanistic process. There is no guarantee that taking up meditation will solve insomnia in X weeks. Or that yoga will calm anxiety in Y months. In fact, it’s very possible there are other influences fueling your particular insomnia or anxiety. In that case, these practices might have little effect. Expecting results is always a questionable thing to do.

The Buddha taught meditation as a path to end human suffering. Not as a fix-it treatment for specific ailments. The reason it helps our ailments is because it transforms us at the root cause of our suffering – i.e. cuts down on our neurotic way of chasing after every single thing we think will make us feel better. When we stop bouncing around like a yo-yo, the resulting calm creates a healthy foundation for the entire body. But when we chase after yoga or meditation with our same old neurotic wanting mind, we’re still trapped in the cycles of our own suffering.

See also:

I, for one, have dropped my expectations. Things ARE improving, slowly. But I’m not looking for specific things anymore. I’m putting my attention on something much bigger. I’m working on learning a healthier way of being, and yoga happens to be the instrument through which I’m working. I know it’s the HABIT and how I engage with it that will change me. It’s not something to achieve. It’s an ongoing practice. And it’s how I show up for myself that will work the magic.

So what’s my motivation? Well, to use the Buddha’s terminology, it’s to end my suffering. And to learn to do it HIS way. Not my deluded ways, which I’ve tried often enough to see that they don’t work so well. So what this means specifically for me is:

  • Don’t judge whether my practice went well today or not. It’s really not relevant. As long as the long term trend is forward (including the backslides), that’s all that matters.

  • Take responsibility for my choices and their consequences. There will be days when I just don’t feel like practicing. Without beating myself up, I’ll note the consequences of skipping a day. Maybe nothing happens. But it’s one less day that I didn’t make it a habit. Am I okay with that? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I take each incident on its own terms.

  • Question my whims, moods, and cravings before acting on them. For example, if I’m procrastinating, there’s something going on worth investigating.

  • Stop measuring and comparing myself against others. My yoga class meets in a room with a full wall mirror. Need I say more? Really, all I need to do is start where I am and point myself forward. It doesn’t matter what others are doing.

  • Learn how to motivate myself. In other words, observe what works best for getting myself through challenges. Sometimes I need a kick in the pants. Sometimes I need to cut myself some slack. It’s good to know which is which.

  • Face my limits and work very mindfully with them, but watch that I don’t cross over into “too much” territory. Especially when working with old injuries, weak areas, and new scary poses.

  • Stay in the moment and savor it. After all, it’s the only time when practice happens. If I decide that it’s worth spending the time to practice, it’s worth engaging myself in it fully. Especially on the days when I think I’m too busy to practice.

  • Always be kind to myself. In other words, do what I think is in my best interest. Even if it’s not necessarily what I want. And never, ever beat myself up.

You’ve probably noticed that this list has nothing specific to yoga. Because it’s not about yoga. It’s about life. I can’t say for sure that yoga has become a real habit yet, but I’m giving it plenty of time and space to develop it its own, organic way. And I’m learning a lot about myself in the process. And isn’t that really what matters?

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Rethinking our New Year’s resolutions

Many of us start the year with great intentions to establish healthy new habits, only to find ourselves losing steam before too long. Sunada writes about her realization that reframing our goals can help us stay on track and raise our chances of getting to where we want to be.

It’s a new year, and a time when many of us think about fresh starts – like exercising more, meditating regularly, or getting organized. But as we know all too well, just wanting something doesn’t make it so. I’m sure we’ve all experienced times when we lose steam and get bogged down. How do we get around this?

I’m not saying it’s bad to have doubtful thoughts… But it’s when we accept these thoughts as truth that we get into trouble.

One of the Buddha’s basic messages is that we create our own worlds with our thoughts and actions. And by “thoughts,” he wasn’t just talking about our intentional, conscious ones. Those pesky unintended and subconscious ones are just as much a part of the picture. And it’s when we leave them unacknowledged that they can really get us into trouble.

Let’s look at a few examples. When I ask people why they want to meditate more, the answer I typically get is something like, “I want to calm my busy mind.” What we’re subconsciously saying here is, “I have a busy mind.” Stop for a moment and say that sentence to yourself. How does it make you feel? Does it give you positive energy and motivation to change? I doubt it. Instead, it just reinforces that you have a busy mind. Focusing on the problem directs more of our energies toward thing we don’t want. By definition, anything we put our attention to is what fills our minds –and perpetuates in our view of the world.

Other thoughts I often hear express self-doubt and self-deprecation. “My mind is too busy to be able to meditate right.” Or “I don’t know if I can, but if I MAKE myself do it maybe it’ll work this time.” I’m not saying it’s bad to have doubtful thoughts. We all have insecurities, and they will come up in one form or another for all of us. We’re only human! But it’s when we accept these thoughts as truth that we get into trouble. How much are we buying into the idea that this is the way things are? The more we are, the more we’re feeding ourselves negative energy that can only pull us backward.

We may THINK we’ve made a resolve to change. But there’s another side of us thinking subtle … thoughts that sabotage us before we even begin.

A third source of backward pull is a lack of focus, discipline, or prioritization. “I tried to go to the gym this week but other things got in the way.” “My boss made me stay late so I couldn’t do it.” It’s easy to blame other people or causes for preventing us from doing what we intended. But really, I’m the only one who can choose what I do. My boss didn’t make me stay late. It’s me that chose to do it to comply with his request. Or maybe I wasn’t focused enough to get things done sooner. Whatever we do, we need to take responsibility for our own choices. Otherwise, we perpetuate a mindset of helplessness and being a victim.

I’m sure there are other kinds of thoughts that pull us in the wrong direction, but I think you get the idea. These are the kind of subconscious thoughts that we’re allowing to shape our future – one in which we’re at odds with ourselves! We may THINK we’ve made a resolve to change. But there’s another side of us thinking subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle!) thoughts that sabotage us before we even begin. No wonder we get stuck.

Rather than looking at the problem on its own level, how about if we reframe it into a bigger picture of what we aspire toward? So if you want to exercise more, ask yourself WHY.

So what do we do? We can’t just banish negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. And they’re really hard to just “let go,” as we’re taught to do in meditation classes.

There is another way. According to the laws of physics, the only way we can move something forward is by applying more energy in that direction than what’s pulling it the other way. So then, how can we increase the energy behind our positive motivations so that they’re greater than our negative ones?

Rather than looking at the problem on its own level, how about if we reframe it into a bigger picture of what we aspire toward? So if you want to exercise more, ask yourself WHY. What is your bigger purpose behind becoming more fit? One woman I know realized that the reason she wants to be in better shape is so she can run around with her grandchildren. To her, family is really important – something she values deeply for its own sake. It’s part of her picture of herself at her best. So when she thinks about going to the gym, she thinks of how much she loves her grandchildren’s delightful laughter, and off she goes.

We can tell we’re acting with a pure mind when we’re motivated by genuine feelings of kindness and generosity, and a wise understanding of our responsibility toward both ourselves and our world.

The Buddha gave us some clues about the kind of thoughts that help move us forward. He said, “If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.” What is a “pure mind”? It’s the part of us that reveals our essential goodness. We can tell we’re acting with a pure mind when we’re motivated by genuine feelings of kindness and generosity, and a wise understanding of our responsibility toward both ourselves and our world. When we act from that place, we flow more naturally and easily. And happiness flows more easily to us.

It turns out that I want to exercise and meditate more this year, too. But those things aren’t on my list of resolutions. My intention is to continue building a well-integrated life that allows me to find more of that innate goodness within myself and others, and to share it all around. This picture includes my personal Buddhist practice, life coaching, meditation teaching, and singing. All of these things build upon my natural strengths: a love of learning and growing, an ability to connect deeply with people, and an appreciation of the aesthetic and spiritual beauty in the world. By doing what I love, I tap into an inner wellspring of motivation. Going to the gym or getting on the meditation mat is less about talking myself into it, and more about pursuing things I want because they point me toward who I am at my best.

So if you’ve got some resolutions on your list, I would urge you to spend some time reflecting on what your higher aspirations might be. And be as specific as can about what it might look like to live that way. Take your time, and do it thoughtfully. It can take months to get clarity on what you really want. And know that this is an ongoing project. As we evolve and reach new places, our ideas change too. That’s all part of the process. But most important of all, enjoy the ride. In the end, that’s really how we find joy and gratification in our lives.

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