We all know what it’s like to get trapped by an unwanted habit. You may have vowed to eliminate fried food from your diet, start an exercise regimen, show up on time from now on, or stop arguing with your wife. Suggestions abound in contemporary media to help you achieve your self-improvement goals. You can easily learn what to eat, when to exercise, and how to communicate or manage your time better. For some of us some of the time, implementing these suggestions works, and if you are one of these lucky ones, I celebrate with you on your success. But what about lasting change at the deepest level? For most of us, true and sustained transformation, especially regarding our most entrenched habits, seems elusive.
In this post I want to begin demystifying the process of unlocking yourself from the cycle of self-defeating behavior. Even the most deeply rooted behaviors that seem hopelessly fixed can be examined in a new light, opening up endless possibilities. I’ve seen this work in my own life and in the lives of hundreds of others, and I am happy to be sharing this process with you. What I discuss here applies to all personal experiences that stand in the way of peace and contentment, including specific behaviors you perform, challenging emotional habits such as anger or depression, and negative or anxiety-based thought patterns.
What Are Habits
By definition, habits are behaviors that occur with regularity and often have an unconscious or involuntary quality to them. They are conditioned behaviors that may be so well learned that we don’t even realize we are doing them, for example driving a car. Many habits are benign or useful for daily functioning – looking both ways before crossing the street, checking yourself in the mirror before you leave for the day. We perform hundreds of automatic behaviors every day that bring ease to our lives; thus, there is nothing inherently negative about a habit.
The trouble comes when the habit detracts from your happiness. You might feel worthless because you can’t stop procrastinating; your health may be at issue and you just can’t seem to eat less or reduce your stress; you typically feel depressed or anxious; or you have a tendency to see yourself, others, and the world through a negative lens. You might even have what we call an addiction, an activity you keep doing compulsively despite harmful consequences. You can probably identify habits in your own life that bring the dark cloud of unhappiness. Know that you can address them effectively so you feel more at ease, lighter, and happier.
Modifying Habits: Attention, Willingness, Exploration
The straight talk about these seemingly resistant behaviors is that modifying them requires AWE: Attention, Willingness, and Exploration. By using your attention, you are illuminating the unconscious beliefs and motivations that provide the fuel for the habit. To truly resolve a troubling behavior pattern, every aspect of it must come out of the shadows so it can be seen for what it is. There is no way around this radical process of being precise with your attention to become aware of the emotions and subtle beliefs that keep the habit in place. Until you consciously know exactly what is driving a habit, it will be sustained. Where you place your attention, then, is integral to your happiness and freedom. It is the one choice you have that really makes a difference. When you pay attention to the underpinnings of a habit, you are the hamster stepping off the wheel. You are allowing for the possibility of being fresh, flexible, and open.
Because you are examining the source of a behavior that has been rigidly in place for perhaps a very long time, willingness is required. You have to really want to know the truth and be open to change and release – not just once, but over and over for as long as is necessary. Human beings will go to great lengths to preserve what is familiar to them, rather than risk what is new and potentially uncontrollable. When you begin to honestly address a pattern that no longer serves you, you are putting the brakes on a train that has been hurtling down the tracks with great momentum. You need to be willing to stop feeding the pattern, to stop thinking the thoughts and feeling the feelings that keep it going. Instead, make the decision to turn your attention to an investigation of what drives it and see what you can do differently. Willingness strengthens when you get fed up, when you are tired of unpleasant feelings, conflict, and the same old, same old. Willingness is the breath of inspiration in your process to pick up the key and walk out the prison door.
Now that you are willing to place your attention on the source of your problem, you can begin to explore. Find within yourself a place of curiosity and acceptance, and inquire into the reality of the problem. I suggest setting aside some time for this inquiry and maybe writing your thoughts on paper. Ask yourself each question, then wait for the answer to come. Regarding the habit, contemplate: What is the specific content of my thoughts? What is the energy or feeling behind these thoughts? If these feelings had a voice, what would they say? What do they believe about the world? What motivates my behavior? What am I getting out of continuing this habit? What are the consequences of it for myself and others? What do I really want? As you contemplate each question, allow the response to sink in – not just at a mental level, but all the way into the cells of your body. Really feel the experience.
Let’s take as an example self-critical thinking, which is a very common problem. This is a conditioned habit in which negative thoughts about yourself appear in your mind, and you believe them. You might believe that you are too shy, too heavy, too aggressive, too needy, not bright enough, not strong enough – whatever is your particular version of this pattern that undermines your confidence, engenders feelings of sadness and frustration, and interferes with you accomplishing all that might be possible. Once you become aware of this cycle of thinking and decide that you don’t want to be weighed down by it any longer, you are willing to focus your attention. ( See also Q & A on the inner critic)
Find an inner place that is curious, open, and available for exploration. Begin to ask yourself the inquiry questions, allowing time for the answer to come to your awareness and be felt directly in your body. You might discover that the feeling behind the thoughts is fear. You might realize that you are saying these thoughts to yourself because someone earlier in your life said them to you. You might feel frustrated about the power of these thoughts and their effect on you. You might notice that these thoughts see the world as a harsh and unfriendly place that makes you shrink away or be overly aggressive or controlling. You might contemplate, when you look carefully, that these thoughts aren’t even true, or that their opposite could be just as true. Allow these responses be known to you as you are now understanding the core of the pattern and what sustains it. Ask yourself what you really want. Are you willing to cease feeding these thoughts and believing them? Thinking them brings you stress and frustration; giving them space to float and dissolve brings you peace.
With the practice of AWE, the pattern becomes less rigid. By giving it your gentle attention with a clear intention to know the truth, you are much more conscious of the pattern. Rather than operating outside of your awareness, you are likely to recognize the pattern as it begins. As you become more conscious of it, it no longer occurs automatically, and you can choose to place your attention on what will bring you happiness. When you realize you are in a cycle of self-critical thinking, for example, and you move your attention away from feeding these thoughts, you are lighter and less encumbered.
Notice that I am not suggesting you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, often called affirmations. If affirmations work for you, please continue practicing them. However, ultimately what is most helpful is to get to the root of the problem and liberate the energy it takes to sustain a conditioned habit. As you become free of conditioning, infinite possibilities open up to you.
I conclude with two essential points about this process. First, it undoubtedly will need to be repeated many times, as your questioning reveals more about the foundation of the pattern. When people say, “I tried that already, and it didn’t work,” I know that they didn’t persevere enough. There was a period in my life when, with each instance of a thought, feeling, or behavior that was part of a conditioned habit, I stopped, sat down, and investigated it on the spot. This probably occurred hundreds, if not thousands, of times over a span of several months. Gradually, the grip of these patterns released. They just couldn’t hold up under the scrutiny of honest and heartfelt investigation. And for me, it is a joy to live in inquiry and be open to whatever arises. Have patience with yourself and bring a gentle, even loving, quality to your inquiry. With persistence, you will experience freedom from your conditioned habits.
Second, depending on the pattern you are working on, you might benefit from learning about the problem and practicing some skills that might help you as your behavior changes. Education about the behavior can be enormously valuable. For example, if you are trying to lose weight, it might be supportive to learn about the calorie content of different foods, ways to effectively exercise, etc. If you want to be less argumentative or more assertive, you might study some communication skills. However, if you have difficulty implementing these changes, don’t give up. Go back to the process of AWE, over and over, and find the undiscovered kernel in your beliefs and world view that will set you free.
I know for certain that freedom is possible. You can study limiting behavior patterns and the beliefs that underlie them. By so doing, the foundation will shift, or maybe even fall away entirely, leaving vast space for the unknown to be known. You are the light; allow your radiance shine.
I am interested in your experiences and reactions. Please write and let me know how it’s going.