Note: You may want to check out the guided audio companion to this post.
“Whatever the present moment contains, accept is as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.”
Anyone trying to let go of a habit will tell you how hard it is. No matter how pure our intentions, the drive to continue the tendency can be strong enough to derail us before we know it.
I love brilliant ideas, and I recently came across one called “urge surfing.” Alan Marlatt is a psychologist who for decades has researched treatments for addictions. His findings have helped thousands of people, and this time I think he has nailed it.
All Compulsive Behaviors Are Addictions
Dr. Marlatt’s research has focused on what we commonly think of as addictions, such as drinking and smoking. But I find it useful to view any seemingly uncontrollable tendency as an addiction. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines addiction as “a persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.”
Substitute for “substance” any habit that has us hooked, and we begin to see the power of these tendencies.
Take self-critical thinking as an example. The inner critic can be persistent and compulsive, and we know it doesn’t serve us. Likewise, procrastination, fearful, limited beliefs, holding a grudge, busyness, or being continually triggered by someone who annoys us. Any pattern or behavior that perpetuates unconsciously is ultimately hurtful. It leaves us stuck and confused – with happiness and peace out of reach.
Know Your Urges
Enter urge surfing. When we break down a habit, we see that what precedes the enacting of the habit is an urge. What do urges do? They come and go. There is a beginning, a middle, and, most importantly, an end. If we want to surf the urge, we must first learn to recognize it – challenging because it is so uncomfortable. Then, we open our minds and hearts to follow it through to its conclusion, to our ultimate liberation.
We might define an urge as an impulse or itch, but looking more deeply, we discover the direct experience of emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations. It looks like this:
- Emotion: fear, lack, desperation, emptiness, hysteria
- Thoughts: I need…, I can’t stand…, I’m going to go crazy if I don’t…, I’m going to explode if I don’t…, I can’t see any other way…
- Strong physical sensations: tension, vibration, tied up in knots
Sound familiar? If not, illuminate the urge by allowing your attention to backtrack to the moment just prior to the troublesome behavior. Here you will find the treasure that can set you free.
Now that we’ve caught the wave, let’s surf. Dr. Marlatt uses the acronym SOBER.
- S means stop. Don’t move. Don’t take one more step. Don’t move your attention into one more thought.
- O is for observe. First, notice your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations as they are appearing in the moment. Now, open up to receive them. Let yourself experience them fully, with no distance between you and these arisings. Have great compassion for yourself and the pain you might be feeling.
- B refers to breath. Focus on your breathing, inhaling and exhaling, as the urge moves through.
- E means expand. Dr. Marlatt suggests that we expand our awareness to consider the consequences if we act on the urge. How would you feel? How would you and others be affected?
- With R, we respond mindfully (and wisely). We have made it through with enough awareness to ask ourselves, “What do I really want?” and we can respond accordingly. By the time you reach R, you are out of the grip of the craving. You are back, here, alive, available, conscious.
May I add another step? Let’s call it SOBER-C, where C means celebrate. Take a moment to feel the freedom in your body, mind, and heart. Experience the release. And know that every single time you surf the urge, no matter how many times it takes, the pattern has less of a hold on you.
Open to your inner world, invite your habits to dissolve, and you can’t help but shine brilliantly for all the world to see.
What have you found helpful in letting go of habits? What have been your challenges? I’d love to hear…