Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Do you choose your habits, or do your habits choose you?

An interesting fact about habits...they're all around us. If you can repeat it, it can become a habit. Whether you look in the mirror each morning and think you look great or awful, the more often you do either, the more likely you are to do it again. That's just the way the mind works. Connections between nerves in our brains (called synapses) grow stronger with repeated use. It's why studying involves repetition. Those signals are more likely to fire the more often they are used.

Our thoughts and feelings too are under habits' influence. If you don't put in the effort to form the habits that you want, others will form in their place. Now it's not as simple as forming a new habit, you'll probably have to break some old ones.

The more you indulge in negative emotions such as anger or sorrow, the more often and intensely
 you'll feel such emotions.

It took some time to realize I'm responsible for my own state of mind and through it my emotions. Although most people would say they understand this, few are willing to take responsibility and put in the effort that comes along with that acknowledging it.

You can't blame other people and every situation for every bad feeling or thought that you have. It won't lead you where you want to be. The only helpful solution when faced with difficult emotion is to make a realistic plan. Let go of the negative feelings and take action. Or realize there's no problem at all. Most of our 'problems' don't really exist. We've decided at some point that we must get what we want in order to be happy. When reality fails to deliver we blame the world. Change your perspective and change your world.

Is is so awful to realize you're more or less powerless to change the world? No, not really. When you take that knowledge along with the understanding that the power you have over yourself is greater then you ever imagined. When you realize your perspective is under your control.

Accepting the 'randomness' of life allows you to focus on what remains constant. You're potential to feel. You didn't choose where you were born or the family that raised you. You probably didn't choose the public school you went to. Although you may choose who you spend your time with or the job that you find...the choices choices available to you at any given time aren't under your control. You couldn't have chosen anything you wanted. It's best to work with what's in front of you. Never spend time wishing things were different. Wishing may seem innocent on the surface, but in reality we're forming a habit of being dissatisfied. We cultivate desires that can't be fulfilled and so we're left discontent and 'wanting more out of life'. The more time you spend in that feeling of craving, of really wanting something, the less time you spend being grateful. The less time you spend being happy with all that you have. If you reinforce the idea that you'd be happy if only you could get what you want want (be it money or love) then you'll begin to believe happiness is something you achieve or obtain. The idea that it's something outside of yourself is what makes you restless. What leaves you wanting more. The potential to feel love and happiness exists whether or not we get what we want. The emotion comes from within and is inspired by the good that exists all around us if only we change our habit of wanting into accepting. Change our habit of feeling dissatisfied into gratitude.

To change the way we think takes mindfulness. You need to notice when you're indulging in negative habits in order to change them. You can practice being mindful any time you want. Most of us are constantly thinking, and that's not such a good thing. Thinking takes us out of the moment. Thinking often alters our experience with feelings we have about the past and the future (which we have only imagined). Mindfulness will help you be present and help you realize when you're indulging in negative thinking. Now that you're aware you can stop it as it happens.

One of my greatest lesson was learning that most of our thoughts have little to no value. You can practice being mindful by cutting off your day dreams. Once you're aware that your mind has wandered just cut all the imagery short. Don't feel as if you've left it incomplete. None of it was real, and it probably doesn't matter. Give yourself permission to 'forget' what you were day dreaming, just let it go.

It might take some time to get there, but when you find yourself frustrated by the actions of others take a moment to consider whether or not you're being hurt. Whether you find yourself wishing that people didn't; eat with their mouths open, drive or walk so slowly, or dress a certain way, take a deep breath and realize you can't change what's happening. And it really isn't hurting you. Frustration can be painful but it's coming from within. Have patience and give yourself those five extra minutes you may need at the mall or the grocery store. Then when something like that comes up you have no 'real' excuse to be bothered because you're not in a hurry. You'll be left asking yourself 'is it really worth being bothered?'. Is it worth thinking about? You'll also be less likely to judge other people when you realize how insignificant their different choices are.

It's when those bigger, more difficult experiences come that you'll be glad you were practicing this. When for example, your partner cheats on you and you repeatedly have angry fantasies of fighting and yelling. You're plagued by awful day dreams of your partner in the act, and the disgust that you feel is so overwhelming you might actually vomit. Yes, it's at times like that you'll be glad you developed your ability to concentrate, to be aware. You'll be quicker to notice when your mind moves in that direction, and you'll be able to say "it's not useful to think about that now, I've already thought plenty about it, it happened and it can't be changed. I accept it as it is and it can no longer hurt me. Only the thoughts are hurting me now and they'll simply disappear if I let them".

You must pair mindfulness with realistic action or else you'll find it incredibly difficult to keep upsetting thoughts at bay. I speak of this from personal experience. If you feel fear, then you need to make a decision. Fear is great at drawing us into our minds. The fear won't go away until you've found acceptance and assurance that either it won't happen again or that you'll be okay if it does. Otherwise it lurks within you, dulling you to the world. The pain will only leave you when you make the choice your heart has beckoned for. The same goes for being honest with others about how you feel. That fear of their reaction never goes away and may remain a constant source of stress until you express it.

This experience inspired me to take control of my mind. When I realized I was helpless to change other people, even those closest to me, or to prevent them from being able to hurt me, I suffered for a while before realizing I had to take care of myself. It takes practice and attention but life can be improved through changing how you think. It's not as simple as some people would have you believe. Telling someone to "think positive" or "be optimistic" isn't helpful at all. I find it's more useful to ask what good comes from a thought, how do those thoughts make you feel and if it feels bad then why keep doing it.

Ask yourself these questions, and always ask yourself, "what can thoughts alone accomplish?", you'll be driven to both action and to letting go of useless thoughts and desires.


  1. The insight you have into the value of mindfulness and how it impacts your daily life in both microscopic and macroscopic ways is really refreshing. It's such a valuable skill and makes it such a gift when facing difficult situations as well as inner fears, doubts, desires and the like too. From moment to moment, they arise and pass, as does the breath from the body, back to nothingness and forth again.

    1. Thank you! As David says on Raptitude. Life happens in moments. There is no other place to be, in heart or mind. Each moment passes and a new one does arise. It feels so good and so fulfilling to live it fully as it comes, without clinging, without wanting things to change or be different. Everything is beautiful just the way it is. I don't want it any other way.