Having a habit you'd like to change is simply a part of being human. It can be so discouraging to feel stuck in patterns that bring us further away from the person we most want to be in this world.
In Week 6 of my current course, "Journey Into Mindfulness," we will explore mindfulness and habit change. Here I offer some of that material. May it encourage you, and help sustain you, as you root down deeper into your true ground.
FIVE WAYS TO USE MINDFULNESS TO CHANGE A HABIT
Way # 1. Stop Punishing Yourself
When we are stuck in habits that don’t serve us, many of us take a harsh, self-punishing approach to change. Self-punishment backfires because it hurts further (rather than compassionately heals) the wounded part of us that acts out in the first place. Mindfully and compassionately noticing ourselves, and gently self-soothing, is a better way to bring about change. You have it within you to give yourself the attention, kindness, and connection you need to alter your habits.
Way #2. Soothe Your Body
Our compulsive behaviors (read: “bad habits”) are often an outworking of a body that needs attention and regulation. Finding ways to mindfully check in with, then soothe, your body will change the game. Suggestion: Set your phone timer to go off several times throughout the day. Then, be still. Take a deep, cleansing breath. Tune to the feeling of your entire body. Mentally scan your body from head to toe. What do you notice? What needs attention? How can you soothe your body right now? How can you show it care and kindness?
Way #3. Know Your Intentions Are Powerful
An intention is a willful decision to orient yourself in a specific direction that you choose. What you desire, what you envision, what you believe is possible – these are the ingredients of that healthier-habit future you so want. It’s a neuroscientific reality that, through the power of our intention and attention, we can choose to strengthen habits of mind and heart like love, gratitude, and moderation. When we don’t give mental “airtime” to, e.g., greed, hate, and overindulgence, those neural pathways are weakened.
Way #4. Embrace Ritual
When you’re being mindful about moving into a new habit (or stepping away from an old one), ritualizing your intention can make a difference. It doesn’t have to be complicated! Embracing ritual is about finding ways to build beauty, pleasure, and specialness into your “everyday.” Example: A ritual to mark a new period of sobriety from alcohol might involve holding an amethyst stone to your forehead while praying or meditating. (Amethysts have long been thought to support a clear, sober mind.) Perhaps this could be done daily in early sobriety, when so much help is needed.
Way #5. Surf the Urge
Urges to do the exact opposite of your “new habit intention” are perfectly normal. Cravings are also massively uncomfortable! Urge surfing is a research-tested mindfulness technique for handling cravings when they arise. To urge-surf, observe the craving as soon as you notice it. Greet it (“hello, craving!”). Notice where you feel the craving in your body. Watch it intensify and get demanding. Then, just stay. Surf the wave. Keep breathing, noticing. Refuse to give in, just sit in the discomfort. It will subside - usually within 30 minutes! Then, watch as the wave disappears. Feel the relief. Know this: When you’re changing a habit and it starts to hurt due to intense cravings or urges to do the opposite, you’re not doing anything wrong. Stay in the discomfort! It’s the hot fire that will re-make you.
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I was raised in an evangelical Christian home. Growing up, I learned to think of God as royal king who dwells on a throne in heaven. But starting in my mid-twenties, my understandings of divinity began to shift. No more white guy in the sky. God became infinite light, everyday beauty, and an inner Force that fueled my life and filled my being.
I believe God is a mystery beyond human grasp. But we get glimpses. For many years now, whenever I tune into the holy, I often encounter a wise old woman who looks very much like me. She is usually smiling. I've come to know her as my inner elder - the future self I am living toward. The Me Who Will Be.
She's already braved it, suffered it, learned from it. All of it. When I'm stressed, she'll often say to me: "Oh, honey. I remember those days. They were hard. But oh, the strength that will come! The wisdom you'll embody! Just keep going, keep growing. You've got this." I come away from those sacred encounters feeling seen, soothed, strengthened, and enlivened by the divine creativity at the heart of the universe.
I recently learned about a website, www.futureme.org, where you can write emails to your future self. The messages will be sent to you at whatever future time you designate - whether tomorrow, 30 days from now, next year, or 30 years from now. Writing to The Me That Will Be has become an important part of my spirituality. I tell her what's going on now, and thank her for the strength she's giving me to take steps toward her. Everyday stronger. Everyday wiser.
If you are in a moment of trial or transition - or just looking for a new spiritual practice - close your eyes and tune into your "Me That Will Be" - the one who's survived it, grown through it, and reaches through time to show you the way.