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.
"In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost."
- Dante, The Divine Comedy
Midlife is, for many, a time of profound reexamination. For some, it's also a time of darkness and lostness. As children grow and become more independent, identities can shift. As careers plateau or work becomes rote, disillusionment can set in. A feeling of staleness or even alienation can arise between longtime spouses or partners. And a sense of frustrated bewilderment can accompany the process of adjusting to one's own aging body.
If you find yourself in a dark wood in the middle of your life, how do you make your way through it?
Recently I've been reading up on bats. (Stay with me, I promise this will connect.) Bats are experts at making their way in total darkness. Through the amazing process of echolocation, they use their larynx to emit high-pitched vocal calls that bounce off objects and tell them where the obstacles are. If you're a bat, and you want to know the way forward, you just need to open your mouth and use your voice. The way immediately becomes clear.
Call me wacko if you will, but I think the navigational system of a flying rodent offers a profound spiritual lesson for anyone who feels lost. If you can't see which way to go, make like a bat and use your voice. Speak your deep truth. Say out loud the things you've long held back. Ask the questions you've thus far been too afraid to broach. Name the hopes and dreams you've held in your heart but haven't yet revealed. Disagree with someone instead of nodding your head nicely. Lay bare your loves, longings, and loathings in stark and courageous terms.
And then, listen. What's it like to hear yourself boldly speak your truth? Do you now see some obstacles - barriers that were previously shrouded in inauthenticity or timidity? And can you now discern the way around, over, or through them? Has your voice begun to clear a pathway?
If you are feeling lost in a dark wood (midlife or otherwise), may you hear and accept the invitation to speak your deep truth with your beautiful voice. And as you listen to its echo, ricocheting off the things and people around you, may you be shown the wise way forward. May you find the path that leads you home to your authentic and beautiful self.
Recently I came upon these lines by the 13th century Persian poet, Jalaluddin Rumi:
I ask my heart, Why do you keep looking
for the delights of love?
I hear the answer back, 'Why will you not
join me in this companionship?
This is the conversation of being
a human being, the living doubleness.
Rumi believed sensuality and spirituality belong together. He called this, "the living doubleness." We are, on one hand, base, earthy, desirous. Our hearts and bodies want what they want, there's no denying it. We are "passionate like fire ... made of the ground." On the other hand, we are cool, subtle, tempered. Our highest aspirations are clear as water, subtle as wind, radiant as eyelight from a calm and kindly gaze.
This "doubleness" need not be a source of inner strife. There is incredible beauty in it. Each time you meditate, using your mind to observe your beautiful body's breath, you indwell the doubleness. Each time you feel pulled toward a sensual overindulgence that you know will bring you down, yet, you lovingly resist it, you indwell the living doubleness. Each time you allow yourself to be swept away in a passion that you know flows from the pure joy of being alive, you indwell the living doubleness. Each time you willfully refuse to shame yourself for the lusty and earthy parts of your being, you indwell the living doubleness. Each time you redirect and place limits on behaviors and choices that are bringing desolation to your soul, you indwell the living doubleness.
Let there be a "companionship" between the part of you that comes in hot and the part of you that seeks highest good. As Rumi says, "you can be trusted to hold beauty." All of you.
I am the proud mother of a wonderful (and sometimes wild) three year old boy. Lately, our favorite bedtime story has been Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. Each time we snuggle up and read it, I am moved by the timeless lesson it teaches about how to face into things that are raw, brutish, scary, demanding, and overwhelming. Especially when those things are inside us.
In the book, little Max gets sent to his room without supper for making some poor choices. There, the room magically transforms into a jungle-like world, where a herd of scary-looking wild things greets him. They roar their roars. They bare their claws. They gnash their teeth. Max is frightened.
But instead of running away, Max does something unexpected. He faces the wild things full-on. Standing tall and quiet, he simply stares directly into their "terrible" yellow eyes, and says "be still!"
This move instantly tames the wild things. Max becomes their ruler. And then, the wild rumpus begins! Max stomps and dances, parades and swings, with the wild things. It's a primal party of epic proportions.
Eventually, Max decides the rumpus is over. Though the wild things roar in protest, he calmly departs, and returns to the safety of his room (and a warm supper).
Lately some "wild things" within me have been roaring their terrible roars.
Heartache. Compulsion. Worry.
But I've found, like Max, that by not looking away (or running away) from these raw parts of me, they can be tamed. They're not scary - they just want to be seen, accepted, known. They want connection. And so, when heartache roars, I take a deep breath. I stand within my true Self, who is strong, wise, and compassionate. I gaze calmly at the wild and hurting parts of me. And I say, lovingly, "Ssshh. Be still. It will be okay. Be still."
And then, the rumpus begins! I find that when I face my wild parts, there is a curious release of beautiful energy. It comes out in different ways. If I'm rumpusing with heartache, I'll write. If I'm rumpusing with anxiety, I'll run around the house five times with my toddler. If I'm rumpusing with a compulsion to do something self-destructive (like eat an entire pan of brownies), I'll hop into a bath that's obscenely full of yummy therapeutic epsom salts.
As we round the bend to 2021, may you, like Max, find the courage and equanimity to gaze with strength and compassion upon your untamed parts. May you bid them 'be still." May you relish the rumpus. And may you thereby feel enfolded within a profound sense of safety, nourishment, and homecoming.
Watch Me Read the Book
Click below to be directed to a YouTube link where I read aloud Maurice Sendack's Where the Wild Things Are.
Note: The link is non-public (unlisted) due to copyright laws.
A friend recently told me a story about how her brother, Jim, used to handle her nephew, Mason, when he was young and misbehaving. Jim--a "tall, unflappable man with dancing blue eyes and a disarming laugh"--would lift Mason high in the air, turn him in the opposite direction, place him down gently, and say, "new direction, new start!"
Yesterday was the winter solstice. The sun is far from the equator, and our hours of light are precious few. The dark gets into us, doesn't it? And it isn't just the meager sunlight that shrouds our hearts. It's the dark of pandemic, of loneliness, of political strife, of inequality, of mental illness, of cabin fever, of homeschooling, of relationship stress, of addiction, of illness, of missing people.
But today is the day after the darkest day, my friend. Today, there is more light than there was yesterday. Like little Mason in his dad's corrective arms, we have been picked up and turned around. We are facing in a new direction. As my friend put it:
We are longing.
We are choosing.
We are trying.
We are imagining.
THE LIGHT IS COMING!
What's your new direction? What is the nature of your turning? Caring for yourself a bit more? Tuning into your desires a bit more? Daring to hope a bit more? Trusting the process a bit more? Letting go a bit more? Paying attention a bit more? Feeling what you actually feel (without judging it or running from it) a bit more?
May each infinitesimally brighter day bring you that much closer to the Life that's calling.
Yesterday was a hard day. I was experiencing a good amount of sadness with regard to a relationship with a loved one. To care for myself, I did something I don't do too often: I went and got a facial. That is, I paid a lovely stranger to rub my face for an hour while I lay in the cozy darkness and tried to forget about it all.
Except, I couldn't forget. I'd be trying to focus on how good the aesthetician's fingertips felt as they slid across my forehead, and then I'd get this nauseated feeling in my gut. Anxiety. Grief. Thoughts racing.
Then I wondered something. What if I try to be present to the goodness of the face massage along with the badness of the emotional pain? I tried it.
What happened next was a little bit magical. I somehow found a way to extend hospitality toward my suffering. While the aesthetician's fingers encircled my eyes, I stopped trying to run away from the pain, and instead, I moved toward it:
"Hello, pain. I am glad you're here. You probably have something to teach me. Welcome." This is what I heard the wisdom within saying to the hurt within.
It was wildly freeing. Instantly, I wasn't caged by the sadness anymore. It didn't hurt as much. And I had the odd sense that my sadness would turn out to be ally rather than foe.
One of my dearest friends loves to remind me: "Andrea, there is only fear and love. Choose love." I have her words on a post-it note on the side of my computer.
Relating to our pain with fear by ignoring it, numbing it, minimizing it, or judging it is a surefire way to make it bigger and badder. The way to healing (and relief!) is to relate to our suffering with love rather than fear.
The next time you are emotionally distressed, try to (1) intentionally relax yourself with healthy self-care (facial or otherwise), and then (2) turn toward your hurt. Look at it. Bid it welcome. Ask it what it might be there to teach you. You might be surprised.