Mindfulness and Habits
Roger – I meditate every day and I think it helps my life. But I’m told by my teacher I should be mindful as well as meditate, and I’m not that sure about how they link up together. Wondering if you could shed some light on that.
Once we sit down to meditate, the first thing we do is take our attention into the body – to feel what the body is telling us in its own language – to listen to it unconditionally, without judging whether we like it or not.
The body speaks to us with sensations – which we’re usually too preoccupied with the business of life to listen to. But now, as we sit quietly with our eyes closed, we notice all the sensations we’re usually not aware of – tensions, itches and aches as well as various combinations of sensations indicating emotions we’ve not had time to feel.
On suddenly feeling all this, our first reaction might be ‘what’s wrong with me’, but we have to remember at that point that we cannot change if we do not first know. And that’s what’s happening. The body is telling us what we usually are oblivious to.
So now we know what we feel, our next job is to see if we can let go of the most obvious tensions – to settle the body down and create a relatively calm environment where we can meditate.
So we pay attention to the tensions we’ve found and give the muscles permission to let go. Some sensations and tensions resolve themselves as we pay attention to them, while others take some time, but at some point the body is settled and calm enough to begin practice.
The next step is to take the active part of mind, our attention, to the breath and rest it there. And we know as we do this, that our attention will struggle because it is not used to staying in one place. But in the light of that understanding, we’re very patient. So each time the attention flits away from the breath, we gently bring it back to re-settle it, and we keep doing this until it has gotten used to being there. This takes a while – but with practice our attention gradually settles down.
The next step is we become more specific about which part of the breath we pay attention to. Our intention is to calm the attention enough so it can happily rest on only one small part of the breath – either the movement of the belly or the sensations around the nostrils.
Again this takes a lot of practice – largely because we have to find a balance between trying too hard and not trying hard enough. If we try too hard, we either drift into an unconscious state or our attention becomes hyperactive and uncontrollable. But if we don’t try hard enough, our attention drifts all over the place, usually back to its usual playground of dreaming and thinking. So in focussing on the breath we’re looking for a balance between too much effort and not enough.
The middle way.
Now, throughout this whole process, we’ve noticed our attention is constantly being pushed and pulled by a mind that is more used to being the centre of attention. Like a petulant child, our mind keeps pulling the attention back to itself by using the old lures of dreaming, worrying, fantasising and so on.
So, we use the various meditation methods to keep teaching the attention to let go. That’s what the methods are for – they’re tools to help the attention let go of all the tricks the mind plays so we can keep bringing the attention back to the breath and the body – where it can calm down and learn to be still.
So why is it so important for the attention to be still?
Well, that’s because it’s our attention that generates all the excitement and tensions in mind and body. It’s the attention that ties us up in knots. If we didn’t pay attention to all the thinking the mind naturally generates, we wouldn’t be disturbed by it. But it’s because we do pay attention to all this stuff, that all the thinking and reactions have so much power – and this kind of stressful excitement affects the body in many ways, creating hormonal changes, muscle tensions, fear reactions and so on.
So when we’ve finally learnt to settle attention down, and it’s still and calm on the breath, in the space that appears, our mind and body naturally unwind themselves and relax as the stress hormones are processed. Given stillness, the mind and body, being naturally self healing, self adjusting organisms, healing themselves in whatever way is needed.
But more than that, as the unwinding process happens, the other effect is, our mind acclimatises to a new paradigm. The more we practice meditation, the more we learn we don’t have to think about everything.
We learn that before we think, we know. We slowly develop a new relationship with an intuitive intelligence much more in tune with our life experience than the thought reality we’ve always lived in. The result is, we think less, but know more – and the effect of this over time is, our attention softens and merges back into awareness. And that’s when the mind and body become more interconnected.
As we become more aware of what is happening in the body, it in turn becomes more responsive. And that’s when meditation evolves into mindfulness.
Okay, so lets look at mindfulness.
Superficially it’s simple. Mindfulness is when mind joins with body, in real time. No thinking or imagining – no scanning forward or back in time. When we are mindful, we fall into the real-time experience of our body, and our life – sensing it all as it happens NOW.
No thoughts or reactions or judgements – just knowing what is happening as it happens.
This kind of ‘present moment awareness’ is what meditation practice trains us for. In this, mindfulness and meditation support and reinforce one another. When we meditate we are practising the skills we need to be mindful. And when we practice mindfulness in daily life it makes it easier to slip into meditation whenever we want.
But more importantly – mindfulness helps us evolve. Mindfulness helps us to change what we are.
Most of us live mindlessly. Our lives are so densely packed with activities and distractions, we often forget we’re even in a body and a life.
Think about a typical day in the life on an urban human being.
We wake up and maybe check our mobile phone for the news or turn on the radio or TV. Perhaps then we cook breakfast while thinking about what we’re listening to, then we drive to work while listening to music, or to the radio, or chatting with a friend. Throughout the day we do our work, which these days almost always involves thinking, analysing, calculating and juggling complex information. Then we drive home listening to the radio, maybe go for a run while listening to music, then chat with our family while eating dinner, then watch television and go to bed with our mind still whirling with all the thinking it’s been absorbed in throughout the day.
This is the life we’ve been trained for. From the day our mother and father began teaching us language – then school, university and work, we have been trained to spend almost our entire lives in our head while our body obediently does our living for us. We live in castles of thought, and except for occasional moments like when we’re making love, or experiencing something exceptional or shocking, we’re almost completely estranged from the lives we’re actually living.
Effectively, we’re passengers in our own lives.
Maybe a thousand years ago, when most of our life was spent doing physical things – planting crops, building, hunting, finding our way through forests and jungles and across deserts – we lived in the real time experience of our life. We had to be mindful because it was essential to our survival to ‘be here now’ – to be aware of changes in the weather, of animals and reptiles in the forest, and where to find what we needed.
But now our survival needs are different. Everything we need in the modern world is in head-space. And that makes us very susceptible to habits which have become dysfunctional. Living in the groove of our habits and estranged from our body and our life as we often are, we don’t feel the subtle tensions of dysfunctional habits until it’s too late.
In the disconnect we’ve become used to, between mind and body – that’s where most of our dysfunctional habits breed – depressive illnesses, anxiety, over-consumption, addiction and so on – all of these things are physical and mental habits that we never noticed until it was too late.
We see it all around us – people who have become sick, addicted, or mentally and physically rigid as they age – entrenched in habits they never noticed until it was so powerful it owned them.
So now lets look into habits, and how mindfulness can help us change.
Habits are sequences of remembered actions and thoughts which, once formed, fall into the unconscious. Once there, they function automatically – triggered by certain circumstances, they act themselves out in the same sequence every time without us needing to pay attention to them. Left to itself, our body does everything according to these conditioned habits.
For example, when we drive a car.
If you think about it, driving a car is an extremely complex set of action sequences. Yet, once our ‘driving habit’ has been learnt, we are entirely capable of driving through the densest traffic while thinking of other things, and reaching our destination without even remembering what actually happened on the way.
And so it is with most of our life – we eat, work and take care of the business of each day, usually while our attention is elsewhere.
Some habits we choose, and the work for us, like my example of driving a car.
But other habits are more pernicious – they arise stealthily from the natural vicissitudes of our life as our mind/body ‘learn’ certain reactions which gradually become habitual – particularly emotional habits, where childhood experiences have created anger or sadness or frustration. As childhood is left behind and the experiences suppressed or consciously forgotten, these unresolved reactions often evolve into habits of anxiety, depression, or addiction of one kind or another.
Everyone knows the maxim, ‘practice makes perfect’. So it is with our habits. The more they are allowed enact themselves in our life , the stronger they get. So if we are un-mindful of the subtle encroachment of certain habits on our life, by the time we reach middle age, we can find ourselves becoming overpowered.
And so it is with many of the things we regard as illnesses – they begin as subtle inclinations and idiosyncrasies in our youth, but as we age and they go on enacting themselves, they evolve into anxiety and panic disorders, chronic depression, insomnia, binge eating, drugs and alcohol addiction and more.
All of these disorders began as subtle twinges of need in the body, and inclinations in the mind, which we obeyed over and over again. Each time the twinge arose we would allowed the habit to enact itself, largely because we weren’t really present enough to withdraw permission. We were elsewhere – living in head-space, oblivious to the twinges and quiet whisperings of our habits as they drove us. And what made the problem worse is, the more we ignored the signals our body sends us, subtle as they are, the more we became unconscious to them.
And that’s when the habits began running us and our lives.
When we practice mindfulness, we develop an intimate and present relationship with our body sensations as they occur – we learn the language of our body and the way it uses sensations and subtle tensions to get us to act when a habit has been triggered.
It’s only with this kind of knowing that we can take action to weaken a habit – simply because we can spot it coming before it becomes to strong.
To illustrate, I’ll use an example.
I had a client, Neil, who had a habit of binge drinking – he wasn’t alcoholic in any pathological sense. His life habits had just channelled him in such a way that his entire social life and sense of belonging pivoted around alcohol.
“I’ll be passing a bottle shop or a bar, and suddenly I’d find myself buying a drink. I never meant to … I’d just find myself in there. And all my drinking friends were there, so one thing would lead to another and next morning I’d wake up with a splitting hangover …”
So, as Neil began meditating, I emphasised that his practice should not be restricted to the two half hour sessions he was already doing during the day.
“Keep bringing your attention into your body during the day. Feel what you’re doing as you do it. As you walk, instead of leaving your attention to wander about in the mind, bring it into the body – feel the body walking. Instead of just letting your habits pull you through the day, with your attention wandering in and out of head-space, pay attention to what you’re doing as a real-time physical experience. Know what you’re doing as you do it.”
Neil enjoyed meditating, but he found using mindfulness throughout his day very difficult.
“I keep forgetting,” he said. “The day sort of cascades and it’s difficult to keep remembering to be aware.”
I said, “That cascading effect happens when your habits have taken over. So you’ve got to keep on interjecting, so to speak. Keep pulling your attention into the automatic flow of the habits and taking command. Over time, this itself will become a new habit, which will over-ride all the other habits.”
Gradually Neil found it pleasurable to ‘be in his body’. And he discovered he could feel habits as they arose in his body.
“It’s an uncomfortable tension that I feel,” he said. “Like a spring getting tighter and tighter. Then I notice the thoughts ‘naturally’ coming up – ‘ooo, time for a drink’ or ‘a glass of wine would go down well’. And that’s when I automatically begin heading for a bar and ordering a glass … a perfectly choreographed procession of urges …”
Neil could feel the mechanic of what was happening inside him, as it happened, in real time. So now he had choice.
Where before the habit led him by the nose, now he could choose to not obey. And each time he refused to obey the push of the habit, he won back control of that part of his life. But it took a long time – because as he described it, ‘the perfectly choreographed procession of urges’ was so subtle and strong.
So the practice is as I said – in the same way as we pull our attention into the body during meditation, and concern ourselves with purely physical events in real time, we do the same thing in our daily life.
Keep pulling your attention out of your head and into the body – notice the physicality of whatever you do – your posture, your muscles working, the sensations as they occur. Take an interest in what your body tells you, and work with it to adjust things you notice are out of balance.
Notice how the habits arise reactively. Sometimes it’ll be sensations in the body followed by ‘thought propaganda’ – as the conditioned mind tries to get you to enact what it thinks will relieve the tension you feel. Other times it’ll be thoughts which trigger the tensions and excitement in the body compelling you to act.
Whichever way it happens, if you’re mindful of what you’re feeling and what you’re doing, you’ll notice the habits arise, and be able to relax around them – and most importantly, resist their call for you to act. The more you resist, the less powerful they become. And slowly, you become the master of your domain.
- ‘Practical Meditation Audio Course’ – a complete set of meditation lessons to be downloaded as a package of MP3′s