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.
Mindfulness is more important than meditation.
For sure, meditation certainly has benefits of its own, but it is only through mindfulness that we can transfer the skills and habits we develop during meditation into our daily life. So, one could say that meditation practice is a bit like the workshop where we develop and hone the ability to be mindful in our life.
So before we look at mindfulness, let’s look at meditation – the first stages .
When we sit down to meditate, the first thing to do is take our attention into the body, and feel what the body is telling us, without judging whether we like it or not. The body speaks to us with sensations, and usually we’re too preoccupied with the business of daily life to listen to what it’s telling us. But as we sit quietly with our eyes closed, all the sensations we’re usually not aware of become noticeable – tensions, itches and aches as well as various combinations of sensations indicating emotions we’ve not had time to feel.
So now we know what we feel, our next job is to see if we can let go of the most obvious tensions – settle the body down and create a relatively calm environment so we can begin meditating.
So we pay attention to the tensions we’ve found, and we 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 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.
We know our attention will struggle because it is not used to staying in one place. But we’re very patient. Each time the attention flits away from the breath, we gently bring it back to re-settle it. And we keep doing this until the attention has gotten used to being there.
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. Me personally, use the movement of the belly as I breathe.
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. Or, if we don’t try hard enough, our attention drifts all over the place. So in focusing on this small part of the breath, in my case, the movement of the belly, we’re looking for a balance between too much effort and not enough. ver time, and with practice, our attention gradually learns to settles, and calm down.
Now, throughout this whole process, we’ve noticed our attention is constantly being distracted. Like a petulant child, it keeps flitting back to it’s old toys – reacting to everything by thinking, worrying, dreaming, fantasizing and so on.
So, we use the 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 our mind plays, so we can keep returning to the breath – where the attention, and our reactive mind, can learn to be still.
So why is it so important for the attention to calm down and be still?
Well, it’s our reactive mind and our attention that generate all the excitement and tensions in mind and body, and 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 our life has taught us to think and react to everything – which is why we keep getting stuck on what we think, and the kinds of reactions we’re generating to the most mundane things – creating stressful excitement that creates hormonal changes, muscle tensions, fear reactions and so on, which the body has to always be working to clear.
But when we’ve learnt to settle our attention so it’s still and calm on the breath, in the space that appears, it gives our mind and body the opportunity to naturally unwind themselves and relax as the stress hormones are processed. Being a naturally self healing, self adjusting organism, our mind/body complex does this automatically.
And over time, this cleansing process of meditation becomes a new habit as our mind acclimatizes to a new paradigm. The more we practice meditation, the more our mind and body naturally do their work to heal. .
Not only that, but with less reactions and thinking in the mind, we develop a more intimate relationship with our intuitive intelligence – that is, we begin to know, instead of think. Result being, we think less, but know more – and the effect of this over time is, our attention softens and becomes more integrated with awareness. Mind and body become more interconnected.
As we become more aware of what is happening in our body, it becomes more responsive. And that’s when meditation evolves into mindfulness.
Okay, so now, lets look at mindfulness.
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 are tuned into the real-time experience of our body, and our life, sensing it all as it happens NOW.
No thoughts, 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 out of bad habits and 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, analyzing, calculating and juggling complex information. Then we drive home listening to the radio, and maybe we 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. We are letting our life habits live our life for us, while we bumble about in the virtual reality in our heads. And if those life habits are dysfunctional, then we suffer.
Because it’s in this disconnect between mind and body that 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.
When we practice mindfulness, we develop an intimate and present relationship with our body sensations as they occur. We learn the sensations and subtle tensions that happen when a habit has been triggered, so we can take action to weaken that habit if we want to.
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. It was just that his life habits had just channeled him in that way, such that his social life and sense of well-being pivoted around alcohol. As he said:
“I’ll be passing a bottle shop or a bar and suddenly I’ll find myself buying a drink. I never mean to. I just find myself in there. Then one thing leads to another and next morning I wake up with a splitting hangover …”
So, as Neil began meditating, I emphasized that his practice should not be restricted to the pair of half hour sessions he was already doing during the day.
I said, ‘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, practice paying attention to what you’re doing. Know what you’re doing as you do it.”
At first Neil found this 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 flow of the habits and keep taking command. Over time, this itself will become a new habit, which you can then use to 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.
‘I’ve realized the urge to drink begins as an uncomfortable anxiety in my body,’ he said. ‘Like a spring getting tighter and tighter. Then the thoughts begin, ‘ooo, time for a drink’ or ‘a glass of wine would go down well’, and I begin heading for a bar and ordering a glass. It’s a perfectly choreographed procession of urges …’
So now Neil could feel the mechanic of what was happening inside him, as it happened, in real time, and this gave him 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 drinking habit, he won back a little more 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 you see the practice is as I said.
This is mindfulness. As we have practiced in meditation, where we pull our attention into the body, so too we do the same thing in our daily life. Keep pulling the attention into the body experience, noticing the physicality of whatever we do – our posture, our muscles working, and sensations as they occur.
In this, we’re taking an interest in what our body tells us, and working to adjust things we notice, which are out of balance.
We’re noticing how the habits arise reactively, and the ‘thought propaganda’ habits create to get us to mindlessly act them out.
Whichever way it happens, if you’re mindful of what you’re feeling and what you’re doing, you’ll notice 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.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
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(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)
Thank you for this post. It puts into perspective a lot of thoughts I have been having lately about habits as well – the habit of negative thinking and dwelling on negativity rather than healing.
Getting out of a bad habit and into a good one is such hard work. But I think it is very important…more important and difficult than even meditating. I hope I get the hang of it….