Changing Habits with Mindfulness

Have you ever tried to change a habit? It’s pretty hard, right? You make a commitment to yourself that you’re not going to eat as much, drink as much, shop as much, swear as much, be angry as much, etc. You might even write down your goals and post them in a prominent place. But, time and time again your “willpower” fades and you do the thing that you were trying not to do. Then you get mad at yourself and you vow not to do it again. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes you keep trying and other times you simply give up. Sound familiar?

Habit energy is very strong. It is really not your fault. Neural pathways get laid down in our brain to common patterns of behavior that are very easily triggered, particularly under stress. But, it is not your lack of “willpower” that keeps you engaging in old undesired behavior. As Cheri Huber, author of Making a Change for Good, said “We don’t lack willpower. We lack presence.” Or, you could say, we lack mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the present moment awareness of what is going on inside of you and outside of you in each moment without judgment. Or, I like to say, with curiosity and kindness. When we show up in the moments of our life as if for the first time—with a beginner’s mind—we are less likely to engage in behavior that is not for our highest good. Seen clearly and fresh, you can begin to examine your behavior and make new choices about what would serve you as opposed to what you’ve done in the past that has led to less than desirable results.

Let’s take eating, for example. You find yourself stressed and overwhelmed on a busy day and the habitual way that you’ve dealt with these emotions is to reach for a candy bar, the jar of cookies, a brownie, or some other sugary remedy. Not that there is anything bad about eating sweets when you’re stressed, but if it becomes habitual, before you know it, sweets become the “go to” for a lot of other reasons as well. And, the end result is that you don’t feel very good, your energy dips, and you have another emotional low that needs to be fixed.

When people first come to my mindful eating classes, they often have a sudden awakening to the many habits they have developed over the years. They are aware of what they’re doing,  but they still find themselves engaging in the undesired behavior so a little frustration begins to set in. It’s at this point that I encourage people to take a deep breath and bring some kindness to themselves. Habits don’t change immediately just because you can see them more clearly. It is at this point that the real work begins.

When you notice that you are reaching for food, you have to stop and bring kindness to yourself and whatever the situation is that you find yourself in. You have to be willing to look at the underlying thoughts and emotions that triggered the habit. You bring in the qualities of lovingkindness and compassion for what it feels like to be human, with the desire not to suffer. Through mindfulness you learn to soothe yourself in ways that don’t require food.

Let’s try another scenario, like the current racial situation. There seems to be a sudden awakening in many people to the suffering that has been inflicted upon black people for decades. However, the power of habit energy could lead white people into being pulled back into habits of complacency (and complicity) quite easily. While this might seem very different from emotional eating, they are actually more similar than you might think. Coming up with an alternative to stress eating in order to feel better takes attention, heart, and consistent effort. Changing our habit patterns of doing nothing about racial disparities and separation takes attention, heart, and consistent effort.

The work in both of these examples requires the constant and gradual cultivation of new ways of being. While I didn’t ever think I’d be writing about mindful eating and antiracism work in the same breath, I am finding that a lot of the same strategies are asked of us in approaching both.

1. Stop, Look, and Listen. What is really going on in the current situation? What is happening inside your body (sensations, emotions, thoughts)? What is happening outside of you?

2. Accept. Be willing to face whatever you are experiencing with openness and acceptance. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” James Baldwin instructs, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

3. Soften. Bring lovingkindness and compassion to yourself and the feelings that arise. The work of changing habits does not happen if you are busy judging yourself and feeling guilty.

4. Nurture. How could you nurture yourself? How could your actions nurture others around you? Treating yourself better takes effort and is necessary for you to have the energy and strength to nurture others.

5. Repeat.  The work of changing how we’ve done things in the past requires digging new neural pathways to a better present. Envision what you want and keep showing up for the work of change. You are definitely worth it. And the world needs you.

Doing The Work: This week, when you find yourself habitually judging someone or a group of people, change the habit by seeking out new ways of thinking and broadening your perspective. In addition, have an interaction with someone that you usually judge or who is different than you in some way Have a conversation and see what you can discover that you didn’t know before. Until we begin to see each other as fellow human beings, it will be very hard to treat each other with more caring and understanding.