Mindfulness of Habits

“Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to. It is a systematic approach to developing new kinds of control and wisdom in our lives.” Jon Kabat-Zinn

If you prefer to listen.

Our minds are hardly ever in the present moment. According to the research, we are present only 47% of the time, the other 53% of time we are off in lala land. We are not conscious about what is going on, and yet we are driving our cars, we are talking to people, and we are walking around.  We are doing things that have an impact on ourselves and our loved ones.  And we are not even aware of what we are doing, we’re on autopilot, lost in our thoughts. It is not a bad think to be on autopilot for some things, like tying your shoelace.  There are times that being on autopilot is appropriate. 

Mindfulness is a balance between doing and being. The problem is that sometimes we spend too much time doing and not enough being. When we finally get something that we have been working toward, we often don’t take the time to appreciate it. We just move on to the next thing. We don’t stay in the present and recognize our accomplishment.

We are not trained in life to be in the present moment.  That is why we are on the mindfulness path.  We are not meditating to become a good meditator.  We are meditating to create the neuropathways in our brain to be aware of when our mind has wandered off so that we know what is going on.

We are always going to fall short in being mindful.  Even if we have meditated for 40 years, we cannot expect to be mindful 24/7.   That is how our minds are designed. Our minds are like puppies going off in this direction and then that direction. We get easily distracted.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness starts with being aware of the present moment.  Where are your thoughts?  What are you feeling? If we are not aware of what we are feeling, that can be dangerous.  If we are not aware that we are sad, we may be rude to people, who catch our attitude and are rude to others. We can’t slow ourselves down enough to hear what others are really saying.

You can notice a wandering mind. And you can remember that no matter how spacey, forgetful, impulsive, or reactive you’ve been, you can always begin again. Instead of beating yourself up and rehashing what you did this morning that was so stupid, you can come back to the present moment and let that go.

Once we are aware of the present moment, we can look at the quality of attention.  Are we accepting what is? Our culture has trained us to never be satisfied with what we have. We need to buy more and do more.  We are trained to judge whether we like or dislike what is happening.  In some cases, we are trained to ignore it.  I don’t want to deal with politics, I am going to ignore it and be ignorant.  Look at the quality of your awareness. Our brains were designed for keeping cavemen safe.  We no longer need to scan for danger and release cortisol when we see it.  We don’t have to worry about lions and tigers and bears.  Yet our minds are still trained to be Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good.  If we don’t practice by doing meditation, our brains are going to stay wired that way.

Mindfulness is about choosing to pay attention to the moment with kindness and curiosity. The curiosity part is probably the most important part. What is really happening?  Why is this triggering me?  What is going on inside of me?  It’s about noticing when your mind has wandered and bringing it back to what’s right in front of you. You may not like what is in front of you, but you accept that it is. If I am pushing it away and resisting the thought gets stronger and stronger.

One of our habits is wishing reality was different.  Our parents trained us to work hard, to get more, to achieve the American dream. That is wishing reality was different.   What would happen if you got curious about what is instead of trying to change it? Can I be happy with what I have right now?  Can I accept that this is how things are? With mindfulness, each feeling is recognized and accepted.  It might the that thought is self-criticism. Then I can get curious and ask “Why does that have a hold on me?  Why am I letting someone else have control over how I feel?” If we are not aware of our feelings, we end up blaming.  And blaming doesn’t get us anywhere.

If we can be mindful and think about how it triggers us, it allows us to feel more connected with other people.  We retain what makes us unique while feeling connected to the rest of the world.

Meditation’s Role in Mindfulness

People often wonder if mindfulness and mediation are the same thing.  Mindfulness is a state where we are aware, accepting and non-judgmental of what is right now. Meditation is a method through which we train our brains to be aware and concentrated.   Every time my mind wanders when I meditate, I create another neuropathway to become aware of where my mind is.

When we meditate, we want to find a mindful middle where we neither suppress thoughts nor are completely lost in them. We are not trying to stop the thoughts; we don’t want to be unconscious. We want to be aware, “Oh, here is this story again for the 25th time today.”

Breath meditation or other stopping meditation (focusing on your hands, your feet on the ground, a sound, a mantra) is a great foundation for mindfulness. It slows us down and it settles us by focusing.  It is called stopping meditation because every time your mind wanders you stop it and bring it back to whatever you are focused on.  You do that again and again.  Each time you do it you get stronger at recognizing that your mind is going off in different directions.  You train yourself to change the channel on your thoughts. Every time your mind wanders during meditation and you bring it back, you are making it easier for you to change the channel on your thoughts when you are not meditating. You have no control over what thoughts are going to pop up in your mind.  The control you have is being aware the thought has popped up and choosing whether to continue thinking that thought or changing the channel and focusing on something else.

Another type of meditation is called open awareness or insight meditation. That is a meditation where you let your mind go wherever it goes.  And you watch where your mind goes without getting caught up in thoughts.  It took me at least eight years of meditating before I could do open awareness meditation without getting totally lost in thought. It is so easy once you get a story going to continue on that path. Open awareness meditation gives you the opportunity to examine your mind and see it’s repeating patterns. The longer and more frequently you meditate, the more you become aware of your unconscious likes, dislikes, fears, and attachments. Many of us are not aware of all the critical thoughts we have about ourselves. When I asked people to make a list of their top ten thoughts, I was surprised at the number who said they did not have any top ten thoughts.  More likely they were not aware of their repeating thoughts.  

Even if we are unconscious of our thoughts, we are practicing those thoughts and making the neuropathways stronger. Anything that is unconscious is still impacting our behavior and our speech and our feelings and our attitudes and our whole life.  So, the whole purpose of mindfulness is to become aware of all that is going on. By tracking our recurring thoughts, we begin to see patterns and we can choose to change those thoughts and therefore those patterns. 

Barbara Rhodes said, “The problem with this world is that we don’t usually realize our habit force is controlling us a good part of the time. But when you meditate long enough, you can let go of your pesky backseat driver. You can let go of your tainted views and see what’s actually going on. Then your innate intuition, honesty, and compassion will surface.”

We all have innate intuition, honesty, and compassion.  But many of us have covered them up with defenses we created over the years to keep ourselves safe.  If we can be mindful and tap into that innate intuition and honesty, then we are going to make better choices in our lives.  When we get in stressful thought patterns, it is like we are in a hurricane. Everything is going around and we have no control.  We feel like we are going crazy.  But mindfulness is like being in the eye of the hurricane.  In the center where it is calm and we can see all that is going on around us.  We can see through our mental clutter.

When we have mental clutter, we get defensive.  Instead of stopping and using our prefrontal cortex to respond, we react by doing whatever our amygdala says.  The amygdala is the primitive part of our brain, it is not the decision-making part of our brain. We do things automatically and they we say, “Why did I do that again?  I am really trying to quit that habit.” If we can be mindful and take the powerful pause by taking a breath, then we can be more skillful.  Instead of saying something unpleasant that we are going to regret later, we take a breath and think, “Maybe now is not the time to say anything.” Or “I need to think about what I am going to say.”  If we practice mindfulness with both pleasant and unpleasant experiences, we are more likely to be aware of our reactive tendencies.  When you have a bad meditation, that is training you to deal with crisis in your life. It is a good thing to have a bad meditation; to have to keep coming back when thoughts keep coming up in your mind.  That is training our brain to be aware of our reactive tendencies.

Habits, The Opposite of Mindfulness

Habits, the opposite of mindfulness, are behaviors that become automatic because they are repeated frequently. Habits can be positive as long as they are conscious and things that we want to be doing such as getting in the habit of meditating.  But we also have lots of bad habits.  They are automatic because they are repeated frequently.  We keep strengthening that neuropathway.  Sit in front of the television, eat.  Sit in front of the television, eat.  If we can interrupt that pathway just once, it weakens the neuropathway and starts creating another one.  Sit in front of the television, don’t eat.  Sit in front of the television, don’t eat.  We have to do it over and over again.  And we are going to find ourselves falling off the wagon and eating in front of the television.  They we have the choice to say “What a horrible person I am, I will never change.”, or we have the choice to say, “That habit energy is up again, I am going to have to keep working on it.”

With mindfulness we can pause before reacting and choose the appropriate response to the situation. Victor Frankl’s powerful insight is: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

Habits can be changed, not with criticism and self-flagellation, but when we are kind, interested, and accepting. There are four main categories of habits—habits of wanting; habits of distraction; habits of resistance; and habits of doing—that encompass many of the most common behaviors we seek to change.

  1. Habits of wanting, craving, or addiction have an energy and feeling tone of moving toward something we desire. Our sense of well-being and happiness becomes tied to getting what we crave. 
  • Habits of distraction, such as spacing out watching TV or surfing the Internet—if you catch yourself before moving into it or while you are in it ask yourself, “What am I distracting myself from?” Often, we push away our feelings or difficulties by distracting ourselves instead of processing those feelings.  Sometime that is appropriate, when the feelings are too strong for us to deal with. But sometimes we are just sweeping them under the carpet and letting them grow.
  • Habits of resisting manifests as frustration, annoyance, impatience, anger, or judgment.  We feel as if we’re defending ourselves, resisting a threat, or protecting ourselves from something that will harm us.  “I am not going to let you upset me.” “I am not going to be wrong.” Here, our energy is focused outward at things we cannot control, instead of inward where we have control. “Why is this upsetting me so much?” If I can calm myself and act from a place of caring and compassion rather than from anger, I am more likely to have a skillful response.
  • Habits of doing—the feeling that we’re always on our way somewhere, feeling that something bad will happen if we don’t keep moving and getting things done. If we don’t get things done, we are not good enough. We think, “Things might be OK if I can just accomplish the next task.” This habit is hard to break because you are so busy you don’t stop to think about it. That is why meditation was so important to me.  When I slowed down, I could see I used my doing to keep myself from thinking about anything that might be unpleasant. I was using all my doing to make people like me. What would happen if I didn’t do?

I have found that being mindful of my diet Pepsi habit (craving) has enabled me to let go of it.  When I was in a very stressful job, one of my coping mechanisms was to have a diet Pepsi at lunch. I tried half-heartedly to give it up for a couple of years. Then I decided to be mindful whenever I was drinking it.  I noticed that the craving for a diet Pepsi was a contraction in my body.  The first sip or two tasted great, so much for using mindfulness to give up diet Pepsi. However, I continued to be mindful as I drank it.  I noticed that after the first few sips, it did not taste as good as I imagined. I thought about what need it was supposed to fulfill, stress relief.  But it actually added to my stress as I would have to worry about whether I could make it through a meeting before having to go to the bathroom.  When I went down to the cafeteria to buy my diet Pepsi, I would pause and ask myself, what need is the diet Pepsi going to fill?  Will it really fill that need?  More and more I was buying an ice tea or drinking water.  I was down to one or two diet Pepsi’s a week.  Continuing to be mindful while drinking it, I noticed that it did not taste that great, my stomach did not feel right after drinking it and I would need to make multiple bathroom stops. Every time I have a craving for a diet Pepsi, I pause and remember those three facts.  Most of the time I realize that diet Pepsi won’t fill my need and the craving actually goes away.

When we are mindful, we are thinking about what is happening, we are more accepting of what is happening, and we are more curious about what is happening. Mindfulness can help us to be aware of all the moments of joy in our lives.  But the flip side is that we are also aware of all the moments of sadness or irritation.  We learn to choose where to place our attention.  Thus, with mindfulness we truly taste the pear, the cheese, the orange, and the warm bread. We learn to walk unhurriedly again and notice the touch of breeze on our skin, the sound of birds, the beautiful sky, or the ground beneath our feet.